Among the myriad of global places I lived, Cornwall, Ontario, was one of them. Recently, I had the opportunity to return there for a reading and discussion of my memoir, An Immoral Proposal, at a book club comprising of a delightful, intelligent group of both active and retired high school teachers.
First of all, this is a most enjoyable book to read. Very well written, filled with vivid descriptions and wonderful and often quite funny anecdotes. The reader is easily drawn into a different world – that of Jennifer’s growing up in South Africa, and his/her interest and involvement grow stronger as this fascinating account unfolds: a mosaic of souvenirs, the surrounding world described with light touches and a refreshing,non-judgemental simplicity.
The chosen title evokes the main portion of the book, that of a forbidden love affair under apartheid in South Africa, but I would like to select two sub-themes, if I may call them that, and try to take a closer look. The first one is the importance of Jennifer’s childhood to the story, and the second, the very strong theme of belonging.
The daily life of Jennifer’s childhood described in the book is sometimes astonishing for someone accustomed to a more comfortable lifestyle, and it has echoes of a Dickensian tale. But a joie de vivre, a feeling of love, a resignation to the circumstance of one’s life come through again and again. The poverty evoked in this story is not overwhelming nor pitiful but on the contrary, the children keep on playing, the family is present (even Ray and Ted) and the memory of happy events is strong. Even the rather cruel beating of Jonathan or the attitude of Ted and Ray when dealing with an adolescent Jennifer, feel less sordid and more a sign of different times.
But what I find most striking is the importance given to good manners and good behaviour, the proud acceptance of one’s place in life, the adherence to strong values and, despite an unspeakable political system which divides its citizens into three categories, the respect for one another.
But how can you feel that you belong to a country where people are separated according to the colour of their skin? Jennifer is left with her grandparents when she is one year old but chooses as a teenager to go back to her parents because she wants to belong to her family. The importance of belonging is very powerful and mentioned from the beginning of the story.
Later, as the adult Jennifer asks Ray why she was left with her grandmother, Ray dismisses the question, answering vaguely that things were different then… Meeting and falling in love with Michael complicates further the notion of belonging: entering his world (and vice versa) is illegal and punishable by law. They go to England to marry but do not stay there – they emigrate to Canada, then the States, then New Zealand and back to Canada. As an immigrant myself, I lived in England for eight years, married an Englishman, came to Canada. I feel happy here and I love this country but I am not really Canadian, nor English, nor totally French any longer. Citizen of the world? Perhaps, but the question remains, where do we really belong…
Under apartheid, every move we made revolved around the colour of our skins – where we lived, where we went to school, what bus we took, what entrance we went in, what benches we sat on. It seemed then that those times would never end. Valiant men like Nelson Mandela helped us overcome. We’re free at last, thanks to Madiba.
When I was a young girl growing up in South Africa in the 1960s, all I knew about Nelson Mandela was that according to government propaganda of the day, he was a traitor. Words like sabotage and traitor were ascribed to him. I didn’t know the meaning of those newspaper headlines and assumed they were bad. Mandela’s name was definitely not mentioned in our government controlled schools.
It wasn’t till the mid-70s after I had been exiled from South Africa and unstoppable protests and riots broke loose in the country of my birth, through the international press, that I learned who Mandela really was. I learned that he, initially committed to non-violence, co-founded the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), leading a sabotage campaign against the apartheid regime. He was arrested in 1962, and convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the government for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
At the Rivonia Trial, in his defense, he made this brave declaration from the dock: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised, but my lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” February 11, 1990, was one of those monumental dates written on the history pages.
In my home in Canada, tears spilled from my eyes splashing the garment on my ironing board as I stared at the television screen in disbelief, when networks all around the world broadcasted Mandela’s walk out of the Cape Town prison gates to freedom. Thank God you lived to see that day, and thank you, Nelson Mandela, for taking on the fearsome juggernaut of apartheid and finally slaying the beast. Rest in peace, Madiba.
“Just because we’re all different doesn’t mean we can’t get along.” Print by artist, Joanna Malcolm of Ontario, Canada.