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Interview with Marguerite Poland: ‘My heart is in the East Cape’

by
26 November 2021

The author Marguerite Poland talks about her acclaimed novel to Susan Gray

THE first of Marguerite Poland’s missionary forebears arrived in Cape Town in 1862, but the parallel stories of the author’s family and South Africa’s English-trained indigenous clergy unfolded slowly. And this family history is braided together with the English colonisation of the East Cape, and military and church institutions following in the wake of empire.

“My heart is in the East Cape,” she declares from her book-lined home in Durban, where she moved with her lawyer husband, Martin Oosthuizen, to be nearer their two daughters and grandchildren. Dr Poland was first celebrated as a children’s author, and her 2012 novel Shades is a set text in South African schools. Her latest work, A Sin of Omission, builds on Shades’ theme of the formative shade cast on the human character by ancestors, and was also inspired by the church stories that she uncovered when writing a history of her husband’s Alma Mater, St Andrew’s College, in Makhanda, formerly Grahamstown.

St Andrew’s is the model for the grammar school in A Sin of Omission, and its neighbouring Anglican institution was the real-life version of the native college.

As Dr Poland highlights in the dedication, the novel’s hero, Stephen Mzamane, was inspired by the Revd Stephen Mtukuko Mnyakama.

Dr Poland first heard the real Stephen’s tragic story as a teenager. “When I was about 14, I had a great-uncle who lived on St Matthew’s mission station. It was his grandfather’s mission. And he told me the story of Stephen. Not the whole story, and not as I have written it, but he told me about his grandfather’s assistant, who had been caught between two worlds, and it was so painful and difficult for him that he committed suicide. The story stayed in my head, as I was too little to understand and explore it then.”

The next encounter with historical Stephen came thousands of miles from East Cape. “I had a wonderful experience in 2014. My husband, Martin, and I were in England for an Old Andrean gathering. And a friend took me to Canterbury. And, as we walked through the crypt chapel’s doors, the first name we saw was Stephen’s. It was such a particular moment of finding his name in the chapel, as well as the other African students who had been trained there. And then I found great-grandpa’s name, and many of the names that I’ve become very familiar with when doing the St Andrew’s history.”

Trained as an anthropologist, with postgraduate studies in Xhosa, and a doctoral thesis about indigenous cattle-naming, Dr Poland is acutely sensitive to the responsibilities of a 21st-century white woman telling the story, albeit fictionalised, of a Victorian African man of God. Appropriating somebody else’s history, especially in a country like South Africa — it’s a very sensitive thing. It is a huge responsibility, and something that one could disregard, because there are so many issues that are contentious and painful. How does one know, coming from my background, what it’s really like?”

Stephen and his brother Mzamo’s soprano love interest, Elizabeth Madikane, is also rooted in history. “This choir was sent to England: these women and men who came from the Eastern Cape to perform before Queen Victoria. And I remember going into a gallery in London and seeing this face, which I knew from my research, and it was so beautiful, and so extraordinary, in the context of being in such a totally different culture from her own, and she was so serene and beautiful.”

Together with family diaries, inscriptions, and 19th-century images, the archive of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel was invaluable in casting the Anglican hierarchy in the novel, where Stephen is expected to find, and know, his place.

“I had such a wonderful resource in those letters: when it came to writing about conversations or correspondence between people, those words were right there, through those opinions and the way they express themselves. One of the big tragedies in early Anglicanism is the lack of understanding and appreciation of the missionaries to really understand the traditional values; they were inclined to say, ‘They are simply heathen barbarism.’”

Hostages of empire is how Dr Poland describes the high-born African boys who were given up by their famine-stricken parents in the late 1850s, to be housed, educated, and Christianised by Anglican settlers. And, while she does not excuse the Church for practising the bigotry of the era, she does place the actions of individuals in a wider economic context.

“The governors, especially Sir Harry Smith and George Gray, used the Church in many ways to have political influence — by its educating the young elite in British education and to their way of thinking; and then, hopefully, they would go back and be what they called handmaidens of empire.”

And then the discovery of gold and diamonds imperilled the original vision of the Church even further, as the mines required labour rather than well-educated black people with strong religious views.

Christianity’s manipulation for other ends, not the missionary movement itself, is the tragedy of A Sin of Omission. “In South Africa, where Christianity is very strong, particularly among black people, those early missionaries have been very much criticised, and many of them should be. But there were so many who really did magnificent work in education, and spreading Christianity, which had a profound effect on people here.”

Dr Poland’s third encounter with Stephen Mtukuko Mnyakama came when she was looking at the baptism records of St Matthew’s Mission to find her own family names, and there was a record from 1870 where her great-grandfather was assisted by Stephen. “It was one of those serendipitous moments when something quite extraordinarily apt happens.” And one more step in the mission for South Africa’s Christian history to be claimed by all who shaped it.

 
A Sin of Omission by Marguerite Poland is published by Envelope Books at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69); 978-1-83817-203-9).

Susan Gray writes about the arts and entertainment for The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times, and the Daily Mail.

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