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Dr Marguerite Poland | Widely acclaimed South African Author and Historian
It is with thanks to this dedicated author and meticulous researcher that the indigenous South African Nguni cattle, their widely patterned and multi-coloured hides and the poetry surrounding their Zulu naming, have been recorded for posterity in a beautifully crafted coffee table book following a doctoral thesis.
Dr Marguerite Poland is revered for, inter alia, authoring the much loved ‘The Mantis and the Moon’ and ‘Shades’, a South African set-work book. Her “excellent contribution to the field of indigenous languages, literature and anthropology” was acknowledged in April 2016 when the Order of Ikhamanga (silver) was conferred on Dr Poland who also bears the title of Honoury Old Boy of St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown.
With her signature thoughtfulness, thorough research, contemplation and prose, Dr Poland shares her irrepressible heart and light with us:
My Definition Of Success | As it is really difficult to be published as a new author, the letter accepting my first small manuscript for a children’s book will always be remembered as the initial high-point of my career – and seemed a mighty success! I did not know how much work lay ahead. Though the goal – to create and then be published and appreciated – remains the same, I had no concept when I started as a writer for children, of how my work would grow in range and direction.
To pretend one doesn’t care about success as a writer would be dishonest. A book can take ten years to write and, of course, the writer longs to triumph at the end of such a lonely undertaking. Success, for me, has meant recognition of my work by my peers and, lately, by my country – for which I am deeply grateful.
When my book ‘Shades’ became a matric setwork and remained one for many years, I was motivated to continue writing historical and adult fiction. The response to ‘Shades’ gave me the confidence to tackle more complicated projects. The success of my academic work in Zulu literature on the colour patterns of Nguni cattle which led to the publication of ‘The Abundant Herds’, co-authored by the late Professor David Hammond-Tooke and superbly illustrated by Leigh Voigt, was another affirming milestone. ‘The Boy in You’, a history of St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown, brought me into the ambit of a community in the Eastern Cape which has given me unstinting support. If ‘success’ in one’s work means abiding links with people, places, histories, cosmologies and languages then, for me, I could not have had a more fulfilling or successful career even if few of my works have been translated into other languages and I cannot retire on the proceeds.
Over the years I have become less sensitive to criticism or the need to be a ‘popular’ writer and value the opinion of a few significant readers most. As time has gone on I have become less involved in the promotion of my work than when I began and, because of family responsibilities which have always been a priority, I have curtailed taking part in writer’s forums, workshops and other events that make one’s work more widely known.
It’s the choice I made.
The writing itself is both the frustration and the joy of the job – and the ultimate fulfillment. Once that is over and the book is in the publisher’s hands and has been satisfactorily launched I let it go: the rest is a bonus. The secret is to take the work very seriously but not oneself. Writing is usually an obsession with its practitioners and navel-gazing is common – but obsessively self-absorbed writers are a pain to every one around them!
Besides Afrikaans and the various indigenous South African languages some of my work has been translated into Japanese, French and Dutch.
I Am Driven By | The need to hold on to what moves me. The world without the ‘undertow’ of a story, of another hidden life, would fill me with a sense of loss. I need to find meaning in things – no matter how small. My involvement in African languages, in anthropology and in South African history has been a source of profound inspiration and enhanced my worldview in a very particular way which, through my writing, I hope to share.
My Highlights | I have been incredibly lucky and grateful to have had a supportive and loving family which has always made it easy for me to have space to write. I think ‘seeing it through’ has made me most proud. It is easy to abandon work (and unprofessional to do so). I have had one or two projects which have been particularly arduous in terms of time and energy so finally seeing the work between two covers after many years of slog (and being able to pack away a vast archive) has been enormously satisfying.
I have been more than appreciative of the awards I have been given – especially the Ingwazi Living Legends Award (2015) and the National Order of Ikhamanga (2016) but my excitement at receiving the Fitzpatrick Medal for Children’s Literature in 1979 – which was the first time it had been awarded – was particularly memorable. I had once spent a day in the Fitzpatrick home and been shown the original pictures for ‘Jock of the Bushveld’ by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick’s daughter, so being the first recipient had a special resonance. At the time I won it I was the exhausted mother of a new and very ill baby. The call was totally unexpected and I danced on the dining room table and yelled my head off – a ritual I have kept up when a book is accepted or a special accolade comes my way. Fortunately for the table, this doesn’t happen that often! Another very proud and touching moment was when I was made an Honorary Old Boy of the school whose history I had been commissioned to write.
A Key Talent | Simple leg-work has been critical to success. There are no short cuts.
Here’s my advice:
– Never abandon a project unless you are sure it’s hopeless. See it through to the end, even if it ultimately fails.
- Work every day. Writing, like any other activity, is a matter of practice. A dose of natural talent helps. Don’t be fooled – it is a lonely, demanding, and highly-disciplined vocation! Only a minute percentage of published writers (especially in South Africa because the market is small) actually make a living from their work. If that doesn’t suit your temperament, find another job! If you have another job – which is more than likely – you will need the motivation to work at night and weekends.
- Refine the work as much as possible as you go along. Believe in instinct – and heed it. Tempting as it is, don’t gloss over what does not feel quite right, leaving it for later. Try and fix it now.
- Be brave enough, if something is amiss, to start again. And again. And again.
- Don’t be diverted. Because writers work in their own space and time perhaps the most frustrating aspect of being a writer is that other people tend to think it’s a hobby and are offended when you aren’t available. It’s a job – even it is has no boss, no salary and no co-workers. It also needs long consistent hours of dedicated time. Yet, after all these years I still avoid saying what I do in case it sounds pretentious and can’t put ‘Writer’ on a form when asked to state my profession!
- Do the necessary research thoroughly and start from the premise that you know nothing (usually true!). I go over my research notes regularly. One makes connections on a fourth or fifth reading which weren’t apparent at the start. The Internet isn’t always reliable. Use the library too – there are gems to be discovered.
- Write about what you know about and care about. If it doesn’t move you it won’t move anyone else.
- Realise that you only get to know your book when you are about half way through and may have to extensively rework the beginning with the hindsight of familiarity with your characters.
- If the manuscript is accepted, listen to the editor. An experienced editor is far more objective than you are. It’s very hard to accept advice or criticism but don’t put up defences until you are sure you are right.
- Think about the title and the cover very carefully. Many a wonderful book has been ruined by bad choices. Publishers know their business but the author must stand up for the work too. In the end, the book is more important to the author than the publisher so be clear about what you hope for and negotiate this aspect with sense and open-mindedness.
- When the book is published do everything to promote it at once and to ensure the publisher sends it for review and arranges interviews etc. Publishing is a matter of marketing (and often a matter of luck) so be prepared to work and take much of the responsibility for what happens to your work.
- Hard as it is, learn to take criticism from the right people and not to be overwhelmed by a bad review or response (hard!). No matter how excited you are about your work don’t discuss it or show it to anyone unless you absolutely trust in their interest and ability to give objective help. Those close to you may be hyper-critical, hyper-sensitive or, frankly, uninterested. Talking about your work dissipates its power. Best discuss it with your characters!
- There may be little time for this but it’s where a writer learns the craft and mechanics.
Despite all the difficulties, the glorious satisfaction of seeing your work in print is hard to beat!
Values I admire in others | Unselfishness, simplicity, integrity, generosity of spirit and laughter
My favourite maxim, attributed to Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778):
‘What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?’
Lessons I Have Learnt | I hope, with age, I have learned to listen. I know that achieving personal dreams and career ambitions comes with a hefty price tag. It should not be paid without very careful and objective consideration of its detriment to others, especially to children. I have also learned how ignorant I am – the wonder of discovery is the invigorating power behind the work.
Dealing With Doubt | I am a born pessimist! Every book I write is ‘hopeless’ during most of its creation which drives my family mad (though my patient husband, Martin Oosthuizen, is my most objective, literate and informed critic). I am inclined to see disasters where none exist. It is a curse to have such a fertile imagination and a worse one to want to be in charge of fixing everything. I do not take success for granted and know that each book must stand on its merits – not on the reputation of any past work. The only way to deal with this is to sit down and get on with it. Yes, I have had great personal fear: I live with it (and the acceptance of it) every day…
But I have love too – which makes up for everything.
Resources I Use To Stay Inspired | Sounds boring – but I love being in a research library scrounging among old papers, photographs and records. I am a real forager and people who forage in the same places are good to be with! Our house is bursting with books. Most of my reading concerns whatever I am working on at the time – so it could be something to do with the habits of mice, the praise names of cattle or the mechanics of lighthouses. I always play music when I write. I can’t imagine creating without it. Each book has its associations. e.g. Dvorak’s cello concerto reminds me of ‘Recessional for Grace’, Corelli’s Christmas Concerto of ‘Shades’.
It has been remarked that landscape is a ‘character’ in my books. I start each new project with a description of setting (which often gets shifted before publication) but it is intensely important to me to write from within a landscape – and the landscape most loved and known is that of the Eastern Cape where I was brought up. Almost everything I have ever written is firmly based there. It’s the lynchpin on which much of my work and most of my inspiration turns.
‘Eat the elephant a teaspoonful at a time.’
That advice has kept me going through many tough projects.
The Legacy I Would Like To Leave | In a small and personal way – a reverence for the land, cultures and languages of South Africa. An insight into some of the lesser-known history which has been so deliberately misrepresented in the past and which has led to so much injustice and fear.