Thursday February 1, 2018   |   Marion Molteno

Bookaholicanonymous feels privileged to present this exclusive conversation with Marion Molteno. She is a prize-winning novelist and her fiction reflects the breadth of her life experience.


Marion Molteno was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa in 1944. Her fiction draws inspiration from the cross-cultural range of her life experience. She left South Africa after being involved in student protests against the apartheid regime, lived in Zambia for eight years, and since 1977 has lived in London, where she worked with minority communities and asylum seekers. She was a policy adviser in Save the Children, supporting work with vulnerable children across the world. She edits the work of the Urdu scholar Ralph Russell.


 Does your life reflect in your fiction?

Sure it does. But that doesn’t mean its autobiography. In my novels I try to capture - through fictional people and stories - what living feels like for real people; and everything I know about that comes from what I have lived through and seen and heard.


Congratulations on winning the Commonwealth Writers Prize for your book 'If You Can Walk, You Can Dance'. Now, tell us how much of you ‘is’ in this novel?

The story is set in places I know well - South Africa, Zambia, London - and a period of history I lived through - late 1960s to late 1970s. Dramatic things were going on politically, and the central character in my story - Jennie - is thrust into exile because of them, and has to find a new meaning for her life in new places. I think of Jennie as the sister I never had - we grew up in South Africa at around the same time - and I too left because of challenging the apartheid system. But that’s where the similarity ends. I didn’t have to run across a border illegally as she did - though I knew people who did.


The key way in which her story is different from mine is that I changed countries with my then boyfriend, who became my husband, so I always had support and didn’t feel so alone.  Jennie has to make her way alone in the world - and it’s that psychological challenge that is the real story. We follow her through the 10 formative years of early adulthood, from 20 - 30, as she tries to balance personal relationships with a desire to do something useful with her life. Actually, if her story was inspired by anything, it was from observing my grown up daughters and their friends, and all the transitions they had to negotiate.


From reactions of readers across the world, I know that the story is timeless, and touches people who have never been in Africa. The novel’s period and place are just the setting. It’s the personal journey of a young woman that’s the key thing.


In your book 'Uncertain Light' could you write about UN humanitarian workers so precisely?

Because I have worked in that world. For 13 years I worked as a senior policy advisor in Save the Children, an international NGO that works in 50 countries across the world, and prioritises support to local organisations working with the most marginalised children. Save the Children started 100 years ago in response to what was happening to abandoned children in Europe following World War I. It’s that kind of disastrous situation that has led it to become involved in other places. Just to take the examples of India - it came in to support relief work after cyclones in Orissa, with Tibetan refugees who had crossed the mountains, an earthquake in Gujarat. So there has been a close relationship with other agencies doing humanitarian relief. In this story the relief work is happening in Central Asia, but the humanitarian worker is an Indian, Rahul Khan, who started by setting up a small NGO in a poor rural community in India. I met many people like that, and saw how there is often a career path starting with a local NGO, then being talent-spotted and getting a job with an international NGO, and sometimes moving on to a UN agency.

Rahul’s motivation for peace-keeping work arises from the specific context he grew up in, with a Hindu mother and a Muslim father. He feels personally challenged to do something to heel tensions between communities. That is one of the strands that makes this a very contemporary story, and - sadly - universally relevant.


'Somewhere More Simple' is a tale of self it necessary to be in a quiet, distant place to discover oneself?

No, of course not. Getting to understand yourself better is something we all do, everywhere. But the smallness and remoteness of an island community perhaps highlights something that can get obscured in the noise and busy-ness of a city. A bit like going on a retreat. Each of the three people in this story - Cari, Anna and Hugh - are at different stages of their lives, and have their own reasons for having come to live on the island. But the title is ironic - you may think you are choosing a simple life, but we carry complexity within ourselves. So the story is really about facing up to the things we can’t run away from.


How did you understand life in exile, the life of a refugee, as written in 'A Shield of Coolest Air'? Is it about 'hope'?

Actually, it’s often about despair. For many people forced to become refugees, hope is hard to achieve.  But to survive you have to live where you are, even if you never wanted to be there; and you have to find reasons to go on trying - which if you are lucky may turn into hope.


In writing this story I knew that to give a realistic picture of what it’s like to be a refugee, I would have to find a way to balance despair and hope. The character of Hasan is crucial in this: he works in a legal advice centre for refugees, trying to help them get permission to remain in the UK. At the beginning of the story he is almost overcome with the weight of the human tragedies he deals with every day. Then a young woman - not a refugee - comes into his office asking for his help with someone she has met, not actually a close friend; and the fact that this young woman, Rachel, is going out of her way to help a stranger is part of what revives his faith in human nature, and gives them both the energy to fight the case.


For me it’s critical that Rachel doesn’t see herself as a politically active person. She’s just an ordinary person, dealing with her own personal problems - single mother, three children, and part time job. But she is first touched, and then outraged, at what she learns about what is happening to her refugee friend. It’s about something that could happen to all of us.


Tell us about your experiences while writing 'A Language is Common'.

This collection of short stories was actually the first fiction I wrote. I was responsible for setting up and running English classes in an area of London called Croydon, and many of the people in the classes were women from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, who had come with their families to live in Britain. Without knowing English they were unable to connect with many things going on around them, so the classes were crucial in helping them make those adaptations. They became a little social world where teachers and adult learners formed a community - hearing all about things that happened in each other’s lives. Until then I had had no contact with South Asians, and I was learning so much from them, it was like an explosion of new interests. Also, I was touched by the way they handled quite challenging transitions. So I started writing these fictional stories to share with others what those experiences were. They were made-up people, made-up stories, but the setting was exactly as it was in our classes, and I put myself in as narrator.


You have been associated with Ralph Russell, how important do you think his body of work is?

It’s hugely important - it was transformative for me, and it has been for countless others. I learnt Urdu from him, and then started reading things he had written over a life-time of being involved with Urdu speakers, and translating Urdu literature. We worked together for 26 years, and I edited many of his books for publication. He asked me to be his literary executor after his death, which I have done since 2008, and several Indian publishers are now bringing out new editions of his work.


His significance is that, as an outsider to Urdu, who had his first encounter with India in his twenties, he devoted himself so to studying it that he became a leading scholar of its literature. He made it his life work to share his enthusiasm for it, by teaching Urdu to non-Urdu speakers in the UK, by translating Urdu literature, and explaining to new readers the social context out of which the literature grew.


Part of his impact during his lifetime came from the fact that he was a wonderful teacher, because he was a wonderful human being, and loved people. He was delightful, humorous, communicative, and a great listener. Anyone fortunate enough to be taught by him (which includes a good number of Urdu speakers) felt inspired by him. He could also be challenging, in the friendliest way: he was a life-long communist, who took issue with many things the communist parties in many countries did. He believed fully in the equality of all people, and he no time for personal ambition, arrogance, or power-seeking. He lived very simply - and took over many Indian ways because he found them sensible and comfortable. His favourite food was Indian, he wore kurta paijama for comfort at home, and when he had guests he insisted they use his bedroom (there was only one in his small flat) while he slept on the floor in the living room.


What will one find in 'A Thousand Yearnings'?

It’s an introduction to the pleasures of Urdu literature, for anyone who doesn’t read Urdu - and even for those who do. It’s what you might call a personal anthology - he has chosen pieces to translate which he enjoyed, and so he thinks others might. He doesn’t attempt to be comprehensive. Instead he gives you a taste of different genres and periods, and explains enough of the social/political background to help you get a sense of why writers at that time wrote about the things they did, in the forms they did. So there’s classical poetry, satirical poetry, early twentieth century short stories (those are my favourites), extracts from the kind of simple traditional stories you can pick up in little booklets at railway stations, serious social commentary, short vignettes about particular writers.


Bookaholicanonymous wishes Marion all the best for all her future endeavours!


More about Marion Molteno

She grew up in South Africa, where she was involved in opposition to the apartheid regime, spent eight years in Zambia, and pioneered educational projects in multi-ethnic communities in the UK. For thirteen years she was a senior policy advisor for Save the Children, working with vulnerable children in countries across Asia and Africa. Her novel If You Can Walk, You Can Dance was awarded the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the best book in the Africa region and was selected for the top 20 books in the Women’s Writers festival in New Zealand. A Shield of Coolest Air, set among Somali asylum seekers, won the David St John Thomas Award for fiction. Somewhere More Simple explores tensions in an island community off the coast of Cornwall. A Language in Common, a collection of short stories set among the first generation of South Asian women in Britain, has been translated into five languages, including Urdu, Punjabi, and Bengali. Marion Molteno speaks Urdu and is literary executor for Ralph Russell, scholar and translator of Urdu literature. She has edited several of his books, including his autobiography and his work on the 19th century poet, Ghalib. The latest — Ghalib: The Sound of My Moving Pen — is to be published later in 2015.


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