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Author Bianca Marais On Apartheid, Growing Up, and How They Shape Her Novel

Writer Bianca Marais was born in South Africa in 1976, a time when the country was still very much ruled under Apartheid laws that separated people of different skin colors.  It was the year of the Soweto Uprising, when Black high school students living in the ghetto designated by the White government outside Johannesburg marched in protest of the Apartheid laws.

They were largely peaceful demonstrations, but police opened fire with live ammunition, killing more than 100 children. On the same day, 20 miles away, Marais - a white child - was being cared for by a nanny who was black, a woman designated by the government as, essentially, less than human.  

That inherent contradiction provides the backdrop for Marais’ first novel, Hum If You Don’t Know the Words.

“This period in time really fascinated me because of the irony of that. If you decide someone is less than human and you are going to treat them as such but you will entrust the care of your most precious thing in the world to these very people – that to me was quite fascinating,” Marais says.  

Marais’ ability to look back on personal experience when constructing this novel comes through in the stories she chooses to tell. But she says it was often very difficult to confront her past.

“Anytime I felt uncomfortable writing something because it reminded me so much of myself as a child, anytime I wanted to shy away from that, I forced myself to focus on it more and dig deeper," she says. "Even if it made the character unsympathetic or unlikeable because those are the exact things that we should be confronting when we are confronting our prejudice and you know these leafs that shape who we are.”

"I think when you love someone who's being oppressed in this way, it fundamentally changes the way you see the whole system and it makes you realize how cruel it is."

The prejudice Marais discusses originates back to her parent’s upbringing. “My parents, my family members were all products of their environment and products of their society because Apartheid started in 1948, my parents were born in the ‘50’s so they were very much raised in this way to think it was normal.”

But as Marais got older, she recognized what her parents had learned as normal contradicted her own feelings towards her caretaker.

“I think when you love someone who’s being oppressed in this way, it fundamentally changes the way you see the whole system and it makes you realize how cruel it is,” she explains.

Marais will be in Milwaukee Sunday, July 23, to talk about her novel at a Boswell Book Company event at the Lynden Sculpture Garden.