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Interview with Sindiwe Magona
David Attwell and Barbara Harlow, with Joan Attwell
This interview was recorded during Middfest in Middletown, Ohio, 2 October 1999 1
ATWELL: Sindiwe, to begin with Mother to Mother and To My Children's Children, would it be fair to say that in Mother to Mother, you have a different sense of your readership? The event brings the United States and South Africa together through the experience of Amy Biehl's death, and then the fiction constructs a relationship between mothers across that national division. Is this perhaps a feature of the situation after apartheid, that we are becoming more globalized, that our audience is more diverse?
MAGONA: I would agree with that. With To My Children's Children, I didn't think it was a book that was going to be read now. I wasn't a writer. I didn't know anything about writing, but I wanted to write about my life, an ordinary life, by any means of looking at it. I thought to myself, South Africa will change one day, and then there will come people who will not know what it was to be just an ordinary African woman, or African little girl, during the time of apartheid. I didn't think apartheid would disappear during my lifetime. But I had all confidence that in due time it would disappear. And therefore, I wrote really for the future. I wrote thinking [End Page 282] that three generations, six generations, who knows, down the line people might want to look back and say, "Yes, we understand, but what was it like?" There are books written on apartheid, very erudite books by experts. I am not an expert; I am just someone who lived apartheid. Sometimes when you read these books you don't see our ordinary lives. You don't see the day-to-day life that we lived. Yes, we suffered under apartheid, but we also had beautiful lives. We had lots of fun. Joy! We had love, as children. We felt precious to our parents and we felt that we were loved. We were cherished, and a lot was expected of us. And so I think, looking at my life, looking at my parents' lives, the stories I heard of their growing up, I knew that a lot already had changed. A lot that was lost to me. And I looked at my children, and I realized that their childhood was different from what mine had been, and in my writing I thought, let me just put down what it was like. Not embellished, not changed, just straightforward. And so, the first two books, which were written as one and then subsequently divided into two, are really a narrative of "this is how it was": I was born, I went to school, this was what was good, this was how we laughed, these were the jokes, these were the games. I didn't discover we were poor until I started teaching. And then I realized that if I as a teacher was earning such a pittance, what was my garage attendant father earning? And then come the changes in my life, the disappointments, and my reaction to the stresses. This is why the second part of the autobiography is called Forced to Grow. That book starts with the sentence "I was a has-been at the age of twenty-three." And that's the naked truth. But, what took me from that position of destitution? Where a government that said I wasn't a citizen wasn't about to help me with my children? What made me--what enabled me to become who I am today? I had three children to raise, as a child myself--at twenty three you are a child!--I was a single parent, a woman, a South African. And I managed to get each one of those three kids a university degree. And so I thought, let me write it down so that my "children...