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Modern Fiction Studies 46.1 (2000) 227-245

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Reading the Maternal Voice in Sindiwe Magona's To My Children's Children and Mother to Mother

Meg Samuelson

II. Authorial Projects

Sindiwe Magona's autobiography, To My Children's Children (1990), and her fictionalized account of the Amy Biehl killing, 1 Mother to Mother (1998), provide a rich comparative framework in which to consider the construction of the narrating voice and the addressee. To My Children's Children is Magona's first publication and Mother to Mother her most recent, so, not surprisingly, reading them together reveals a shift in the authorial stance. More interestingly, the juxtaposition of these two texts, poised across the historical rupture of South Africa's transition into a democracy ("this cusp time" [Boehmer, "Endings" 45]), reveals a change in the construction of the South African subject.

This latter claim is based on Declan Kiberd's observation that, during the highly charged moment of nation building, "autobiography in [the nation] becomes, in effect, the autobiography of [the nation]" (119). Although Magona's second narrative purports to be historical fiction and not autobiography, there are obvious similarities between the lives of the two central characters, Magona and Mandisa. 2 These similarities suggest [End Page 227] that Magona is inserting the details of her own story into Mandisa's narrative in order to reinscribe their meanings and write herself into a new identity more in tune with the discourses of the "New South Africa."

The narrating voices and addressees constructed by the two texts are explicitly foregrounded in their titles. The voices that speak both proclaim themselves to be maternal voices, speaking either to Magona's grandchildren--in the first instance--or to another mother--in the second. These two voices differ in important respects, but both ensure that the "I" speaking these stories is presented as having a relational identity ("talking," in both cases, "to" another). This is an identity that has been crucial in defining black South African literature in the wake of the Black Consciousness Movement, which defined attention to the individual as shameful self-indulgence. 3 Thus, the specter of individuality that haunts Magona's writing act is carefully exorcised and the acts of self- (re)construction are camouflaged.

To My Children's Children opens by locating the speaking act (recourse is made to the oral, not written, tradition) in the culturally specific role of a Xhosa grandmother. Although there are (repressed) schisms within this voice, it sets itself up as one that emerges from a stable identity. The proclaimed aim of this autobiographical act (telling "my" story) is to conserve, record, and transmit the culture and traditions of "my people"--the amaXhosa--to her grandchildren (1). Here we see Magona justifying the "private" act of autobiography (writing the self) by turning it into a communal act, locating it within a culturally ordained, "authentic" sphere: orally transmitted cultural values. 4

Thus the constructed voice and its placing of the addressee deflect the individualism implied in the act of writing. That the narrator's voice slips out of its ostensible function as a communal voice (and reveals this to be a rhetorical strategy) becomes apparent when Magona drops the address to the "child of the child of my child" after the fourth chapter, only to hastily recover it in the closing sentence. 5 The maternal identity, I will therefore argue, should not be taken purely at face value but should be read far more ambivalently as a voice torn by competing pressures. On the one hand, Magona is invoking textual strategies in order to write her story within the conventional politics of the time. On the other, we cannot but help see this device of constituting herself as a mother in/of the community as being, at times, a screen behind which Magona attempts the more private act of recuperating a stable individual self. [End Page 228]

What the voice she constructs claims to conserve is the locus of community as Magona situates this speaking self within "a...


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