Hum If You Don’t Know The Words published in early July and I had the honor of asking the author, Bianca Marais, some questions about the profound story she told through the experiences of two very different characters in South Africa in the 1970s. I hope you enjoy what she has to say about her experiences that helped to shape the narrative and what she hopes readers will carry with them upon reading her book.
How did your experiences influence the writing of this book?
This book is about the experiences of a little white girl and an older black woman during apartheid South Africa; it’s the story of how their lives come together after the historic Soweto Uprising, and the close bond they forge in the aftermath of their loss and grief.
I was a baby in 1976 being looked after by a black caregiver, Eunice, who I loved very much, and so even though the book’s plot is fictional, much of the interaction between the two characters is based upon my own experiences growing up and being taken care of by Eunice.
I found a profound significance in the title as it relates to Robin’s experiences throughout the book, was this intentional?
Yes, absolutely! I’d settled on the title very early on in the book because it was a metaphor for so much of what both Robin and Beauty are going through.
After Robin’s parents are murdered, she’s at her parents’ funeral when they begin to play a hymn she doesn’t recognize. When she panics, her Aunt Edith tells her not to worry and to just ‘hum if you don’t the words’.
This becomes a theme for Robin and Beauty throughout the book. They’re both cast adrift when we meet them. Robin is floundering after she’s sent to live with her aunt, and is trying to put off dealing with her grief so that she can find some security.
Beauty has to leave her homeland and enter dangerous and unknown territory in order to search for her activist daughter who has gone missing. They’re both just treading water to stop themselves from going under, which the title captures about their situations.
Can you speak more on the balance you achieved throughout the story between the humorous scenes and the weighty topics? How was this instrumental in your presentation of the narratives?
I absolutely didn’t want to write a dark and depressing book which very easily could have happened with subject matter that includes loss, grief, racism and prejudice in all its forms.
South African people, regardless of race, language or religion, are very humorous people who love to laugh. It’s actually my experience that the poorer and more deprived the community, the more they laugh. I wanted the book to reflect that.
Writing the heavy parts of the book was difficult. It required me to hold a mirror up to myself and my country and really look at the things I didn’t like about myself and the land of my birth. It was draining but also very cathartic to write.
I cried while writing many chapters and so I had to laugh as well in order to balance it out and make it a fair representation of life in the country at that time.
I had some amazing characters who had a lot of funny things to say and I’m very grateful to them for that because I couldn’t have kept writing the book without those moments.
What were your favorite scenes to write? Were there any that you found particularly difficult?
My favourites scenes were the ones with King George who is a coloured man (this is the term South Africans officially use for people who are ‘mixed race’). He’s a tragic figure who has had a very difficult life and experienced so much trauma and yet his outlook is so positive and he’s hilarious. He’s also incredibly kind-hearted and every scene he was in made me laugh and it made me sad at the same time.
The most difficult scenes to write were ones with Beauty where she’s subjected to racism in a restroom and then near the end of the book which I don’t want to reveal too much about. My heart broke for her so much and getting to write about her healed me.
What do you hope readers take away from Hum If You Don’t Know The Words?
The novel takes place more than forty years ago and yet so many of the issues it deals with are still relevant today: racism, homophobia, xenophobia and prejudice in all its forms.
South Africans are amazing, vibrant and warm people but they’re living in a society that is still very much dealing with the wounds of the past. A fractured and wounded society is one that is rife with anger, poverty and violence. Many white South Africans believe black people should ‘just get over it and move on’ but that’s a ridiculously simplistic viewpoint that smacks of privilege.
I’d like people to look at their own lives and themselves and address the inherent beliefs that shape their interactions with anyone who is different from them, and then acknowledge where their thinking is ill informed or biased. As white people, we spent so much time defending ourselves and insisting we aren’t racist but I think racism exists on a scale. We may not be actively racist, but that doesn’t mean we don’t harbour beliefs that are damaging. And if we’re not racist, then what are we doing to address the racism of others? Let’s direct the energy it takes to defend ourselves towards admitting where we fall short and trying harder.
The world would be a much better place if we practised empathy and tried to understand one another and see our shared humanity rather than the many ways in which we are different.
Do you have a new book in the works?
At first, I started on a sequel to Hum If You Don’t Know The Words but I’ve set that aside for now because even though the characters’ stories aren’t over for me, the themes explored may be too similar to those I tried to tackle in Hum If You Don’t Know The Words. Also, I’m not sure how much interest there would be in a sequel. I can always pick it up again down the line.
I’ve since started a completely different story that takes place in post-apartheid South Africa. It’s currently titled ‘Shooting Stars and Mason Jars’ but that may change. I’m already in love with the characters and look forward to seeing where they take me.
What have you read lately that inspired you?
I absolutely loved The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker! I know nothing about animation and have never really had any interest in graphic novels, cartoons or illustrated films, but she made the whole world come alive so vividly that I became a bit obsessed with her characters.
Another book coming out in January 2018 called The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin took my breath away. It’s just stunning and inspired me so much.