Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Meet the Author: Marguerite Poland

When did you start to write and at what point did you think of yourself as a writer?

I wrote my first book when I was nine. Of course, it wasn't published, but I saw it through and after that continued to "write books" (mostly desperate love stories) until my first |children's story was published in 1979 - 20 years later. I think I only thought of myself as a "real writer" when I saw my first big and serious review - for The Mantis and the Moon.

What was the seed and inspiration for Shades?

I think the seed for Shades was planted when I was a very small girl and met my great-grandmother, on whom Frances, the heroine of Shades, is based. It germinated further when I visited St Matthew's Mission near Keiskammahoek in the Eastern Cape, where my great-great-grandfather had been a missionary from 1872-1913.
Family tradition, stories and lore all contributed. But the real core of inspiration came from my great-grandmother's memoir written when she was in her eighties - a vivid account of life at St Matthew's. This led to intensive research into the period and the place.
I have always been interested in South African history - particularly the history of the Xhosa people, engendered by my study of African languages and social anthropology at university.

What was the main challenge in writing Shades?

The main challenge was getting to grips with the complex and turbulent history of South Africa at the turn of the 20th century and trying to weave it into the intimate story of a particular family without losing the focus of the very personal narrative concerning the protaganists.
I had to explore the events, issues and ideologies which shaped this country at that watershed in its history; the plethora of legislation which disempowered black people; the debate on the role of missionaries; the South African War and rinderpest pandemic and, most importantly, the establishment of the migrant labour system, which changed the shape of black South African society so tragically and irrevocably.

What impact did the writing of Shades have on you and what insights did it give you?

It had the greatest impact on me of anything I have written because, in writing it, I had to examine my own ideology - political and spiritual - and face up to the role that my family had played in shaping institutions - missions and the migrant labour system - which had such a profound effect on society.
I suppose it made me assess more clearly what it is to be a white South African - to understand the legacy I inherited and to meet the challenge of transcending that history.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a novel which has taken rather too long to germinate because of other responsibilities.
But as I have just launched Taken Captive by Birds, which has been such a happy collaboration with Craig Ivor, the artist, I am not too desperately stressed by the lag.  

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