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Out of South Africa's pain

MOTHER TO MOTHER By Sindiwe Magona Beacon Press 216 pp., $20

A year and a half after the final revelations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, South Africa is still undergoing a process of healing. As the country lurches forward, creating a new national identity, South Africans are still trying to make sense of their past.

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An outpouring of recent South African writing suggests that literature plays an important role in understanding that past and creating new national narratives.

In a recent conversation, Sindiwe Magona, a South African writer who lives and works in the United States, talked about the therapeutic role of writing. She addressed the pain she experienced when she began work on her new novel, "Mother to Mother," based on the 1993 murder of the young Fulbright scholar, Amy Elizabeth Biehl, in the black township of Guguletu.

Though saddened by this tragedy, Ms. Magona did not realize its personal import until eight months later, when she returned for South Africa's first nationwide democratic elections. She learned that one of her childhood friends was the mother of one of the killers.

"For the first time, I was forced to empathize with the killer's family," says Magona, a petite woman with penetrating eyes and quick, energetic movements. "They suffer, and their suffering is tinged with shame. They wonder, what did they do wrong?"

Magona mourned the incident for nearly two years. She grieved for her friend, a woman who struggled to raise children during apartheid, and the parents of Amy Biehl.

She wanted to lessen the Biehls' grief by "explaining the inexplicable," how someone could come to kill their daughter. "If I could talk to Amy's mother and tell her how hard it was to be an African parent...," she says, her voice trailing off into silence.

She began work on "Mother to Mother" in 1996. The novel retells the events of Aug. 25 to Mrs. Biehl in the voice of the fictional Mandisa, the mother of the killer.

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Writing the first chapter was cathartic, but the rest of the novel was a struggle. "I was scared writing," she says. She feared that her book might cause the Biehls more pain. She chose not to conduct interviews, relying on her imagination to construct Mandisa's relationship with her son.

The result is a novel that explores the complex moral territory between judgment and forgiveness. Published last month in the US by Beacon Press, Magona's work plumbs the emotions of Mandisa, whose whole life unfolds as she is slowly confronted with her son's crime.

Linking an individual's actions with a society's shortcomings, the novel clearly demonstrates the human damage caused by apartheid. At the same time, it does not erase responsibility for anyone's actions.

"With writing, the picture becomes more and more clear," she says. She mentions the stories unearthed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, suggesting that, like those testimonies, literature helps to create an undistorted national memory. Remembering history is necessary for moving on: "If the nation wants a better future, it needs to look at history, so we don't fall into the same traps."

The road to reconciliation, post-truth, is more uncertain. After the four young men convicted of Biehl's murder were granted amnesty in 1998, Magona wrote an op-ed article in The New York Times that called for an end to all racial hatred in South Africa. Magona acknowledges that not all South Africans have agreed with her opinion. Yet she finds hope in the existence of this conversation.

Still, she insists on the perils of retribution, finding that anger and revenge lead nowhere. She continually returns to the theme of how South African society has failed its children, phrasing the issue in terms of parental and societal responsibility.

Magona continues to think about these issues in her new novel, which explores the impact of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the country. She maintains a determined optimism for South Africa in spite of its deep-rooted and persistent problems. "I have no time to waste over hating people," she says.

*Heather Hewett is a freelance writer in New York.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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