Rooted in History - Elinor Sisulu Stresses the Need for Imaginative Literature for African Children

Article excerpt

Charles R. Larson is professor of literature at American University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of The Emergence of African Fiction (1972), The Novel in the Third World (1978), American Indian Fiction (1978), Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen (1993), and Under African Skies: Modern African Stories (1997). He coedited an anthology of short fiction by authors from around the globe, Worlds of Fiction (1993), with Roberta Rubenstein. This article is adapted from a chapter in Larson's latest book, The Ordeal of the African Writer (Zed Books, 2001).

Elinor Batezat Sisulu was born in 1958 in Salisbury, Rhodesia---- Salisbury, of course, is now called Harare and Rhodesia, Zimbabwe. Today Sisulu is an author of children's books, and children frequently ask if she had already decided on her career when she was young. She shared her usual response in a letter she wrote me in 1998: "I would have been considered completely mad. The horizons of a black child growing up in Rhodesia in the 1960s were very limited. Successful people in our society were either teachers or nurses. Those who set their sights high could aspire to be lawyers or doctors, but a writer? Never. This was something completely outside our experience. As for a writer of children's books, this was something quite unheard of."

As a child at school, Sisulu nevertheless showed a talent for writing, prompting her when somewhat older to consider journalism as a career. She was warned, however, that "journalism was reckless, dangerous, and an unreliable occupation, so I quickly put the idea away until I grew up."

The books Sisulu read as a child "were about the English countryside. My head was filled with a vision of snow, goblins, and pixies." Her favorite writers were Charles Dickens, Enid Blyton, and Richard Crompton. "If I came across Africa at all in the course of my reading, it was in the stories about missionaries, explorers and exotic jungles- -nothing to do with my own reality. My own culture and society was never reflected in the printed word. Perhaps this is why the idea of being a writer was so alien in our society. Books were about a differing and exciting world. I would never have dreamed of writing about my own experiences or of those of people around me--I thought my own world was too boring and mundane."

Elinor Batezat entered the University of Zimbabwe in Harare in 1976. She studied English and history and was introduced to African literature. After graduation, she worked for the government in the Ministry of Manpower Planning and Development. In 1985, she took a leave of absence from her job to pursue a master's degree in development studies in the Netherlands, at the Institute of Social Studies at The Hague. There she was introduced to feminist ideology and began her professional writing career. She returned to Zimbabwe in 1986 and married Max Sisulu, a South African exile who worked for the African National Congress, that same year. Shortly thereafter, they moved to Lusaka, Zambia, where they both continued to work for the ANC. Following the social and political changes that culminated in the end of apartheid, they were able to move to South Africa in 1991.

About the same time, Sisulu began writing more imaginative material than the academic research she had been producing. For a brief period, she worked for Speak, a South African feminist magazine produced for black working-class and rural women. Then she received a Ford Foundation grant to write a joint biography of her husband's parents, South African leaders Walter and Albertina Sisulu. The grant took her to Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for several months in 1993.

The major event that led her to write her first children's book grew out of South Africa's first democratic elections in April 1994. In an account of her life, Sisulu wrote that when she was still a university student, she had observed her own country's 1980 democratic election and experienced firsthand the excitement of that extraordinary period. …