White Lies: Sandra Laing with Her Mother
Sometimes the challenge of writing goes beyond getting the words down on the page in a moderately interesting way. Sometimes it reaches to the heart of what it means to be a storyteller and truth-seeker. Two relatively new books that I've just read do just that.
The first is When She Was White
, the chronicle of the life of a South African woman called Sandra Laing
who was raised as a white woman by two Afrikaners in the early 1960s before she was forcibly reclassified as colored after she began attending an all-white primary school. Her father fought to have her classified as white, and succeeded, only for Sandra to run away from home and get herself reclassified as colored again.
The author is our friend (and tenant) Judith Stone. She was commissioned as a ghostwriter to work with Sandra on her story, which was meant to be an uplifting tale of someone who had, after many trials and tribulations, escaped the craziness of apartheid to live a good life in the new South Africa. Except it wasn't a heartwarming story. Sandra was closed off, having willfully and understandably forgotten and reformulated the experiences of her youth. The result is a kind of hole in the center of the book where Sandra should be. Judy's professionalism and thoughtful probing of recovered memory syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the perils of finding meaning when language is translated between three different languages (Afrikaans, English, and Zulu), make the book a fascinating exploration of what can never be wholly divulged. The book and Sandra are, therefore, stunning representations of the collective amnesia and state of denial that was South Africa and white consciousness under apartheid.
The second book is What Is the What?
, the story of Sudanese "Lost Boy" Valentino Achak Deng
, as told to Dave Eggers
. Well, that's not exactly right, because the story is actually a novelization of Deng's experience. Here the problem facing subject and biographer was not so much amnesia or deliberate obfuscation, as was the case with Sandra, but the straightforward problem of Achak trying to recall what happened when he was six years old and the Sudanese murahaleen
(the south Sudanese equivalent of the Janjaweed
) attacked his village. In a fascinating essay
on his attempts and ultimate failure to act as a ghostwriter and then biographer, Eggers recounts how he and Achak ultimately came to the conclusion that fictionalizing Achak's story would get to the heart of the experience more truthfully than a faithful recounting of what he could fully recall. You can visit Achak's foundation's webpage here
In spite of the lacunae at the heart of both books, and the sleights of hand that both, highly skilled writers are forced to pull, one experiences a profound sense that what one is reading is in essence true
, and that one understands the looking-glass world of apartheid South Africa and the murderous horrors of the Sudanese civil war that much better. Beyond that, both books are worth reading simply as well-told studies of the effects of trauma and memory under conditions of maximal stress, when you are torn away from your family as a child and forced to endure humiliation and great suffering. I recommend them both.