I grew up mixed-race in southern Africa. Who has the right to tell my story?
I grew up in a small, tight-knit community of mixed race people on the edge of the British empire. The population of what was then called Swaziland (now Eswatini) was divided into white Europeans, black “native” Swazis and those who fell into the awkward space between.
I was born and raised in that awkward space. Even as a child, I knew my brown skin and green eyes set me apart. In a country where interracial marriage was banned, we were proof that someone, somewhere, had been very naughty indeed. We were the living, breathing result of a sin; sex across the colour line.
Children belong to their father under Swazi tradition. Many mixed-race people’s fathers were white soldiers and government hands who rotated through the country and then returned to their homes far away. Mixed-race people became the unclaimed baggage on the carousel of British colonial life.
A brave few, like my own great-grandfather, stayed in the country and made a mixed family. He lived with his black wife in the open and openly loved his children.
I now live in a western cultural bubble that tells me to be my authentic self. That message would have made no sense to me as a child. As a girl, my authentic self seemed to be a poor version of the Europeans who had the best jobs. Being “coloured”, as we were called then, isolated us and, in many cases, taught us to disdain the black part of ourselves. We were also a shameful version of the Swazis whose land we occupied.
Both my parents were mixed race and suffered the humiliations heaped on “non-whites”. They wanted out of southern Africa. Thank God. The Baptist Union of Australia offered them the job of “house parents” at a hostel for Aboriginal boys in Perth, Western Australia. We disembarked the Italian passenger liner SS Guglielmo Marconi in the port of Fremantle and our lives changed. Australia liberated us. Nobody knew who or what we were. Greek? Italian? South American? We were free of the old labels and free to enter any store and attend any school.
Australia was a miracle but, we soon discovered, not for the Aboriginal boys at the hostel. Racial profiling is a new term for an old practice. In stores, the boys were followed in case they tried to steal. On the street, they were watched for signs of violence and bad behaviour. The poison we’d left behind in southern Africa was in Australia, except that now, we didn’t have to swallow it whole.
Twenty years on, I write for a living; a luxury beyond anything I could have imagined in the dusty fields of my childhood. I am now, as then, hyper-aware of trends in the dominant culture. The search for authentic and diverse fiction is helping to address a centuries-old lack of outside voices, and for that, I am grateful.
But to insist that stories be told only by those with “lived experience” goes against my belief in imagination, empathy, research and the shared experience of being human.
Would I prefer a story about a mixed South African girl to be written by a mixed female South African writer? Yes, absolutely! I don’t want to, however, insist on it. The story itself is the magic. Writers must be able to dip their pen into the well and draw out whatever stories they find there. I grew up on a map where those with superior knowledge determined where I might set my foot. I know, from personal experience, that hard boundaries cut us off from each other. They stop the exchange of ideas.
I leave you with an example of the power of story to transcend an author’s “lived experience”: The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith, a white, Zimbabwean-born author. The books lack the grit and authenticity I wanted in southern African crime fiction. My mother, on the other hand, adored the series. When she sat down to read those books, she wasn’t looking for hard-edged reality. She’d lived through poverty, shame and racism in real time. She wanted humour, hope and a black woman in control. Alexander McCall Smith’s work gives her that. I’ll let her and all the other readers decide where they stand in relation to the character and the story.