Q&A with historical fiction author Marguerite Poland

21 April 2020 - 13:09 By Carla Lever
Acclaimed local author Marguerite Poland.
Acclaimed local author Marguerite Poland.
Image: Melissa Mitchell

Nal'ibali column No 12 Term 2 2020

Congratulations on A Sin of Omission being shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction! Can you tell us a little about the South African history you explore in the book?

Many thanks! During the 1860s, in the aftermath of the ‘Cattle Killing’ of 1856 which decimated the herds of the Xhosa people, many children were taken in by missionaries to save them from starvation. The colonial government proposed to educate the sons (and some daughters) of prominent Xhosa families with the purpose of encouraging loyalty and subservience, while the Church was eager to win souls for Christianity. The protagonist of the novel is based on the real life of one such child, Mtutuko Stephen Mnyakama. Educated at an elite Church College in South Africa, he is sent to England to the Missionary College in Canterbury to be prepared for Holy Orders. On returning home, isolated in a small mission station, his search for identity, belonging and faith is challenged at every turn. The novel was written to honour the memory of a real man, to bring him for the shadows and to address, as best I could, the insidious sins of omission which have blighted our society throughout its history.

It must feel very satisfying that a tale of a Xhosa man caught between British colonial and indigenous South African ways of being found resonance in the UK as well as here?

The fact that the story has had resonance in the UK has been particularly gratifying (and also astonishing) because my sense of place and use of indigenous African languages has often branded my work as obscure to those unfamiliar with South Africa. A Sin of Omission has been a break-through.

Poland's latest novel.
Poland's latest novel.
Image: Supplied

A Sin of Omission is based on true historical events. Can you tell us a little about how you came across the original history behind the story?

When I was fourteen, my great uncle told me a moving story about one of his grandfather’s students at an Anglican mission station in the Eastern Cape. Many years later, when researching for a different project, I came across material which echoed the story. From there I followed every lead, which involved reading hundreds of Anglican missionary letters and records from the nineteenth century.

I'm particularly taken with how central family storytelling and connection is, both in how you came to know the background story and to the individual characters you created from that. What role can storytelling play in enriching family and community connections, particularly in these challenging times?

Storytelling was once so integral to communal life and cultural cohesion. It seems we’ve forgotten how to listen and respect that. ‘If only I had asked!’ is a common lament. Like everyone, I also deeply regret lost opportunities and failure to listen to family stories. One of the joys of researching this novel has not only been discovering more of my own family’s history but contacting others in different communities and finding common interests and converging histories. I am aware, too, of the theme that underlies all my work: a long journey in search of belonging. What a rewarding, humbling and fulfilling journey it has proved to be!

Despite some of our most powerful historical records being based in parable and mythic form, many people look with suspicion on stories which blend fact and fiction, as yours necessarily does. How can we reframe our understanding of narrative to acknowledge the space for story within history?

Understandably, mixing fact and fiction has huge pitfalls and can lead to misconceptions and misinterpretations if handled irresponsibly. So much history indigenous to South Africa has still be explored and accessibly recorded. A historical novel can’t make claims beyond its function - something a novelist needs to acknowledge - but any art form is often the most accessible and engaging way to give life to the past and generate interest in more conventional historical resources.

How did you approach the responsibilities of writing a story based on real life experiences - and those, moreover, that differ from your own cultural background?

I was fully aware of my responsibility in tackling a subject beyond my time, culture and gender, especially in the profoundly sensitive South African context. So-called ‘appropriation’ is a minefield of potential blunders and (often justified) blistering censure! It was the factor which concerned me most. Taking on a subject beyond one’s personal experience requires rigorous research. I acknowledge, with the deepest gratitude, the scholarship of a number historians and linguists whose work I consulted and was also privileged to have access to wonderful primary source material.

Can you talk a little bit about your choice of title?

Sins of commission are intentional. Sins of omission usually aren’t - but they are committed by all of us, all of the time, through ignorance, lack of courage or compassion, prejudice, fear. In a previous novel (Shades, Penguin 1992) one of my characters says, ‘It’s not what you do but what you fail to do that makes the difference…’ The idea of those sins of omission, symptomatic of our particular challenges in an unequal society, is at the heart of the theme of my story.

In a remarkable turn of events, women at the Keiskamma Trust in the Eastern Cape embroidered tapestries of scenes from the novel depicting Stephen's life and navigation between his two cultural worlds. What interactions have you had with the project and how did the work come about?

I have had an association with the Keiskamma Trust since 2003 when I helped with information about the colour patterns of Nguni cattle (the subject of my PhD) which were depicted in their monumental tapestry of the history of the Xhosa people which hangs in the SA Parliament. I greatly value the friendship of the former Director, Dr Carol Baker Hofmeyr and of Cebo Mvubu who directs the artists of the Trust. They read my manuscript together with the artists and decided to illustrate key scenes – which has proved to be a very mutually-beneficial collaboration.

This novel began as a family tale, was developed into a novel and has been interpreted into visual art - each form with its own way of communicating ideas and themes.

Yes, it’s been a great privilege to work with visual artists and to have the character of Stephen’s Mzamane’s life reinterpreted by them. I feel it has returned the real man, Rev Mtutuko Stephen Mnyakama, to his true community and cultural roots, especially as the artists also depicted his church as it is today, including members of the present congregation. His story is now far more real than any novel alone could have made it and he has been honoured and remembered by so many more than me.

So much of the history of our country is taught in grand sweeping stories of battles, invasions and treaties. How can retelling the intimacies of individual lives help us develop nuance and compassion for 'bigger picture' politics - both historic and current?

It is the intimacy of a human story that interests, involves and – hopefully - moves the reader to discover and understand, more objectively, the wider historical context. If we are not moved, we don’t care. If we don’t care, we don’t remember.

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success. For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to access children’s stories in a range of SA languages, visit www.nalibali.org