A Q&A with Marguerite Poland

26 November 2019 - 10:56 By Margaret von Klemperer
'A Sin of Omission' by Marguerite Poland.
'A Sin of Omission' by Marguerite Poland.
Image: Penguin Random House

Published in the Witness (25/11/2019)

Marguerite Poland’s research into her own family history in the Eastern Cape brought to light the tragic story which was the inspiration for her new novel, A Sin of Omission. She spoke to Margaret von Klemperer.

A Sin of Omission is based on the life of the Reverend Stephen Mtutuko Mnyakama. Having uncovered his story when you were doing research, were you never tempted to write his biography rather than a novel? 

I would have liked to write a biography but there were too many gaps in the record. For example, although there were a number of letters from Rev Mnyakama to his employer, the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG), their replies to him were not preserved so it was a one-way record of the correspondence. I did not have the resources to go to England to search other archives, although I was very fortunate to have someone in Oxford who could access the specific USPG records for me. I am not a biographer nor an historian by training, and although I remained as scrupulous as I could to the details of events to which I had access, the themes I chose to explore and the incidents I describe were taken from various sources through which I hoped to convey an authentic view of the attitudes and events of the time through a fictitious story, constructed from carefully researched facts.

It is a tragic story, and an uncomfortable one. What do you see as the importance of bringing it to light now?

Besides being a part of our history which has only recently been explored by a number of eminent historians, I think it important to question in depth the reasons why our society developed the way it has and the events that shaped our attitudes, influenced our own ‘sins of omission’, which are so easy to commit – and overlook – especially in an unequal society. Those sins – both of commission and omission – were committed long, long before apartheid legislation. An eminent South African woman working in conflict resolution wrote: 'When we bring things out of the shadows into the light, they are healed. Storytelling plays a major role in this everywhere.' (Susan Collin Marks)

What drew you to writing about the role of religion in the colonial era?

My great-great grandfather and my great-grandfather were Anglican missionaries in the Eastern Cape. My 1993 novel, Shades, was based loosely on my great-grandmother’s recollections of her life on a mission station, which started my interest in the history of the region and the role of missionaries in its development. I studied African languages and social anthropology and everything I have ever written has drawn on the landscape, the indigenous languages and cosmologies. In 2003 I was commissioned to write a history of St Andrew’s College with which my family has had connection since its founding in 1855. In doing the research for this project I was exposed to a very much wider history than simply the story of a school. That research covered much additional reading into the history and politics of South Africa as well as the role of the church in the development of education. It was fascinating research, tied very closely to my own family history, my respect for and interest in the language and culture of the Xhosa people of the Eastern Cape and the effects of political change, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In searching for my own ‘ancestral shades’ I came across the ‘shades’ of others whose lives they had shared.

The sin in the title is on the part of the Anglican church and the omission is their inability to see what they were doing, creating people who could not fit in either to their own society or the colonial one. So it also becomes a compelling story about identity, how we create it, and how important it is for our ability to cope with life. Did you see this as an important thing to explore in a society of many disparate cultures?

When I discovered the record of the life of Stephen Mnyakama it became clear that the early history of mission education – despite its well-intentioned and valuable influence -  was often conducted in a way that was hugely insensitive to the identities of those in the care of the church and those in thrall within colonial society in general. Names are deeply important and, in African society, hold a weight and significance for the bearer which is respected and honoured in a very particular way. Despite its critics I think the current importance attached to renaming cities, towns and every significant site underscores the significance of naming in our society.

You are writing about someone who comes from a world other than your own, and who is also a male character. These are things that writers are often criticised for at the moment. Have you had any negative feedback? And what would your response be?

Fortunately I have not yet had any negative feedback, although I have anticipated it. I am very aware of and sensitive to the responsibility in taking on a story outside of my time, my gender, my colour and my experience. This is something novelists have to face – choices about the appropriation of someone else’s life. However, if one did not tackle a story such as the one I have written about ‘Stephen Mzamane’, the real  history might be lost. And if the telling of the story arouses debate and discussion, so much the better. I did the best I could to relay the events and attitudes recorded in primary sources which were the most authentic voices I could gather. Hopefully those who read the book will appreciate that I have tried to recreate the past and the people about whom I have chosen to write with respect and empathy.

One of the things I found most moving is the subtlety of your criticism of the Anglican/colonial project. So much that we hear now is angry, often to the point of being entirely vicious, and it is much more powerful to have a rounded approach. Was this a deliberate response to what is often disturbingly unpleasant discourse?

The occurrences are often shocking but, as a writer – especially of historical fiction - one has to assess events within the context of their time. With hindsight the attitudes, prejudices and perceptions of people are easy to condemn. In reading the hundreds of letters to which I had access, the personalities of the various writers emerged over and over again. These were real people, not stereotypes. There were men and women who had immense courage, vital vocation and vision, and there were also those whose lack of empathy, whose arrogance and insensitivity was startling. No institution can simply be judged without taking into account the individuality of its constituents. To be outraged now is inevitable, but to truly understand and attempt to create something authentic, one has to discover all the seams and faults in the bedrock, examine their complexity, their ambiguity and build rather than blame or destroy.