books, Debut Novel, Historical Fiction, People of Color, Reading, Women Writers

“Hum If You Don’t Know the Words” by Bianca Marais

“Johannesburg is a huge city filled with hundreds of thousands of white people, and what white people need more than anything is black people to labor for them. What white people do not need, however, is to have those same black people living near them threatening their way of life. This is how the township of Soweto came to be in the first place. Close enough to the city so that workers can commute there, but far enough away so that the white man does not have to smell the black man’s stench.”


It is the summer of 1976 in South Africa, a time of tumult and tension, a society at a boil. Nine-year-old Robin Conrad is a white girl raised in the comfort and privilege of apartheid.

“If people didn’t come in the right colors, how would we know who to be scared of?”

But not 6 months later, Robin, it seems, has had an awakening.

“I was mute. I didn’t know what to say in a world where people were hated and attacked for not being the right color, not speaking the right language, not worshipping the right god or not loving the right people; a world where hatred was the common language, and bricks, the only words.”

Through the mouths of babes, Bianca Marais describes the heartache and struggle of a burgeoning ethic with simplicity and pin-point accuracy. These words capture not only the ethos of the story’s setting, an ethos historically and geographically distant. They also deftly depict the spirit and sorrow of today, of here and now. Marais’ novel is history and allegory, and she pulls no punches.

The story’s other narrator and protagonist is Beauty Mbali, a Xhosa woman from the rural Transkei who has come looking for her daughter, who has disappeared in the Soweto Uprising.

          “When it is our turn, Andile tries to wrap his arm around my shoulders, but I gently shake him off. I will bear myself with dignity. I walk inside and go to the counter. Behind the glass, a white policeman stands with his head bent. I clear my throat, but he does not look up. He does not appear to know I am there.
          ‘Good morning, sir, my name is – ‘
          Without raising his head, the man holds up his hand. ‘I haven’t addressed you yet. You’ll wait until I’m ready for you.’ He shakes his head and then mutters, ‘Geen fokken maniere, hierde kaffirs.’
          I understand Afrikaans. It is one of the six languages I speak. No fucking manners, these kaffirs.
          I fall silent. He is writing on a piece of paper, taking his time with each word. He pauses between sentences, and even as I read them upside down, I can see he has spelled three words incorrectly. I do not dare correct him. The clock overhead ticks away a minute and then another two as the man continues writing at a snail’s pace. When the document appears to be done, he reaches for an ink pad and spends another minute stamping and signing the document.
          Finally, he sighs and puts the paper in a folder. He looks up though he does not meet my gaze. His eyes hover just above me. ‘Name?’

Beauty is not fearless, nor will she bow to her fears. Her strength and poise, her perseverance and faith are always engrossing and often astonishing.

The Soweto Uprising  and its aftermath has brought these two unlikely protagonists together. Beauty and Robin find their worlds devastated, yet from that chaos comes an  unexpected and unbreakable bond.

Though this is a story written by a white South African, featuring the ‘awakening’ of a white South African, and including at least a few ‘good’ white people, this book is neither about (useless) white guilt nor about (specious) white goodness. It is, instead, about struggle, recognition, and growth. Many of Marais’ white characters are either overtly racist or shamefully complicit, and the outrages her characters of color face range from stomach-turning violence to pervasive ‘casual racism.’ It is these offenses that Robin (and many of us) must face.


“Hum If You Don’t Know the Words” is an incredibly insightful and finely-crafted debut. Bianca Marais has written an honest, thoughtful novel that explores our troubled past and the deep seeds of our future. Through it, she inspires us to see ourselves and each other.

“What greater gift can you give another than to say: I see you, I hear you, and you are not alone?”

Thank you to G.P. Putnam’s Sons for providing a complimentary Advance Reader’s Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.

books, Reading, Women Writers

“What She Ate” by Laura Shapiro

“Tell me what you eat, I longed to say to each woman, and then tell me whether you like to eat alone, and if you really taste the flavors of food or ignore them, or forget them a moment later. Tell me what hunger feels like to you, and if you’ve ever experienced it without knowing when you’re going to eat next. Tell me where you buy food, and how you choose it, and whether you spend too much. Tell me what you ate when you were a child, and whether the memory cheers you up or not. Tell me if you cook, and who taught you, and why you don’t cook more often, or less often, or better. Please, keep talking. Show me a recipe you prepared once and will never make again. Tell me about the people you cook for, and the people you eat with, and what you think about them. And what you feel about them. And if you wish somebody else were there instead. Keep talking, and pretty soon, … I  won’t have to tell you what you are. You’ll be telling me.”


Food writer Laura Shapiro starts her newest book, “What She Ate”, with a promising introduction and a compelling premise – to cook up mini-biographies of six different women based upon their relationships to food.

“Food, after all, happens every day; it’s intimately associated with all our appetites and thoroughly entangled with the myriad social and economic conditions that press upon a life. Whether or not we even care what’s on the plate, we have a relationship with food that’s launched when we’re born and lasts until we die….Cooking eating, feeding others, resisting or ignoring food – it all runs deep, so deep that we may not even notice the way it helps to define us. Food constitutes a natural vantage point on the history of the personal.”

Here was a book to tempt my sweet tooth – food? feminism? Yes, please!  I expected the food stories to be revelatory, intimate. Shapiro’s biographies, taken singly, were well researched and well written, full of wit and charming anecdote. However, the depth of each woman’s food story lacked a little something, and the women selected weren’t satisfyingly linked. Throughout these six mini-biographies, the through-thread of food often felt forced or backed-into. Food as a theme seemed superimposed on narratives that didn’t fully embrace the topic. Disappointing, too, was the monochromatic nature of the women selected; Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym, and Helen Gurley Brown represent white women of privilege and (primarily if not exclusively) underdeveloped feminism. Ultimately, “What She Ate” had tantalizing ingredients and an enticing recipe, but the finished product just didn’t rise.

Thank you to Viking Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, for providing a complimentary copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.