Marguerite Poland (1950 -) was born in Gauteng on 3 April 1950 and when she was two years old, the Poland family relocated to the Eastern Cape where she spent most of her formative years. The landscape left an indelible mark within her and in an article entitled “Making Stars Sing” Poland’s fond description of the Eastern Cape reads as follows:
“It is a beautiful place, surrounded by hills and forested ravines. Ancient yellowwoods grow along the banks of the river and gracious buildings are clustered among pasture and cultivated lands. It is a Frontier Country and the stories in the family about the happenings during the Xhosa Frontier Wars are legion; heroes and heathens; skirmishes and scourges, locusts and rinderpest; love and romance. The church gardens were prosperous, the church large and Victorian and the oaks that her great-grandmother had planted – in memory to England – were huge and spreading. It was always a matter of pride that her great-grandfather built the church with his own hands, making the bricks and setting the windows”.
This extract not only highlights the importance of landscape in Poland’s life, but also helps to situate her historically. Key concepts in the above passage like “Frontier Country”, “Xhosa Frontier Wars” and the “Victorian” buildings, give us an idea of Poland’s background and cultural heritage. Although her books may be fictional, many of her stories are based on family experiences. Shades (1993), for example, is based on Poland’s great-great grandfather’s (Charles Taberer’s) experiences and those of other family members. This can be seen as Poland’s search for her own “shades” and her identity in an historical context. According to Poland, her great-great grandparents, who were stationed in Kieskammahoek on the banks of the Mtwaku River in the Eastern Cape, had been missionaries there from 1862 to 1913. In her research, Poland discovered four letter-books of Charles Taberer’s assistant priest, Reverend Cyril Wyche, in which he documented the minutiae of everyday living in Kieskammahoek. Together with her great-grandmother’s memoirs, Poland was able to determine the socio-historical forces that contributed to the most important themes of South African history: the debilitating effect of colonialism, the iniquitous migrant labour system, the tragedies of the rinderpest and the destruction of traditional Xhosa culture.
Poland is the first to admit that although the missionaries’ intentions may have been noble, in their zealous propagation of Christianity, they often failed to recognise the cultural richness of the indigenous people. The evangelists who came to South Africa during the Victorian era were basically British settlers who came to South Africa as pioneers, either in search of a better life for themselves or to change the ‘heathens’ and give them a ‘civilised’ identity. The British who believed that their responsibility was to God and their duty was to show the ‘heathens’ the light, slowly eradicated the beliefs, religion and cultures of the indigenous people. The introduction of Christianity to the people of colour resulted in cultural and religious conflict. Marguerite Poland however, does not see the indigenous people as slaves. Living in a contemporary post-apartheid era and being a writer, who has done abundant research, she has become “cynical about missionaries” (von Klemperer 1993).
Poland deals with historical facts, with social forces and energies which interest her, as they have bearing upon her individual spirit. Her love for the South African landscape and its diverse cultures encouraged her to become deeply involved with the indigenous people and their languages. Just like her great-grandparents were, she is well versed in Xhosa and isiZulu. After completing her secondary education at St. Dominic’s Priory in Port Elizabeth, Marguerite Poland completed her Bachelor of Arts degree at Rhodes University, majoring in Social Anthropology and Xhosa. Many of Marguerite Poland’s children’s stories can be linked to her studies and the oral tradition. Her profound knowledge of the African culture is evident in her descriptions of the landscape and the flora and fauna that constitute it. In 1971, Marguerite Poland completed her honours degree in African languages at Stellenbosch University, further reiterating her alliance to Charles Taberer and their allegiance to the African culture. Marguerite Poland married Martin Oosthuizen, an attorney living and practising in KwaZulu-Natal. This event in her life prompted her to move to Kloof in KwaZulu-Natal. While living here she pursued her academic career at the University of Natal where she obtained her Masters Degree in Zulu literature. The title of her dissertation was “A study of the Zulu folktales with special reference to the Stuart collection.’
Poland explains her penchant for the African language:
“I have drawn inspiration from the oral tradition of the various indigenous people, particularly the San. I am very aware that there are difficulties and failures in trying to ‘fix’ the oral in the written word, but ‘oral literature’ and ‘written literature’, though they may exhibit striking differences, are not born in separate worlds. They feed each other in subtle ways and my own work has drawn on both traditions from the start”
As a result of her research and love for writing Marguerite Poland penned numerous books for children, two of which were awarded the Percy Fitzpatrick prize for South African children’s literature: The Mantis and the Moon (1979) and The Woodash Stars (1983). Nqalu, the Mouse with no Whiskers (1979) and Once at Kwafubesi (1981) also received honourable mention at the Percy Fitzpatrick awards function in 1980 and 1981 respectively. Some of her stories were translated into Afrikaans and published: Die Muis Sonder Snorbaard (1979), Die Bidsprikaan en die Maan (1981): As die Boerboonblomme Val (1983) and Die Vuurkoolsterre (1983). In 1989 The Mantis and the Moon (1979) was translated into Japanese and it won Japan’s Sankei Awards.
Other books written by Marguerite Poland are Shadow of the Wild Hare, Marcus and the Go-Kart, The Bush Shrike(1982) and Marcus and the Boxing Gloves (1984). With the exception of the “Marcus series’, which features characters based on her two daughters and illustrator Cora Coetzee’s sons, all other books have some inclination towards landscape and / or its inhabitants (flora and fauna included). Brigid Keeley posits that Marguerite Poland is “one of the first children’s writers in South Africa to take a look around her and write about what she saw”, thus becoming a “pioneer of indigenous children’s fiction”. Poland’s first three books were all animal stories having being inspired by the bush pigs, meerkats and porcupines that frequented her homestead just outside Port Elizabeth. With consummate ease, Poland combines an imaginative storyline with her anthropological knowledge of African cultures. Sometimes her magical animal stories broadly follow traditional lines, such as when they turnout to be ‘pourquoi’ stories (for example, why the mantis holds up his legs in prayer), at other times they are highly inventive stories of adventure, pathos and knock-out comedy.
The Woodash Stars is Marguerite Poland’s first book about black children and the first to be published in seven black languages, as well as in English and Afrikaans. This book is a compilation of four short stories based on black folklore and is illustrated in colour by Shanne Altshaler, an East London illustrator. Later this book was adapted into a ballet by a dance company and it proved very successful. Similarly, in March 1997, The Mouse with no Whiskers was staged as a professional production by the Playhouse Puppet Company. Puppeteer Andrew Godbold, with assistance from fellow puppeteer, Pillai Ngwenya, who worked on the Zulu translations for segments of the play, adapted the tale into a lively and mesmerising script.
Marguerite Poland also had a stint as a social worker in Port Elizabeth and in Durban and she confirms that her experiences as a social worker definitely influenced at least one of the stories she has written. In 1997 Poland contributed to a weekly column in the local newspaper, The Mercury. Poland also worked as an ethnologist at the South African Museum in Cape Town. Here she could access artefacts and documents easily and this gave her the opportunity to research fully the landscape in which she set her stories as well as research every minute detail of all the flora, fauna and indigenous group involved in her fiction. In this regard she says that she is a “bit of a frustrated scientist, very careful to get the names of animals and plants right”.
After publishing eleven children’s books Marguerite Poland turned her attention to adult fiction. She has, thus far, published five novels – Train to Doringbult (1987), Shades (1987), Iron Love (1999), Recessional for Grace (2003). In 1998, Train to Doringbult was shortlisted for the CNA Award and Shades for the M-NET Award. In 2015, Poland won the 2015 Nielsen Bookseller's Choice Award and was longlisted for the 2015 Sunday Times Barry Ronge Prize for The Keeper. In 2016, she was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga by the presidency for excelling in the field of literature.
(This article was used with the permission of the author, Mark Jacob, who completed his PhD on Poland. It has been edited to include Poland's latest exploits)
Extract from Recessional For Grace (2003):
Godfrey sits at the table in the kitchen in the little house by the store. He has lit the lamp and he has laid out a rasher or two of bacon, a tomato and a couple of eggs. He has cut a chunk of bread. He has a small flask of whiskey. It is on the table in front of him. He drinks it with water from a cup. There is no ice, but it does not matter. The summer night outside is cooler now that the sun has set. There is a stillness, as if the heat of the day has sunk deeply into the ground. With dusk, a quieter, cooler drift of air lifts the edge of the curtain at the kitchen window.
Godfrey has left the stable door open. Through it, he can see the ridge. And now, in silhouette, undisguised by colour or by light, the slight protuberance of the two hills beyond, rising from the upland plain.
He draws a map.
Here is the line of the empty river. He draws it with care. He turns the paper round and starts it from above, as if he is walking down it, remembering how it turned to the right, opening across even ground and then to the left, butting up against the start the krantz, just beyond the place where he and Grace had found the inala cow standing in the shade at the edge of the bush.
-I am the stones of the forest. -I am the gaps between the branches of the trees silhouetted against the sky. -I am abundance.
Here is the krantz. He draws two lines, almost parallel, but then converging. He shades the place between them at their greatest distance from each other where the rockface is higher. Here is the witgat tree, bark white as bone, leaves small and dark, shrunk from lack of water, growing on a river bank where no water ever flows.
The sun had been hot. It was an unrelenting noon.
He had stood and looked about him, but Wilton Mayekiso had walked on, quite deft, just the slightest gesture of his hand, directing him.
Godfrey had followed – a place of lizard-bush, dry and scaly, without depth or shade. There is no moisture here.
Wilton had stopped, inclined his head, slowly in silence, as if a sudden movement might startle something into flight.
Godfrey had come forward, intent.
And there – on an angle of the rockface, very slightly sheltered from the sun, no more than four or five inches tall, the image of a cow.
Faint. Delicate. Fragile. Her head turned back. Beckoning. An inala cow. - Abundance: in white and ochre-red. She had stood there a century or more. Not triumphant. But deliberate. Godfrey had stepped up to the rockface and gazed at her, the slight toss of her head, the poise of her hooves, the shimmer of her. She reminds me of you. Had he said that, once, to Grace? Oh, yes. He had said that.
1979. The Mantis and the Moon. Johannesburg: Ravan Press. 1979. Nqalu, the Mouse with no Whiskers. Cape Town: Tafelberg. 1981. Once at Kwabufesi. Johannesburg: Ravan Press. 1982. Shadow of the Wild Hare. Cape Town: David Philip Publishers. 1982. Marcus and the Go-Kart. Cape Town: Tafelberg. 1982. The Bush Strike. Johannesburg: Ravan Press. 1983. The Wood-ash Stars. Cape Town: David Philip Publishers. 1984. Marcus and the Boxing Gloves. Cape Town: Tafelberg Publishers. 1987. Train to Doringbult. New York: Bodley Head Publishers. 1993. Shades. Johannesburg: Penguin Books. 1999. Iron Love. Johannesburg: Penguin Books. 2003. Recessional for Grace. New York: Viking Press. 2003. The Abundant Herds. Cape Town: Fernwood Press.
2008. The Boy in You : A Biography of St. Andrew's College, 1855-2005
2012. Taken Captive by Birds. Johannesburg: Penguin Books.