Author Interview: Bianca Marais

The author of Hum If You Don’t Know The Words on crafting authentic characters, accepting grief, and writing about what one knows

Photo Copyright Jory Nash

Bianca Marais’ Hum If You Don’t Know The Words is an emotionally charged brick of dynamite. From its intertwining of two — what one might easily call, opposing — narratives, to its adaptation of vivid motifs — the kind which only a novel set in late 1970s South Africa can appropriately utilize — this debut will take you into unfamiliar territory and won’t let you go until it’s finished with you.

At the center of the book is the story of Robin and Beauty. Though Robin is a white child attempting to grieve the loss of her recently murdered parents and Beauty is a black woman from rural lands searching for her lost daughter in a big city, what begins as two separate stories inevitably morphs into one. By merging their stories together, Marais explores the difficulties of race, grief, family-making, and musicality with a near perfect balance struck between that of presence and potency. The harmony of subjects and voices sing out from the page — it’s quite hard not to finish this book within a single day.

Bianca will be reading at Literati Bookstore on July 7th at 7 PM. In the week leading up to her reading, I was fortunate enough to send her a few questions.

The relationship shared between Cat and Robin was one of my favorite threads to follow throughout the entirety of the novel. As one might easily guess, chapter thirty-three — the chapter in which Cat evaporates from the remainder of the narrative — was a difficult, yet somehow still beautiful chapter to read. How did you come to the decision to remove this imaginary character from the novel?

That was an incredibly difficult scene to write and I recall crying as I was writing it because Cat is just an extension of Robin. In the beginning of the book, before Robin’s parents are murdered, Cat is in Robin’s life as a coping mechanism. Robin projects onto Cat the feelings, insecurities and fears that she knows aren’t acceptable to her parents, and that’s how she learns to exist in a world in which she wants very much to be herself but also to be liked and loved.

After Robin’s parents die, Robin uses her sister even more as an emotional crutch to avoid dealing with her grief. As long as she can keep Cat happy and stop her from being sad, she’s able to cope with her loss. However, once Robin starts to care for Beauty and once she knows that Beauty loves her — all of her, even the parts that weren’t acceptable to her parents — she feels she’s able to navigate a world in which Cat doesn’t exist. That scene is very much Robin’s coming of age and it shows her resilience and vulnerability.

G.P. Putnam’s Sons (7/11/2017)

The title of the novel appears for us about a quarter of a way through the book. Robin is attending her parent’s funeral and at the start of the procession an unfamiliar song begins to play. Fearing possible embarrassment, Robin informs her aunt Edith of her ignorance, at which point, Edith responds: “When in doubt, just do what I do, Robs. Hum if you don’t know the words.” I should also note that this isn’t the only instance in the book where the motif of music and sound shows up. We hear numerous records, a singing / repetitious African Grey, and there always seems to be some rhythmic noise hovering beyond the periphery. What is it about the motif of musicality that you find so useful when writing a novel like Hum If You Don’t Know The Words?

When you write a story that takes place in a very particular moment in history, you need to anchor the story very firmly in that time so that the reader feels immersed in it. Music is a wonderful way of doing that. Also, music is so culturally important. The music that Beauty listens to and the songs she sings is very different to the music Robin and her aunt, Edith, listen to. I wanted to show how far apart their worlds are even though they end up living in the same home.

When I write a scene, I picture it in my mind from the point of view of the character, looking out of their eyes. And so I feel, see and hear everything they do which is why I focus on smells, sounds, tastes and textures; they make a story come alive in a way that it wouldn’t if you left out sensory descriptions.

Though this book has a great deal of sadness in it, there are many, many moments in which the audience will find themselves laughing out loud. I’m thinking of Morrie and King George when I mention this. Where did these two characters come from and were they always as funny as they are in the final version of the novel?

I’m so glad you enjoyed Morrie and King George because they are two of my favorites. I honestly can’t tell you where they come from; both of them just popped into my head fully formed as I was writing. As you say, the book deals with heavy themes, but South Africans are also people who love laughing and who can see the humor in any situation no matter how dire and these characters helped me convey that.

I didn’t know much about Judaism when Morrie announced himself, and so I had to do quite a bit of research to get him right. King George made me laugh out loud as I was writing him and I’m grateful to him for the comic relief even as he remained a very scarred and damaged character.

I struggled to fully accept the decisions Robin makes in pursuit of attempting to gain some semblance of a normal childhood. Yet whenever I found myself struggling to acknowledge what she was doing, I reminded myself of all that she had been through: two dead parents, a maid who left her, an aunt who may or may not want her, and one friend who wishes to be more than just a friend. This seemed to make her actions comprehensible — if only until something more life derailing occurred. How do you empathize with Robin?

I must be honest, I battled to like Robin at many moments throughout the story. She can be such a brat and is so oblivious to her privilege, but she’s also very much a product of her environment. I had to keep reminding myself of that in order to empathize with her. It’s not that she has a bad nature or is a horrible person — she just doesn’t know any better most of the time.

When I meet people in real life who are bigoted or prejudiced, or just oblivious to other people’s feelings or suffering, it always makes me wonder about their upbringing and how much of who they are is shaped by where they grew up and the people who raised them. It’s the whole nature versus nurture argument and I find it fascinating.

Sometimes good people make bad choices and that’s very much what happens with Robin, but she does eventually redeem herself which makes her much more sympathetic.

Grief and the process of grieving is essential to almost all of the different characters we meet through the book. Everyone, in some manner, is attempting to overcome some sort of strife, or pain, or unmentionable memory. By the end of the book, grief has yet to be conquered, but is instead managed via the familial ties which are constructed between those likeminded characters which care for one another. This begs the questions: can grief ever fully be escaped?

My experience of grief is that isn’t something you get over. It isn’t a process you go through to come out healed on the other side. It’s something that stays with you and transforms you, and the best you can hope for is to learn how to live with it so that the burden of it gets easier to carry with time.

Beauty says this of grief in the book and it sums up how I feel about it:

Grief is a city all of its own, built high on a hill and surrounded by stone walls. It is a fortress that you will inhabit for the rest of your life as you walk its dead-end roads forever. The trick is to stop trying to escape and, instead, make yourself at home.

Beauty Mbali is an exceptionally strong character. Her resilience and capacity for hope amazed me time and time again. I understand that some of her qualities are based off of a black woman who cared for you when you were a child. Eunice, who watched you as a child, is still a dear friend of yours and someone you are in contact with regularly. Though Eunice will turn ninety-four this year and her hearing is somewhat problematic, have you spoken at all with her about the book and the character of Beauty Mbali?

I have tried throughout my adult life to speak to Eunice about her experience of apartheid and how it affected her, but it’s something she’s never wanted to discuss and I’ve had to respect that. Eunice is as resilient and full of grace as Beauty is and those are the qualities of hers that I wanted to capture. Eunice is my absolute hero. I can’t imagine having lived the life she has and not being bitter about it. She is a bigger and better person than I will ever be.

Eunice knows about the book and I have asked her permission to speak about her and to post photographs of her on social media which she has very kindly granted. She says she’s very proud of me and is looking forward to becoming famous. She has a brilliant sense of humor.

I was lucky enough to volunteer in Soweto for almost ten years working with the caregivers of HIV positive children and have them share their experiences of apartheid with me. It was their willingness to talk about it and their generosity of spirit that allowed me to be able to understand some of what Beauty may have experienced during that time.

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