Sindiwe Magona’s novel Mother to Mother explores the South African legacy of apartheid through the lens of a woman who remembers a life marked by oppression and injustice. Magona decided to write this novel when she discovered that Fulbright Scholar Amy Biehl, who had been killed while working to organize the nation’s first ever democratic elections in 1993, died just a few yards away from her own permanent residence in Guguletu, Capetown. She then learned that one of the boys held responsible for the killing was in fact her neighbor’s son. Magona began to imagine how easily it might have been her own son caught up in the wave of violence that day. The book is based on this real-life incident, and takes the form of an epistle to Amy Biehl’s mother. The murderer’s mother, Mandisi, writes about her life, the life of her child, and the colonized society that not only allowed, but perpetuated violence against women and impoverished black South Africans under the reign of apartheid. The result is not an apology for the murder, but a beautifully written exploration of the society that bred such violence.
"Haunting . . . a most unusual novel, in which a black South African mother dares to explain her son's violence to the grieving mother of the white girl he murdered." —Jordana Hart, Ms.
"Unforgettable." —Hazel Rochman, Chicago Tribune
"Mother to Mother is a stunning novel; Magona has succeeded in her grand ambition to write a story of healing and confrontation. She has written a graceful, terrible story; it is an eloquent indictment of Apartheid and a passionate lament over the loss of Amy Biehl's life." —Angela Salas, The Boston Book Review
"As a lament for the terrible legacy of apartheid, the novel is surely a tour de force. As a story of individuals attempting to deal with choices made and perhaps regretted, it is a moving work of fiction." —Lee Milazzo, Dallas Morning News
"Gripping. . . . Points to a redemptive hope for those who can come together for healing, even when they have been bound together by sorrow. The writer's own courage in writing this novel is evidence of an increasingly powerful literary voice for [her] nation." —Heather Hewett, The Washington Post Book World
Mother to Mother Discussion Topics for Community Reading
- Think about the perspective from which the novel is written:
that of Mandisi, the mother of the suspected killer. One major
challenge for the narrator involves writing to an unsympathetic
audience: the mother of the victim. Does Magona succeed in offering
explanation or solace to the victim's family, do you think? [An
interesting footnote: Amy Biehl's parents, Peter and Linda Biehl,
very much valued Magona's novel; they have written that it "presents
a true slice of South African Black township life, which we had
to experience in order to understand Amy's young killers." They
have set up a foundation in Amy's name to work with youth in Guguletu.]
- The text often uses exact dates, times, and locations to separate
sections, partially in order to give a sense of history and immediacy.
What was your impression of the events and how they are all framed
by time. What does in turn say about the writing of history?
- Do you have memories about the incident involving Amy Beihl
and her murder in South Africa? How did you react at that time?
Do you feel differently now?
- The letter to the victim's mother may also be a way to bring
about reconciliation, for both sides. Do you believe that reconciliation
is possible is such circumstances? Do you know of other cases
where a perpetrator or his/her family ask forgiveness or understanding
from their victim's family? Is it any different given the specifics
of this case?
- In Chapter 7 (pg. 88-99), the narrator begins to write about
her childhood. In her relationship with Stella, her girlfriend,
she learns about the township through rumors. How do rumors become
another way of telling history and forming communities?
- What role do the different mothers play in the novel (Mukhulu,
Mama, Manono, the victim's mother)? What different commentaries
do they make upon the idea of mothering and motherhood? In your
life, what has been the traditional role of the mother, and have
there been any exceptions (i.e. Mandisi).
- What role do the different fathers play in the novel (China,
Nono, Khaya)? Are there any positive models for men in this novel?
What is the role of patriarchy in the townships that Magona depicts?
Do you see patriarchy as a dominant presence in your community?
Do you see this as a positive or negative aspect of your experience?
- Central to the controversy surrounding the pregnancy of Mandisi
are the ideas of shame, silence, and the power of community over
an individual. What role does a community have in the life of
an individual, particularly in the case of a woman, her body,
and pregnancy in the Black African community Magona describes.
How is that different from your own experience.
- The naming and renaming of Mandisi's child gives insight into
the relationship between mothers and their communities. What kind
of history is revealed through a name, and what is the history
behind your naming.
- Think about the languages Xhosa (see p. 74 extract, e.g.) and
Afrikaans (see p. 86, 3rd line, e.g.) and how they are used in
the novel. How did you understand the words, and how did you respond
to the repeated use of them throughout the novel? Did you note
the difference between the native African sounds of Xhosa and
the more familiar, Germanic sound of Afrikaans, which Mandisi
and her family use only in addressing authority. Remember that
Mandisi's employer refuses to call her by her proper name because
she can't manage all the "clicks" in "Mandy's" language.
- How would you respond to a letter written in the style of Mother
to Mother if you had a child killed unjustly? Would you feel a
connection to the mother of the killer? Would you be motivated
to continue the struggle against racism and colonialism?
Praise for Mother to Mother
cry of sympathy and pain aroused by an all-too-actual tragedy. Sindiwe
Magona reminds us of the implacably complex tangle of fury, loathing,
innocence, and idealism that ruined two lives and cast a horrific
shadow over both of their grieving families. Risky and honest, Mother
to Mother raises a host of hard questions and, for all its compassion,
resists consoling answers. I admire it immensely."
Brown, author of Before and After
to Mother Sindiwe Magona claims for herself a special place, bringing
to her first novel the keen intelligence, the verve, the compassion
and the stylistic self-assurance that marked her autobiographical
writing in For My Children's Children and Forced to Grow, and the
crisp sense of character that lent a hard gleam to the stories in
Living, Loving and Lying Awake and Push-Push."