How far would you go to protect your family? By turns heartbreaking and joyful, A Question of Belonging is a deceptively intimate novel in which tumultuous outward events imbue the fraught intertwined lives of just a handful of characters with a rich universality.’ William Yeoman, Literary Editor of The West Australian.
Like many things we take for granted, you don’t tend to think too much about belonging or not belonging unless something happens like losing – or the threatened loss – of a loved one or a friend or even a home, country or lifestyle. It is then you experience that sense of panicky loss deep inside you and sometimes around you, too, as if you were literally drifting on a stormy sea or lost in a deep wood on a dark night.
When – as does happen – you find that sense of connection once again, you recognise it quite readily and realise that you don’t ever, ever, want to let it go. ‘I want to join, I want to join’, says Beloved in Toni Morrison’s novel of the same name.
It’s part of our primal, tribal nature to connect, to make a home or a nest, or to have an anchor of some sort capable of digging in to the sandy seafloor of our lives. When we don’t have that, it is part of our nature to compensate in some other fashion.
But when I wrote the first draft of A Question of Belonging while in transit nearly forty years ago, none of this occurred to me. At least not on any conscious level. At that time, occupying the space of real life, my brief was to sail with our two children from Cape Town to Perth where I was to place them in school, get a job and wait until my husband (who was in process of applying for an overseas contract) sent for us. None of us knew at that point how long this would take or where we would be posted.
I stashed away the A4 notebook with its 180 pages of close-written story to sort out our temporary lives: schools, a place to rent and a job as feature writer/sub-editor on the agricultural journal Elders Weekly. Less than six months later we were on our way again – this time to a small village on the edge of the Arabian Sea.
Decades later, many house and/or country moves further on, I was looking for a new book to write and came across the by now very shabby notebook. There was little I liked – or kept – from that first draft but the grit and vulnerability of the protagonist Veronica (Ronnie) Boltman and the farm’s setting on the slopes above the Limpopo River. When I’d left South Africa, the newspapers had been full of the news of the war on the Mozambique border, and years later this echo of those war years was filled in by some yellowing pages I’d kept from the mercenary magazine Soldier of Fortune I’d subscribed to back then.
At about that time an anguished email that lobbed from a South African acquaintance debating whether or not to leave his family farm kick-started the rewriting process, with belonging hitting me over the head to gradually introduce itself as a theme. A farm that had impressed me with its progressive philosophy on a visit a couple of years before I left South Africa came to mind – and Kloof of the story is based on that.
As it turns out, all those on Kloof have a big question mark of belonging hanging over their heads. Ronnie’s biggest dilemma revolves around her young son Rudi. Is she endangering him by staying? By leaving she gives away three generations of his inheritance. Can it be resolved and how will it all end up?
There are many to thank for their help in bringing this book to publication: my husband Richard for his love and support, my publishers Arena Books for their belief in the book, my South African editor Camilla Singh for her wholehearted engagement with the story, the literary editor of The West Australian William Yeoman for his cover endorsement, my daughter Tammy Tansley and my son Viv Tansley who are always ready to help when I get stuck and my readers Toni Weston, Maureen Pratt and Helen Maynier. Heartfelt thanks to you all.
Another lovely evening of storytelling and home-cooked Italian food coming up at Centre for Stories in Northbridge next Thursday July 26. We’re assured that the heater will be on too, so it’ll be a great way to spend a Perth winter evening. Check the link above to book Bread & Butter: Freedom through truth.