Finding the writer where the stories begin

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Linda Rode studied languages and education at Stellenbosch University and is one of South Africa’s foremost writers, translators and compilers of children’s books. She describes her work in adult fiction as her ‘bread-and-butter work’, but has always been passionate about children’sliterature, fairytales and fables.

Linda Rode has won the MER Prize for Goue fluit, my storie is uit and Tienie Holloway - medal
The three awards mentioned for the In the Nimmer Immer Bos, and the SATI Prize for Outstanding Literary Translation went to Linda Rode for
Bitter Heuning, the translation into Afrikaans of Hermione Suttner’s novel Bitter Honey.

As a team, Linda Rode, Elsa Silke have won 2012 SATI Prizes for Outstanding Translation.

An interview with award-winning South African author Linda Rode about the award- winning book In die Nimmer-Immer Bos / In the Never Ever Wood

Linda Rode is unexpectedly shy. I interview her on a wet winter afternoon in her study in her home in Cape Town. The study is neat and orderly, and almost overflowing with books. There are many framed artworks as well as African sculptures and craftwork, which she clearly relishes.

It is not hard to find inspiration here for In the Never Ever Wood. Lining the walls of Linda’s study are collections of fairy tales in English, German and Afrikaans, some of them quite old. And also, it must be noted, some contemporary fiction – local writers like Deon Meyer and Breyten Breytenbach sit side by side with Salman Rushdie. Linda has been collecting specifically fairy tales since she was a young student in Stellenbosch.

She explains: “I’ve got lots of classics – you know, where other people buy new dresses I just go for these things ... their worth cannot really be assessed, it grows in you as a child, and it stays with you. Some of the most wonderful truths of life – and I know it is a cliché to talk like that, but really, it’s true  – are to be found in old classic stories ... They are timeless.”

I start at the very beginning, where all the stories start. To find out where In die Nimmer-Immer Bos (which was written in Afrikaans and then translated into English by Elsa Silke) began, I realise I have to go back to where Linda Rode began.

She smiles as she recollects: “Growing up on a farm, being an only child, with the next-door neighbours about two miles away from where I lived, the children of the farm labourers were my playmates for years. They altered my whole life as a child. They altered me. It was marvellous, because we were in the veld all the time, in the koppies. I grew up in the Karoo, in the Little Karoo, and they had their old stories that they told me, you know like the one about the water woman, the woman who pulls you into the water, which was wonderful, I suppose. The stories we shared with one another are still floating around the Karoo koppies on quiet evenings ...”

She continued to describe her childhood as beginning in stories and games “on that quiet farm in the Little Karoo, where in the evenings one read by lamplight or candle-light (we got electricity only when I was ten or so), where my father told me the tales of Jackal and Wolf on winter evenings in front of our Welcome Dover wood stove in the kitchen, and where during thunder storms my mother still covered the mirrors to keep the lightning out! This lifestyle was indeed conducive to an interest in myths and fables and folklore  … and stories in general.

“Though an only child I was never really lonely. My father’s right-hand man on the farm had six daughters (with lovely names: Nankies, Soen, Toesie, Klein-Toet, Sielja, Mietjie), and they were my constant companions in forays into the veld for veldkos like kambros, for picking aandblommetjies in spring, for climbing up into the gigantic old mulberry tree growing beside the watersloot and getting our clothes stained purple, for going with our buckets to the river with its often meagre supply of water om gorês te grawe [to dig shallow holes] and then wait until the brackish water seeps through the sand of the river bed, then to scoop it up into our buckets with an Illovo syrup tin. We had tea-parties under the blue gum trees – no fancy toy tea sets, just using round and flattish stones for cups and saucers. (That’s where the imagination came in!) And then, of course, we exchanged folk rhymes or riddles (riddles were still all the rage in those days). My playmates were very good at ghost stories or folk stories like the one of the water woman that waits in the pool among the bulrushes … or of the kokkewiet that comes stealthily while you are asleep and makes little cuts between your toes … or folkloristic fallacies such as if you want to catch a hare you should try to pour salt on its tail or knock on your knee with a stone and if you did it hard enough the hare would stand still and let you catch him. This my playmates made me believe and I actually tried it out! I think those magical experiences, firmly rooted in nature, were the starting point of my lifelong enchantment by myths and folk and fairy tales and stories of all kinds.

“But there was another very important ‘starting point’: the ‘library’ in our farm school where a single teacher taught from sub A (grade 1) to standard 5 (grade 7) in one classroom. And did it excellently! That library consisted of a single two-door cupboard of humble proportions – but in it were old treasures: books with a strict Victorian countenance, like Jessica’s first prayer, and other delightful classics like the What Katy did series and The Little House on the Prairie and still others like Black Beauty and Uncle Tom’s Cabin and books by the early Afrikaans writers like Langenhoven, Sangiro and MER. And then there were, to the delight of my simple farm child’s heart, also some rather worn copies of selections from Andersen and from the Grimm brothers, the fables of Aesop, the Greek myths, Reynard the Fox, the adventures of Baron von Münchhausen and of that other man of fantasy and illusion, Don Quixote. These were all available in Afrikaans translations! I was transported, and for ever caught in the story net, especially that of the world of folklore and fantasy.

There was one other pointer on this road. My mother, who had been a farm school teacher for twenty years before I was born, had a series of beautifully bound books – The Home University Bookshelf series – some of them with delectable titles like Folklore, Fables and Fairy Tales and Fun and Thought for Little Folk, and Golden Stories, that she had ordered for herself from the USA. These books settled it for me: I would for ever be dedicated to and enchanted by the world of stories. Books became my life.”

Linda’s preoccupation with stories is clearly an extension of the games she played as a child, and the same playful and interactive elements continue. In the researching, writing and compiling Linda has chosen and arranged carefully, so that the stories can be in conversation with each other, by choosing and arranging “two stories with more or less the same theme but with variations. I hoped children would realise that stories can talk to each other.”

Also, some of the characters spill into other stories. Linda explains: “Some characters reappear in different stories – the jackal for example, or the cat, the big fat cat in ‘Gobbledegook, the Humungously Hungry Cat’, would appear in another story as a wedding guest. The Gobbledegook story is originally a Danish story, but I relocated it to South Africa. The characters are recognisable as South Africans. The boy is Thabo, for example. Later on in the book there is a story, ‘Owl and Kittycat’s wedding’, based on Edward Lear’s famous poem, ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’, and Gobbledegook turns up at the wedding as one of the guests. In Gobbledegook’s story – his own story – he was a very fat cat and he couldn’t get enough, but he learned his lesson, and learned to eat a very small portion, and at the wedding he is quite content with a very small portion, so the reader can notice: ‘Okay, he is still on diet.’ She laughs with pleasure at this, and adds that she hopes readers will pick up these details.

The stories come from all over the world. “There are quite a few Southern African stories, as many as I could accommodate. That was one of my aims. I was a bit tired of just African stories and just European stories. The world is a global city these days.”

Linda also wanted the reader to be aware of the value of different world views, and to set them side by side with a sense of equality. This is why the sixty stories come from all over the world, in order that “the idea is cultivated in young minds ... that your lookout on life is just one of many, many more that have the same right of existence”.

Linda and a young reader

Young reader Joseph Lardner-Burke with Linda Rode

Choices were also made out of a sense of social justice. For example, a story based on the well-known German story “Das Schlaraffenland”, a paradise of plenty where sweet things grow on trees, streams gurgle with milkshakes, and hills are made of porridge or pudding, had already been written down when she realised how unsuitable this was for a country where children are suffering from hunger. In its stead she put in a story from the Transkei, in honour of Nelson Mandela’s birthplace, “The water people”, about a Xhosa girl lured into the sea by the water people. She developed this story from a traditional tale.

Linda is passionately concerned with social equality, which was to influence her life, as well as her determination to bridge these divides in the unequal society which was, and is, South Africa. She sees this as being able to be addressed through cultural exposure, in the same way that she developed a richer understanding from playing with the farm worker’s children. “I really wanted to ... (make a book) where a child from, say, Bishopscourt could enjoy a story from the Transkei.”

What I liked so much about In the Never Ever Wood is that not only is it a rich repository of stories but what sets it apart from others is the careful and interesting annotations, which frequently discuss similar or common stories, issues or themes, often found in stories in very different cultures. Linda has put these in for adult readers, but also for more alert older children, to enlarge their understanding. Linda is profoundly literary and although the stories are simply told, they shine with intelligence.

In die Nimmer Immer Bos was first written in Afrikaans and published in 2009 by Tafelberg_. It was translated into English (In the Never Ever Wood) by Elsa Silke.

It is set to become a South African classic and has won the Alba Bouwer Prize of the South African Academy of Arts & Science 2010, the MER Prize 2010 and been placed on the IBBY Honour List for 2011.The SATI Prize for Outstanding Translation of Children’s Literature: Elsa Silke for In the Never-Ever Wood.

Linda is aware that stories travel and change: “The Magic Palm Tree” ends with the lines, “Tell this story to someone else, let it wander far and wide , whether it’s bitter or sweet, let a piece find its way back to the storyteller one day.”

Linda says: “This is typical of the Ashanti storytellers; they always end their stories like this, like a ritual, just as we sometimes use ‘Fluit, fluit, my storie is uit’ to end a children’s story in Afrikaans.”

She has a great respect for the wealth of the Ashanti story-telling tradition, which is so vast that one could easily have a book of their stories only.

And what is Linda’s favourite story? She cites the “The Magic Palm Tree”, “because it works on different levels”. Only the girl who really loved the boy trapped in adults’ curses could free him. “It is a strong social comment about ostracising a member of the community, though on the first level it sounds just like another story with magical features. A real understanding of the fate of those two young people might not dawn on the listeners/readers until many years after.

“This last story, most children will read it on the first level. But sometimes, there is a word you hear which you understand twenty years later, because it has stayed with you, and you have lived in the meantime and all of a sudden the word makes (new) sense. When I read the Ashanti story for the first time – it was originally written by RS Rattray – a famous recorder of stories in the 1930s – I thought: this is a lovely story, it has the typical repetition of folklore, people coming by and asking the same question and getting the same answer, with that wonderful rhythm of question and answer, question and answer ... and it was only afterwards that I realised it had a much deeper meaning.”

Stories do not change only in themselves as they travel, they also change the people who hear them. Linda believes that children need stories and that stories can heal them. “It might not at the moment, maybe the next day, but somewhere it will reach the child. I firmly believe that.”

I think of the lines written in the preface of In the Never Ever Wood: “Fairytales have travelled in oral form over mountains and deserts over vast continents, even crossing turbulent seas on lumbering slave shops to foreign destinations.”

I like the idea of stories travelling and returning, and I ask Linda: “How are your stories coming back to you? Where are they going?”

“The lovely stuff is when people tell me they read the story to their child, and about their child’s reaction. It is very rewarding to see the looks on young children’s faces and to experience their reactions to certain stories. Then you know the story has gone home! That’s why I love reading stories at schools.

“I sometimes get letters from children, and drawings.”

Linda clearly relishes these interactions with children who have appreciated the book’s stories.

Another instance of the book and its stories “travelling” was when the illustrator, Fiona Moodie, had an exhibition of her drypoint prints from the book at the Irma Stern museum. Linda says she “loved the interaction between the art works and the public and seeing the attachment of people to the image associated with their favourite story”.
However, there is an unfulfilled wish. Linda is desperate for her book to be published in some of our indigenous languages other than Afrikaans, but due to financial constraints and the lack of, for example, Xhosa book-buying it is not viable.

She would also love schools to use this book, and particularly schools where books are scarce. She would like to see copies of the book sponsored to them.

“I would love to see children in Guguletu or Soweto having a book like this in their classrooms, so that besides getting to know the stories of Southern Africa and Africa proper they will also get acquainted with stories from other parts of the world, from Europe and the East, for example. That was one of my aims: that all children would be able to identify with most of the stories ... Now it probably is reaching mostly privileged children.”

Another aspect of the In Never Ever Wood is that it has a style which has been described as a “babygrow” in that it is designed to stretch and to grow with the child. The first stories are for younger children, and the last ones are for older or more aware children. She wanted to make a book which, if a family could afford only one book, would be so comprehensive and rich that it could cater for the whole growing family. The book contains sixty stories and is immensely popular with children and adults alike. “You can use the book with all ages.”

And she is emphatic that “Children need stories.”

Thelma Mort is a mother, writer, teacher and an artist; she studied a Masters in Art, Culture and Education at the University of Cambridge.



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