When South African writer Sisonke Msimang was in her twenties, people were always telling her to write a book about her life. Her father was a famous freedom fighter in the African National Congress, and she was raised in exile, growing up in Zambia, Kenya, and Canada before finally returning to South Africa in the 1990s.
“I always had a sense that my story was interesting to other people, but it wasn’t necessarily that interesting when you were living it,” she said in a recent Skype interview. “And given my history and my background and my culture, talking about yourself is not...” she breaks into laughter.
But when she started writing essays about race, gender and democracy for publications like The New York Times, The Guardian and Al Jazeera, she thought the time might be right to put together a book of nonfiction.
“In South Africa we’re really obsessed with Nelson Mandela — for good reason. So we’ve got lots of biographies of Nelson Mandela; biographies of all these freedom fighters. Lots of stories about big male heroes. And I thought (writing a book) would allow me to do the thing that I’ve always been interested in, which is writing stories about women and kind of smaller stories.”
The result is “Always Another Country,” a memoir detailing her family’s experience growing up in exile, a book Msimang describes “family portrait” written by a “reluctant memoirist.”
“It felt less intimidating and less self-indulgent to write a memoir when I was only the sideways subject,” she explains, meaning she wove historical context and the stories of other family members into her personal narrative, making the story richer and also providing some important social context.
“Coming from a society where the backdrop has always been pretty dramatic and understanding that the backdrop was not of my making and it was also a backdrop that many people experienced in South Africa, I guess what I was trying to do was figure out a way to have a national conversation... recognizing that I’m kind of the proxy for that conversation.”
Because this conversation is so specific to South Africa, Msimang was curious how the book would be received internationally.
“When people start reading you from a society that’s completely different, that you never thought would read you, that’s when I get nervous, because I’m like: they don’t have the context, are they still going to understand the story? That’s why every time someone says “I really enjoyed your book” and they’re not South African I’m like: “Really? Why?” she said, laughing.
But Msimang realizes “there’s something universal about belonging, about figuring out where we belong,”
“This is the century of migration, right? The other thing I’ve learned as the book has traveled is how many people just relate to it because they’ve moved — that so many people are migrating. And obviously the difference with exile is you don’t have a choice about that move, and lots of people who move — refugees — don’t have choices and can’t go back.”
“In many instances the migrant and the refugee is looked down upon — not in a terrible way. But people extend their sympathy to you. And it’s so hard to convey to people that you’re grateful for their good wishes and good intentions but you do come from a place that you’re proud of: you have a culture, you have a history — you have a context.”
“So often I think that’s the struggle, isn’t it? To accept what people want to give you from the goodness of their hearts but also to demonstrate that you have pride, you have a place that you come from.”
Msimang now lives in Australia with her family where she runs the Oral Storytelling program at the Center for Stories, an organization that uses storytelling to inspire cohesion and understanding. She often coaches storytellers to explore a similar “sideways” perspective with their stories. The results of this technique, as Msimang found in her own writing, can be surprising.
“When we came back to South Africa there were a number of other families who had grown up just like us: in exile, moving around. And a lot of those families were not OK. They had lots of issues readjusting to live in South Africa — which is normal. But some of them weren’t necessarily close, and some of those families, the parents had to sacrifice in ways that really had an impact on the kids. And our family wasn’t like that. So for me the starting point (with the memoir) was: Why? What was different about us? Why are we so close? Why were we OK? I mean, not great or perfect, but we were OK.”
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The answer, Msimang realized at the end of the book, came from her mother: “This woman gave us this incredible gift of being OK, and how she did it was she knew something we didn’t, which was that it was our relationships that kept us OK. It was knowing that we were loved, knowing that we were safe, knowing that our parents would do whatever they needed to do to make us OK — that was where home was. And we always had it. We just didn’t necessarily realize it.”