Author Feature: Colleen van Niekerk, A Conspiracy of Mothers, and Shame

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Good morning to all of my book friends! Today I’m welcoming the brilliant Colleen van Niekerk, author of A Conspiracy of Mothers, which has been receiving incredible praise already! It has received a starred review from Booklist and shining early reviews. Not to mention it is currently #1 new release on Amazon in the African Historical Fiction category!

As a huge treat it is currently available on Kindle Unlimited if you have a subscription. If you don’t, make sure to sign up here! If you read books as quickly as I do, Kindle Unlimited is so nice to be able to just browse and read so many books on a whim.

A Conspiracy of Mothers

Before we jump into it, here is a Bookish Brews Snapshot™ of A Conspiracy of Mothers:

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Title: A Conspiracy of Mothers
Author: Colleen van Niekerk
Publisher: Little A
Publication date: October 1, 2021
Genre: Historical, Literary Fiction, Magical Realism

A captivating tale of motherhood during a genre-defining period in South Africa

At a glance: Set in South Africa in 1994 in the midst of their first democratic election, three mothers lives intersect in a story of love and betrayal that ripples through generations. Balanced with a backdrop of apartheid and racial violence, these three women battle the trials of motherhood.

  • 🌍 African History
  • 😭 Emotional
  • 📕 Literary Fiction
  • 👁️ Multiple POV

Read this if… you are looking for an emotional read, if you are in the mood to read about love across generations, if you love historical fiction or literary fiction, if you love stories of compelling motherhood.

“People think pain moves in a straight line: you go through it, survive it, and then it’s over. That’s not how it works. The whole experience is circular, fluid. Over a month, a day, even a year, you can go through it all: reliving it, falling down, standing up, getting stuck on moments, staying on repeat. At some rare times, you even forget. But then you remember.”

—Colleen van Niekerk, A Conspiracy of Mothers

Book Club Questions:
A Conspiracy of Mothers

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If you’ve been with me for a while, you will know that I am always eager to share book club questions for books that made me think. I’m very dedicated to not only celebrating and promoting diverse work so that it can find it’s perfect readers, but I’m also dedicated to doing what I can to help spark conversation. I think that reading with friends is so beneficial to your reading comprehension and your friendships. Colleen and I are on the same wavelength here because she has a wonderful list of book club questions to accompany A Conspiracy of Mothers on her website! If you have a book club, this is a wonderful choice for your next read. What is better than book club questions directly from the author?!


Shame

Shame may not be the first thing we think about when we consider the damage done in the name of racism or colourism, but it is often what lingers. Long after the deep cuts inflicted in the name of those scourges have passed, it remains, stubbornly governing the unsaid. It informs our response to whatever the event or moment might be that has signified, once again, that we live in societies with pervasive and cemented racial inequities.

There is the shame of the oppressed: Being dominated and despairing in the face of it; coupled with knowing that others in your community, or family, may bear the same weight and the same burdened silences. There is the shame of the oppressor: Of the deeply uncomfortable reckoning — or inability to reckon —  with what has been done in your name, by your kin. By you.

As an effective and awful aid used in service of white supremacy, shame goes to one of the central tenets of that rotten belief system: That those who identify as white will be tainted by close contact with those of colour, or other ethnicities; that that is cause for shame. The dominated need to always be rendered as lesser than, as a perch upon which to set your privilege. Without that, the entire edifice falls apart. 

As a result, shame, or the potential for it, has been an accelerant for the particular kind of venom directed at interracial relationships. Time and again, society has shown itself to be supremely unsettled by the notion of races coming together in intimacy, as if they were tectonic plates, causing what the wider world often treats as unwanted upheaval. After all, there is the elemental question that these relationships pose: If all things are equal in love, desire and togetherness, then surely all things are equal, period? There is, too, the progeny of these relationships, showing in their diversity of faces that any notion of racial purity is fundamentally unsound, and entirely useless. 

In South Africa, my country of origin, the apartheid government rendered intimate relations between the white race and any other race (the non-white races could do as they pleased amongst themselves) as not only a criminal act but a betrayal of religious faith and personal values. This was not only a matter of principle, but law. One of the odious pieces of legislation addressing this was in fact named the Immorality Act. 

Equally disturbing is how this shaming, in the context of colonisation and settlement, became about the preservation of white womanhood and the subsequent invisibility and supposed inconsequential nature of women of colour. Every country bears scars from this.

In the United States, there is not only the murder of Emmett Till, but the many other instances of African-American men portrayed as predators preying upon white women. These men have been positioned by a self-serving white society as possessors of a limited, one-dimensional hypermasculinity that requires extraordinary levels of control and regulation. This has become a damaging force in its own right, while creating conditions ripe for shame to take hold.

Meanwhile, the ones left with the expectation that they are strong, proud, and able to bear anything at any cost (without considering the true toll this exacts), are African-American women. Yet their experiences and history during enslavement underscores the truth of who has been predator and prey in American society.

Shame leaves us unable to frame these experiences as what they truly are: Trauma, often generational, which requires sunlight, confrontation and care of self. It requires a trust that one can be vulnerable without being condemned for it. That one will be taken seriously.

In Canada, where I live currently, Indigenous women have been failed by many: By those who show a high level of apathy and hostility towards their wellbeing; by the chauvinism of government institutions; and, in the not too distant past, by archaic, genocidal institutions like residential schools, whose impact remains very present. These women have paid for this with their lives. Many have gone missing or been murdered in a crisis large enough to have merited a national inquiry three years in duration, and that’s without delving into the rate of suicide amongst First Nations, Métis and Inuit. I’ve found myself asking if this crisis would have happened if these women were white, only to simultaneously realise that the answer is that it simply wouldn’t happen, not to this calamitous degree, to white women. 

In my native South Africa, endemic sexual assault of women of colour (predominantly) was and continues to be the norm. The deprivation of rights under apartheid, meant that Black and Brown women there have historically borne the greatest risks. Travelling great distances across segregated areas, usually on informal public transit in the dark; living in unsafe environments; earning a low income in white-owned businesses and homes within which abuse, and from which dismissal, could easily happen. 

Much has changed and yet the pattern and unfortunately, the reality for many women of colour in that country has not, as Pumla Dineo Gqola eloquently outlined in her recent work Rape: A South African nightmare. Yet these women, like African-American ones, or Indigenous Canadians, are expected to bury all of this, get up, dust themselves off and carry on, because that’s just the way it is.

So we come to the true cost of shame in this context: It costs us the opportunity to come to terms with others, and ourselves, as fully-formed human beings. Like a hand over the mouth, shame is a dreadful spectre, keeping truths quiet and maintaining the destructive status quo. As if it were mold, it grows in the damp, dark spaces where there is no light, no fresh air to breathe and speak, only the stall of stagnation. Collectively, our responsibility is to pull it out by the roots, to understand what those roots truly are. Without this, we cannot see beyond our sense of dismay, scandal and disgust, to the beauty, complexity, depth and breadth of what’s always been before us, waiting for us this whole time.


About Colleen van Niekerk

Growing up in South Africa as a person of colour in the eighties and nineties, meant being surrounded by stories, not literature. It meant being surrounded by art as an extension of the vital act of expression that inevitably takes root under systems of oppression, and not as museum material.

Writing, I learned, had to be an act of subversion, in a society where, as a South African singer once said “Afrikaners is plesierig”, meaning Afrikaners (the then dominant force behind apartheid), are pleasant, polite, this said with a healthy dose of irony of course. That same politeness contrasted with the blood and bone politics of survival.

Writing was about working with the materials you had, in a society intent on telling you that you were less, intent on insisting that you had less. You wrote because you had something to say and it needed to be said. That was the urgency of the time.

Those lessons, along with a healthy serving of magic realism, Tom Robbins, André Brink, Louis de Berniéres, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker made for an incubation that served me well in later years. The times, the circumstances, the challenges have changed but the urgency, the lure of stories (aren’t they as essential as food ?) and the vitality of writing remains a part of who I am and what I produce.

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Let’s Chat!

Are you itching to read A Conspiracy of Mothers yet?!
What was the last African Historical Fiction you read?
What is the next literary fiction on your list?



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What is shame if not white supremacy persevering? What a thoughtful article.