Hazel McHaffie

India

Out of Africa

Before the KnifeFor those willing to ‘brave the dark without a candle‘, this slim volume, Before the Knife: Memories of an African Childhood, will move and disturb in equal measure. It’s immensely readable, powerful and totally absorbing.

It’s author is Carolyn Slaughter and she writes with beauty and courage of the devastating childhood experiences that affected her life for decades. The second of three daughters, she was abused – sexually and physically – by her father from the age of six; so traumatised that she blocked out the images and memories. Nevertheless her troubled past manifested itself in wild and self-destructive behaviours. Her mother and older sister knew what was going on but turned a blind eye; their mutual silence destroying them all each in their own way.

Carolyn’s father was a government official who was posted to various colonies in India and Africa, and she captures the country, the landscapes, the smells, the political intrigues, the class distinctions in wonderfully evocative language. I’ll try to give you a flavour.

‘… the great plains and deserts stretched as far as you could see, wild beasts roamed the vast savannahs, tracing and retracing their paths across ancient migration trails, moving to and from water, decay and death. On the grasslands and at the edges of the deserts, the black man lived and reigned as he had for all eternity: tilling his small fields, slaughtering his cattle and goats in times of plenty, starving or dying out when the rains didn’t come, or when marauding tribes from over the hill brought his days to an end. Women pounded the maize, stirring black pots over wood fires that sent up small blue columns of blue smoke that vanished into the clear blue sky. Sweet potatoes and fat speckled pumpkins hugged the brown earth, and under mimosa trees with spikes long as a child’s finger they fed their babies and shooed chickens from underfoot, waiting for their men to come back from the bush. When the sun rose in the morning, little boys shook out their limbs and led goats out to graze, trailing sticks in the sand and wandering silently through the shorn landscape dotted with thorn bushes, interrupted only by a solitary acacia tree with branches laid flat across a sky as endless and blue as the sea.

But then one day, into this eternity we came marching. We sailed across the Atlantic, tall masts and white sails brilliant in the sunlight, and announced that we’d discovered Africa, We took a quick look around and, picking up the four corners of the sleeping continent like a picnic cloth, we shook it up, cut it into pieces and flung it back down in our own image. White faces radiant in the sun, we brought in our columns of mercenaries, or guns and whips; we spread our diseases and plagues, and toppled the landscape and the languid people who’d lived on it since time began. We stayed on for a while, sojourning in Africa the way we had in India, never really intending to stay, dreaming always of England, and those blue remembered hills. But, for all the coming and going of white feet, the snatching of lands and lakes, and all the ivory, gem, gold and trophy collecting, and the building of farms and cities, in the end it was always a short visit: white men coming to make a hurried living along the beautiful acres of the equator that stretch all the way up into the show-peaked crests of mountains put down a few hundred million years ago. We took what we needed and packed up again, and in no time at all, the life of the white man, so transitory and scattered, so greedy and impatient, would be over: one by one, nation by nation, we pulled up and went back over the sea, and once we had gone it was as if we’d never been. We left no memory of ourselves on the still air, no trace of our footsteps on the scorched plains – we were gone – no more than a handful of bleached bones on the lap of a continent that could remember man’s first startled smile.’

The young Carolyn lived alongside racial discrimination, brutality and white domination and tried to make sense of life with precious little guidance. Small wonder that she was bowled over by her first experience of warm ‘maternal’ love from Rena on the farm, and obsessed by sixth-former Virginia who showed her understanding, sympathy and affection.

In her eloquent writing she brings partition and aparthied, tribal superstitions and imperial rule to life. She describes her fractured relationships with her parents with brutal honesty. She also explores the dark places of her own mind with breathtaking clarity; I wanted to reach out and pluck her from that precarious edge and wrap her in safety and warmth. Her volatile temper, her own urge to hurt and kill, her wild and untethered youth, her rebellion, her intoxication with risk – they all make sense in face of the revelation she sketches briefly in the prologue and eventually recounts in the epilogue.

‘…the moment when everything changed only really came the night that my father first raped me. I was six years old. This rape, and the others that were to follow, obliterated in one moment both the innocence of my childhood and the fragile structure of our English family life. We all knew. I showed my mother all the proof she needed, and my older sister was right there in the room with me, in the bed across from mine. But once it had happened, we decided that it had never happened at all. In our privileged and protected world, we chose to bury it, we put it out of sight and memory, never said another word.’

Set against our modern understanding of abuse and its effects, of repressed memories and mental illness, this story is heartrending. No wonder it took 50 years and a wealth of support to write it down. One can only hope that the process has been cathartic and now in her 70s, she has found some peace.

And yet, in spite of the horrors she endured, in the end Carolyn’s story is one of triumph and enormous courage. I recommend this book to anyone who can bear to feel the pain of a lonely and deeply damaged child.

(c)

Shutterstock image

When she faced the prospect of returning to England she wondered how she could survive living amongst people who had no concept of her life in Africa.

‘How could I bring them the magic of the river in Maun, or of the African women walking down to the mealie fields with their babies strapped to their backs? How could I tell them how guinea fowl stepped lightly through splashes of moonlight, or describe how the scorched plains vibrated and hummed when the sun was high? What could they know of the slithery nights when the hyenas bayed at the moon and the lion gave out its solitary cry; how could they understand the underwater silence of the crocs sidling among the water-lily stems? How could I tell them any of it?’

We know about those slithery nights and scorched plains because she has brought them to us so eloquently.

, , , , , , ,

Comments

It’s all relative …

Phew! It’s been quite a week.

My mind has been split too many ways for its own good, juggling preparation for a number of forthcoming speaking appointments all on different subjects, as well as finalising the text and cover of Inside of Me, plus a variety of other demands outside of my writing life. I confess I’ve felt unusually cross-eyed, and tense, and generally discombobulated.

I won’t bore you with the detail, except to share the most exciting development: the cover of Inside of Me is now chosen! Yeah! It’s been unusually tricky getting it right this time, but thanks to a very patient designer, Tom Bee, who provided lots of choice and properly listened to my quibbles, we have a striking end result that feels good. I’ll share it with you as soon as it’s finalised.

The Dean's DiariesSo, in the midst of all this angst, it was something of a welcome escape to go to a book launch for Professor David Purdie‘s latest offering: The Dean’s Diaries, held in all the magnificence of the Royal College of Physicians’ premises in the centre of Edinburgh. I found myself in august company. Purdie himself is a well-known and brilliant raconteur and was both witty and amusing on this occasion, offering, like Peter Ustinov, ‘all the various accents for his superb mimicry; and the rare combination of brevity of language with breadth of expression‘. Enviable skills.

His latest slim volume is a compilation of observations and anecdotes by the Dean of Edinburgh’s fictitious St Andrew’s College, ‘renowned for its academic oddity, interdepartmental warfare and explosive disasters‘. A happy blend of fact and fiction. I defy anyone to read it without laughing aloud. Clever, heretical, irreverent, stunningly good writing. A real tonic. Guaranteed to lift the spirits and banish tension. Just what I needed. Oh, and the Dean reckons that ‘Disparate activities, especially if novel, are apparently useful in staving off the onset of dementia … and … keeping the old frontal cortex ticking over‘, so perhaps I should be embracing more challenges not seeking less.

Alexander McCall Smith (who appears in the book as himself) was to have chaired the evening, but in the event he was in India … ahhh … therein lies a salutary and timely reminder. His life puts my present little alarms and excursions firmly into perspective. Sandy is probably the most prolific author I know personally, his daily word output is phenomenal, he’s constantly in demand as speaker/reviewer, juggles innumerable interests, and travels the world on a regular basis. And still finds time for friends and colleagues. Does he ever sleep?

OK, McHaffie. Take a big breath. Break down the tasks on your puny little list into manageable pieces. Tackle each one systematically. Tick them off; reduce the pressure.

There you go. Calm restored. Thanks to two professors and a hefty dose of laughter.

 

, , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Money, medicine and morals

Sigh … another sigh – king-size this time … groan … gnash of teeth.

It’s official. On Amazon even. My next book, Saving Sebastian, will not now be out until January 2012. And yes, I’ve been both frustrated and cross. At each stage I completed my side of things on time – if not early. But these are circumstances outside my control. And no amount of appeal or indignation or even anger would change anything, so no point in wasting energy there.

However, we do now have a draft cover. Wahey! What d’you think? Does it appeal?Saving SebastianOK, I confess I’ve been a smidgeon depressed by the ongoing delay, but life has a habit of putting things into perspective. And in the face of real tragedy, well, it’s only a book. (Let’s hope my publisher doesn’t read this, eh?) Compared to the heartache of the Shakeel family, another five month wait for Saving Sebastian doesn’t even deserve a mention.

Five years ago this impoverished family in India rejected an offer from the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi to pay for their conjoined twins to be separated. The separation would have necessitated five or six operations over nine months, each one carrying a one-in-five risk of death. The parents were too afraid of losing one of them to accept that risk or the Sheik’s offer.

Those twin girls, Saba and Fahar, are now 15. According to the latest reports, they are in great pain and deteriorating. They share kidneys and vital blood vessels to the brain. They suffer severe joint pains, blinding headaches, slurred speech, distorted limbs. Their brother says they are enduring 15 hours of unremitting pain each day. They face increasing blood pressure, weight loss and weakness.

Their father says they should now be allowed to end their suffering which in his view is unbearable. He wants the government to either treat them or sanction mercy killing.

My challenge to you:

How would you respond to this request?

What factors would influence you most?

If they were your girls what would you want for them?

, , , , ,

Comments