South African author publishes novel about Indian indenture – The Hawk Newspaper

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Joanne Joseph is an established South African news personality with more than 20 years of experience hosting radio and television shows for major South African broadcasters. In 2013, she published “Drug Muled: Sixteen Years in a Thai Prison,” a true account of a pregnant, 21-year-old South African model, Vanessa Goosen, who was tricked into carrying concealed heroin at a Thailand airport, arrested on drug trafficking charges and imprisoned for 16 years.

In 2021, Joseph published “Children of Sugarcane,” a work of historical fiction which features Shanti, a teenager living in 19th century rural India whose fear of an arranged marriage drives her to become an indentured worker on a British sugarcane plantation in South Africa. 

Between 1860 and 1911, about 150,000 Indians journeyed to South Africa to become indentured laborers on these plantations, many of them enticed by the promise of a better life in the British Colony of Natal, now the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. Those like Shanti who survived the arduous journey and made it to the plantations were often not provided adequate housing, wages, meals and medical assistance. Women were especially vulnerable to violence. Despite these conditions and their wish to return home, many Indians were forced to stay and honor their agreement to work.

The Hawk interviewed Joseph in Johannesburg, where she lives, to find out more about her latest book.

The Hawk: What inspired you to write “Children of Sugarcane?”

Joseph: The idea for the book was inspired by my great grandmother’s story. I was looking into the archive and researching her history. There’s a very small canon of literature in South Africa that has to do with the female indenture. That probably extends to the Chinese community as well because they were also indentured in South Africa. We’ve now managed to, in academia, uncover issues of intersectionality, Orientalism, the depiction of the subaltern and intersectionality, but also critical race theory. All of those should be able to inform a novel and build some sort of depth into the story of what happens not just to indentured laborers but what happened from the perspective of potentially the most oppressed people during indenture, and those were clearly the women. That was where the idea for the story came along. The archive did not give me a clear picture of my great grandmother’s entire time in South Africa. She lands, and then she disappears from the archive, and then she reappears many, many years later, so it was having to fill in those gaps. 

The Hawk: Why did you choose to write “Children of Sugarcane” as historical fiction as opposed to a memoir?

Joseph: One reason was very practical. I just did not have the information about my great grandmother’s life to complete a book on her. Also, she did not work on the sugarcane fields. She worked on the Natal Government Railways. They were the second largest employer during indenture. There’s hardly any information about women who worked on the government railways. We don’t actually know what they were doing. They did manual labor, but it’s very difficult because it hasn’t been fully uncovered, which makes it more complicated to write about.

I wanted to challenge myself with something. My first book, “Drug Muled,” was creative nonfiction, and there’s something a little bit easier about that in that the story is already there. The interesting work in that kind of book is structure. It is characterization. It’s all the elements because the skeleton is already there. It’s the flesh that you are really working on and then fashioning when you write creative nonfiction. But in fiction, the choices are endless, and you have to be decisive. You’ve got to learn what stories count enough to be included in your book and what don’t, and you’re manipulating the plot all the time. You really are playing God with these characters. The challenge is, will you make the right choices for your characters and for your plot and for your narrative as a whole? 

When you’re writing postcolonial fiction, it allows the subjugated subject to talk back in a way that they could not at that time. There’s an incredible kind of liberation in that too. The women who didn’t have a voice, the women who could not act the way they wanted, the women who wanted to murder the men who sexually abused them and raped them during that time, you give them a space, you set that character loose within the pages to do what she wants to do in a way that the women who lived those lives were not able to. There’s a certain kind of catharsis in that for you, for your ancestors, and that ability to talk back is a very powerful thing.

“Children of Sugarcane” will be available in the U.S. on July 19. PHOTO: DEVIN YINGLING ’22/THE HAWK

The Hawk: Shanti is courageous, bold and set in her ways. Is she you?

Joseph: Shanti is a composite of a few people I know. She’s partly a composite of me in her wanting a voice and wanting to speak up and wanting to be heard and wanting to take a stance on particular issues. She’s also part of who I hoped I could be one day. The kind of courage that she shows, the resistance that she shows, that sort of middle finger she gives the establishment, that is what I hope to be. I’ve imbued her with some of my characteristics: She’s impetuous, she’s obstinate, and that drives the plot forward. But I think the part of me that is probably most apparent in her is this strong desire and love for education. The reality is that for women, that’s one of the only ways in life that we can actually empower ourselves and live a life that we are meant to live. To live a life of significance, by our own definition, is the most liberating thing.

The Hawk: Who are the other women who inspired Shanti’s character?

Joseph: I’m surrounded by women who are very powerful women, women who have achieved incredible things. Some of them are family members of mine. My mother, for example, is someone who was ahead of her time and quite exceptional in the sense that she was orphaned when she was at school. She wrote her matric exams on the day of her father’s funeral. Her father was a school principal, and he’d been educated by his indentured mother to make sure that he went to school and got a good education, so that was hugely liberating for the family. He said to my mother, on his deathbed, “regardless of what happens, you need to go and write all your exams, and you must be a teacher as you want to be.” So she became a teacher and was very good at what she did and ended up as a school principal as well as a headmistress. 

My mother is not an overtly vocal woman. She’s not extremely vociferous. You find a quiet power about her. While she was being educated, a lot of other women in the Indian community had to settle for being women at home who looked after the children and looked after the house. They played an important role in society too because they were preservers of the culture. They held the families together, particularly during apartheid. Those women played very important roles in normalizing what was a very abnormal society outside of their front door. But my mother chose a different path. 

The reality is that for women, that’s one of the only ways in life that we can actually empower ourselves and live a life that we are meant to live. To live a life of significance, by our own definition, is the most liberating thing.

My godmother was a very interesting person. She too became a teacher, and she’s even older than my mother. She had survived a few tragedies that I will one day write about. Her daughter and the granddaughter were murdered by the daughter’s husband. She lived through those tragedies somehow and continued with her life and still managed to be a good person with a lot of love for her family and for her children and for me. I often wondered, how do people survive tragedy? How do they survive trauma and pain? That’s why Shanti’s story becomes a bit of an exploration of that as well because she’s carrying this from her past, and she’s brought some of it into the way she interacts with her child. The stories and experiences of the various women in my family have somehow been wound into Shanti’s. 

Then there are other women I’ve worked with and [who’ve] mentored me and who’ve been my managers at work and so forth. They are very compassionate women and empathetic women who care about social issues and social justice. Those women become an inspiration for the kind of strength and stoicism that one is required to live through an experience like indenture. When you’re writing the past, you’re also writing the present.

The Hawk: What do you hope for young, Indian readers of your book?

Joseph: I want young Indian people or people of Indian descent in this country to take this book, and I want them to say, “this is what happened. A trauma has potentially traveled in me, through my bones, into today. And what am I going to do about it? What are the aspects of that trauma that manifest in my life right now? And how am I going to ensure that that trauma doesn’t travel into future generations because of my angle, or my violence, or my sadness, my sorrow?” A lot of people cannot put their finger on it because the sorrow has also traveled through generations. It’s melancholia that they can’t quite attribute to any particular event. That’s why young Indian people, if you ask them what they define as culture, they will refer to Bollywood as their culture, as their inherited culture, but it’s not. It’s a subculture, but it’s a glamorous one. It’s a world of escapism and a world of romanticism into which they can escape, but it’s not our history. This is our history, and it’s a painful one. It’s time that we face up to it.

The Hawk: Did you know much about the history of Indian indenture before writing this book?

Joseph: When I was a teenager, I didn’t think about indenture. I didn’t think about it in my 20s. I only started to really think about it towards the end of my 30s, and yet it was a big chunk of my identity. It has been extremely formative in my identity as a woman and as a South African citizen. There was a chunk of me missing and I never thought to look for it. To find that missing part of you, the better it is for you in the way you navigate your life. 

A lot of Indian women who read [the book], young women, have said to me, “this was a source of shame in my family, that whole history of indenture, but it’s now become a sense of pride, and the book has done that.” I think it’s opened people’s eyes to the fact that you can say, “Yes, my ancestors suffered, and their lives were terrible. And yes, they were subjugated and terrible things were done to them, but I don’t need to be ashamed of that. I need to be proud of what they did to survive, and continue to build a life in South Africa that I’ve benefited from.”

Those women become an inspiration for the kind of strength and stoicism that one is required to live through an experience like indenture. When you’re writing the past, you’re also writing the present.

The Hawk: Aunty Saras gave Shanti an empty journal to start writing her own stories. Why do you think it is important for people to write about history, especially the history of our ancestors? 

Joseph: There are many hidden histories in this country, and I’m finding this particularly in South Africa because apartheid is the big spectre of our living memory, it still hangs over us in such a powerful way. We often forget what came before that. There are incredible stories in all our pasts of migration, hardship, triumphs, all sorts of stoicism, and aspects of our ancestors that have traveled intergenerationally into us. This is an opportunity to actually fill in those gaps in ourselves that some of us don’t even know exists. As writers, that’s the power. We can go back, and we can find it. We can surmise what it was that brought us to this point. 

I’m advising all writers out there, go and explore your family history, or the history of your town, or the history of whatever the geography in which you live, or your next door neighbor. Whatever the case is, those incredible stories are there, but they’re hidden. And there’s a historical amnesia about certain things, and we need to go back and re-explore those things.

I think history gives us the advantage of hindsight. It reminds us that a lot of atrocities that have taken place in the world have done so because of all the mistakes we’ve repeated. Hatred, discrimination, racism, misogyny, homophobia, all the great inequities of the world that have destroyed humanity have happened in the past, and we have not been able to use literature sufficiently to internalize what damage those things have done and what they can continue to do to society. Literature becomes an extremely important lever in uncovering those pasts, giving people the distance to see what went wrong, and transposing that into the present in a powerful way so that people understand, if you do not intervene at a certain point, something terrible is going to happen. But it’s all preventative. 

The Hawk: Since writing this book, has the way you move about in the world changed?

Joseph: It’s changed a lot. I somehow connected with a part of me that I didn’t realize existed for a long time. I saw my great grandparents very divorced from me and my life, and all of a sudden, I had this realization that I am deeply connected to my great grandmother, and her grandmother and her grandma. We are connected to all these incredible people who had a vision for us, and somehow, things start to make sense. I wondered how my mother has been so strong and so composed in situations of difficulty or so stoic when it comes to surviving tragedy and building her life as a young woman when she had no family around her to do it. I don’t think I would have been able to do that.

I feel a deep gratitude to the previous generations for what they’ve done, what they’ve sacrificed, what they’ve suffered. It seems to me quite powerful that people who were so disempowered at some stage could have thought, I will do something, I will leave my home, I will leave everything I left behind, I will leave the familiarity of this life behind, I will go to a country that I know nothing about. While I’m there, I will realize this is a horrible, traumatic experience, [but] I will survive it, and I will somehow give my children something better.

That realization of gratitude has gripped me in a very new and very powerful way. For them to have had that foresight, it’s like that quote from Rabindranath Tagore that says, “you’ve planted that tree knowing that you’ll never sit underneath it.” I’m the person who’s sitting underneath that tree because of my great grandmother. It leaves me full of gratitude for what she suffered through. We live well, we are able to educate our kids, we are able to live a decent life in a country with huge inequality, but it’s because of that foresight and investment.

“Children of Sugarcane” will be available for purchase in the U.S. on July 19.

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