In these sensitive times where much is said about who can tell whose story, Marguerite Poland has tackled a topic that many might have stepped away from – black missionaries who had to confront not only the prejudices of the their colonial benefactors but also the horrific practices in the Church itself. DIANE DE BEER lost her heart to this extraordinary writing and Poland’s storytelling- and so did others as she was awarded the 2021 Sunday Times Literary Award for fiction:
Author Marguerite Poland was very clear about telling this story. “My great uncle was very dear to me. He had been largely brought up on St Matthew’s Mission in the Eastern Cape by his grandparents who were the Anglican missionaries.”
Although she was only fourteen at the time, she found his stories of life on the mission fascinating. As an added bonus, he always encouraged her to learn Xhosa, believing that most of our problems stemmed from miscommunication.
“He told me the story of a talented young Xhosa boy whom his grandfather had sent away for higher education and what happened to him when he left school. The story stuck in my mind,” she explains.
Many years later when she was writing a history of an Eastern Cape school, she came across a piece of information that struck a chord of recognition and being the kind of writer she is, she followed the lead. It led her in a circuitous and often obscure fashion to the real person about whom her great uncle had spoken.
She had to do in-depth research and then travel to Canterbury in England where the inspiration for her main character (“whom I named Stephen Mzamane”) had been educated. This she followed with a trip to the isolated mission station where Mzamane had been a priest. “These journeys were informed by the material found for me by a wonderful friend in England who unearthed the relevant missionary letters in the English archives.” And she thanks all those sources generously in her book.
“I was cautious about writing the story of Stephen Mzamane – very aware of the sensitivities which exist in ‘appropriating’ the lives of others. Is it respectful? Is it justified? I was aware of the immense responsibility in taking on the task and knew that preparation for it had to be meticulous. I also knew that if I didn’t write it, a story which I think still resonates today, it might never be told and a young man of great courage and faith, forgotten.”
As in her writing, Poland speaks as sensitively about the challenges she faced in telling this particular story. Challenged for writing both outside her gender and her culture (in consideration of the particular sensitivities of all who live in South Africa), she was acutely aware of the responsibility expected of her both in adapting the historical event and in attempting to recreate events as authentically as possible.
“I was fortunate to have access to a vast number of letters written between 1860-1885 from various missionaries to their parent organization in England, which were hugely instructive in understanding the history of the era and its concerns as well as the personalities I had come to know from years of research into Anglican Church history.”
And probably, it is this authenticity, the confidence with which the story is told, that takes hold of the reader right from the start.
She explains that the ‘real’ Stephen Mzamane’s own letters were among them and from this emerged a character whose life she could start to imagine with some confidence. That is evident in the writing.
“The ‘real’ Stephen Mzamane had also been my great-great grandfather’s assistant at the mission for a number of years and my relation wrote very warmly of him,” she says. Naturally she felt a personal connection with the story because of the family links, but that also made it a greater responsibility while also giving her a sense of it being appropriate for her to write it.
She also believes that the writing of any story, history or biography, is a form of appropriation – that’s the nature of the job. “This story is based on important and significant facts. It is written as a novel which means I have used my novelist’s imagination based on those facts to the best of my ability.”
When reading the novel, right from the start, there’s a sense of sadness that grips you around the character of Mzamane and the life he is expected to lead. It’s not that he doesn’t grab hold of it. In his life, what is being offered is real hope that his circumstances can change and that he make a difference to the circumstances of his long suffering people when returning home.
First educated at the Native College in Grahamstown, he is sent to England in 1869 for training at the Missionary College in Canterbury. He returns back home full of hope and expectation, but instead of the life he thinks will follow, he is relegated to a dilapidated mission near Fort Beaufort while the Church all but turns its back on him.
This might sound like a bleak story but Poland tells it in such a way that you want to witness the story of a young man of such promise whose hopes are dashed by people who could have made a spectacular difference.
Poland argues that writers choose subjects for a hugely diverse range of reasons. “Writing a book takes time, commitment and, on the downside, exacts much frustration and self-doubt, boredom, stress and a whole range of other emotions. It is also a very great joy attempting to bring characters to life,” she says. “There are transcendent moments, synchronous happenings which give one a sense of purpose and inspiration and make one see it through.”
“One can’t just stop and leave a character in limbo – especially if it is based on a real person. That would be very cowardly! I write about things that move me and that I really care about. It is very personal and I am fortunate to be able to take on projects that I truly choose. Stephen’s story came to me as a youngster, it stayed with me in all my research for other books and projects, it kept intruding, slipping into my consciousness, being insistent – like a gift that must be appreciated and accepted with good grace!”
By the end of the novel I was in tears because of investing wholeheartedly in Stephen. And while this isn’t something I do often when I read even truly sad books, I was puzzled. As is her wont, Poland gives the perfect explanation:
“I think that the obstacles and hurts that my character faced in the 1870s and 1880s still exist. Sins of omission are not so difficult to identify and be addressed or punished. They are committed by everyone daily through the small slights, neglects, prejudices and lack of empathy that are ingredients of the human character particularly in societies where prejudice and gross economic inequalities exist.
“ Most such sins are committed out of fear, of ‘becoming involved’, apathy or simply lack of sensitivity to the feelings or needs of others. Other ‘sins’ are greater and underscore the dictum that evil will flourish if just men do nothing.
“We still live in a very unequal society in South Africa.”
And that is the real sadness.