“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.