27 years ago, when the typescript of Journey to Jo’burg seemed to be trapped in a fruitless search for a publisher, Beverley Naidoo was told, ‘This story is too simply written for its subject matter. Rewrite it for older readers.’ She declined. her children were 7 and 11 at the time and she had written it for them as much as for older readers. It was her way of taking them into South Africa, the country from which both she and their father had been separately exiled. So, how did it come to be published and what was its impact? Beverley Naidoo explains.
Survival in the face of injustice lies at the heart of the story. Two black children set off from their remote village to search for their mother and bring her home after their baby sister falls desperately ill. Mma works far away in the city, looking after a white child to earn precious money for her family. Her visits home are rare. Setting off on foot on the long hot road to Jo’burg, Naledi and Tiro have no idea what’s in store for them as they cross the dangerous landscape of Apartheid.
The personal tale of the children’s love and courage offers a window onto a wider story. In 2010, it may be hard for those half my age to understand the resistance to publishing fiction like this in the early 1980s. British newspapers carried reports on black South African school children being shot, arrested and tortured after protests for equal education. Yet the most popular non-fiction book in schools and libraries remained Let’s Visit South Africa which described Apartheid as a ‘fascinating experiment’. Most children’s non-fiction censored South Africa’s reality.
A new mood
However a new mood was also afoot in the children’s book world, challenging the complacency that kept young readers largely within the confines of a white, middle-class garden. ‘The Other Award’, initiated in 1975 by a small committed group – including Rosemary Stones – sought to celebrate books that gave ‘pleasure and enjoyment’, were ‘imaginative, dynamic, credible’ and contained ‘credible depictions of all people, whatever their background, culture or occupation’. Stereotypes, historical inaccuracy or a narrator’s assumptions of superiority (e.g. of gender, ‘race’ or class) incurred criticism. Very slowly, the keepers of the garden began to open the gates.
I was fortunate to have the Education Committee of the British Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa (BDAFSA) as my support group while writing Journey to Jo’burg. Banned in South Africa, this remarkable organisation set up by Canon Collins of St Paul’s Cathedral secretly transmitted millions of pounds to aid the defence of political prisoners and help their families. While raising funds, BDAFSA aimed to stir the British conscience. The dedication of its then director, the late Ethel de Keyser, was formidable.
Ethel undertook to find a publisher for my little book. As rejections rolled in, she persisted. But finally, success. Joan Ward at Longman Education had received a reader report from a teacher (now Professor Margaret Mackey, University of Alberta) to ‘snap it up’. Barely two months after a publication launch in March 1985, the book was banned in South Africa. The censors no doubt took exception to the story as well as to royalties being shared with a banned organisation.
The book quickly journeyed from secondary classrooms into primary schools. Rosemary Stones, by now at Collins, commissioned Lisa Kopper to illustrate a trade edition. As the book travelled globally in English and translations, I was soon receiving letters with the constant question, ‘Is this story true?’ When the book was ‘unbanned’ in South Africa in 1991 and I could return freely after 26 years in exile, I posed this same question to young black South Africans who had lived through experiences that I had fictionalised. These students on the ‘Speak Barefoot Teacher Project’ workshopped the book with a wonderful educator, Martha Mokgoko. Their affirmation was important, as was Martha’s creative thrust: ‘Let this one story inspire a hundred more!’
Over 25 years, thousands of letters have let me glimpse individual responses as well as imaginative and creative work in many different classrooms. A batch of letters in 2009 from an independent school in Karachi reveal 11-year-olds making connections to Bangladeshi women who work in Pakistani homes as maids, leaving behind families with children in Bangladesh whom they might only see every couple of years. ‘This book changed the way I see the world today…’ writes one child. ‘Apartheid still exists between the poor and the rich people here in Karachi, Pakistan. Some rich people treat the poor people here as if they don’t even exist.’ The saddest responses have come from children who themselves feel marginalised, such as Palestinian children asking deeply philosophical questions.
It has been fascinating to see Journey to Jo’burg shift from being a contemporary tale into history – and a more universal story of children whose spirit won’t let injustice crush them. A boy at an English village primary school recently writes: ‘My life in England hadn’t shown me how children in other parts of the world lived their lives. Before we started to read the book I assumed it would be an adventure book about a family… I now understand that this could have been a real life situation. Furthermore it has highlighted for me the struggles some people face in the world… I can’t imagine how I would feel if I had to leave my Mum, Dad and two cats.’ This reader has begun a new journey. What more can an author ask?
Journey to Jo’burg is published by HarperCollins in the ‘Essential Modern Classics’ series (978 0 00 726350 9) at £4.99.
Beverley Naidoo’s website: www.beverleynaidoo.com