Inspired by the story of her great-grandmother, an indentured labourer, Joanne Joseph talks about her debut novel 'Children of Sugarcane'

Joanne Joseph's book 'Children of Sugarcane' (Jonathan Ball Publishers) has been shortlisted for the Sunday Times fiction prize in partnership with Exclusive Books

18 September 2022 - 00:00
By Joanne Joseph
'Children of Sugarcane' is Joanne Joseph's debut novel and is shortlisted for the Sunday Times Literary Awards.
Image: Supplied 'Children of Sugarcane' is Joanne Joseph's debut novel and is shortlisted for the Sunday Times Literary Awards.

CRITERIA: The winner should be a novel of rare imagination and style, evocative, textured and a tale so compelling as to become an enduring landmark of contemporary fiction.


Children of Sugarcane was inspired by the story of my great-grandmother, Athilatchmy Velu Naiken, who left India to take up indenture in Port Natal in 1884. She was about 21 years old and was put to work on the Natal Government Railways with her younger siblings.

It was difficult to uncover her story, not least because the archives document two small aspects of her life — her arrival and a snippet of her post-indenture existence. But the rest is absent, which compelled me to fictionalise a narrative drawing on the experiences of a range of indentured women. Their lives brimmed with dislocation, pain, trauma, violence and hardship. Yet they were stoic, resilient, and sometimes even defiant in the face of a crushing system, still managing to find comfort and joy in friendship, familial love and the cultures and religious beliefs they had brought with them. Their love of education ensured their descendants’ incremental success.

I hope that the small body of South African literature that pre-dates and inspires Children of Sugarcane will one day be recognised for exactly what it is — another facet of writing that belongs in the mainstream cannon and is no longer relegated to the category of "not quite South African" writing. This ought to remind us that this writing has flowed from the pens of third- or fourth-generation South African writers of Indian descent whose only home is this continent. 

My hope is also that Children of Sugarcane will play some small part in answering questions about the origins of Indian South Africans, conscientise readers about the struggles of our ancestors and further open a space for dialogue across cultural, linguistic and racial backgrounds based on empathy and inclusion. I continue to believe literature is one of the best means of achieving this.

by Joanne Joseph.
Image: Supplied Children of Sugarcane by Joanne Joseph.


Durban Gaol, Port Natal, September 1878

The sun tiptoes toward twilight until the dark settles, suffocating the last light of day. The air is damp. It matts my hair to my face. I cannot be bothered to brush it away. The sweat of a labourer fills my nostrils — the stench of my own body. My palms and feet are calloused, this body I inhabit a constellation of scars. I cannot quite tell if it is still my body; whether I have surrendered it, or had it stolen from me.

On nights like this, the mosquitoes will not let us sleep. People fear this prison, but I have made peace with its four walls. This is my last home in this life. I can now say, ‘I am a prisoner. I am a criminal. I am sentenced to die,’ and those words no longer stick in my throat. 

It is never silent here. Some sleep, some howl at night. I reflect and try to reconcile myself to the fate I have chosen. Strangely, I find myself fortified by these stone walls. I have spent hours curled against them, and in their crude assembly, I see the cornerstones of my destiny. I am determined to find the strength to face my end with dignity. 

I have quickly grown used to the weight of chains. I’m no different, really, from the hardened men here who dig ditches with shackles round their ankles. Sometimes I try to glimpse faces beneath the arcs of their backs while I imagine what blood and gore brought them here. They work closely, their bodies almost touching, yet they are forbidden to speak. Words are dangerous. They are both gifts and weapons. 

In the colonial prison, there are divisions between British, Indian and African inmates, male and female, young offenders and adults, those who have been tried and found guilty, and those who have yet to stand in the dock. Prisoners accused of monetary crimes are kept apart from those who spilt blood. In this wordless world, we eye each other as suspiciously as our gaolers. I often glance over my shoulder to see another prisoner’s eyes burrowing into me. I imagine them all to be murderers and rapists. 

Despair hangs like a fog here. But I do not let it swallow me. I give my gaolers no trouble. I dig trenches, plough soil and scrub prison floors unquestioningly. I am rarely beaten here. There are moments when news of a hanging frightens me. But I sponge my eyes and continue with my work. I seek courage as if she were a friend who would go to the gallows with me. I do not wish to die a coward. 

There is despondency in the eyes of women here, but I take no notice. I cannot carry their pain along with my own. I go meekly into confinement at sunset. I am deaf to my gaolers’ shoving — their lewd remarks about how they would like to have their way with me. They must think me feeble-minded and docile because I never answer back. They are deaf to my silent curses. 

But as the lock clangs behind me and their footsteps grow faint, there is a part of me that unlatches from this body, cleaves through its broken skin and hovers unfettered, leaping these jagged stone walls, gliding between past and present as I search for the answers that will lead me back to myself. 

I am a migrant, connected to my home by fragile threads that stretch across continents. They are too frayed now to hoist me back to the life I knew, to the girl I once was. Yet sometimes a longing for the place of my birth takes hold of me, and it pains me to be torn from all that was familiar to me — all whom I loved in India. 

It is not that I dislike the Colony of Natal. Even with its trials, I have grown fond of the landscape, of many of the good people who reside here. I have thought of re-rooting myself here, never to return to India. But I also do not want my memories devoured. In time, it all fades — the voices of my sisters, the blemish on my mother’s cheek, my father’s scar from rescuing me from the neighbour’s bull. My parents have become mere silhouettes. I imagine their slowing steps, the trickle from their eyes, or the reeds that have grown into savage bushes in my absence. And it knocks me off balance, like the rocking of the ship that carried us here and spewed us onto the land like waste.