By Leslie Lindsay ‘
Emotional and powerful read about post-apartheid South Africa combing the lives of three very different women and one abandoned newborn.
I read HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS (Putnam, March 2018) and immediately fell in love with Robin and Beauty and also the author, Bianca Marias. In this new title, IF YOU WANT TO MAKE GOD LAUGH (July 16 2019), you’ll meet a series of three very different women–Dee (Delilah) an ex-nun with a history, her sister, Ruth (an ex-stripper with multiple ex-husbands), and Zodwa, a pregnant Zulu teen living in a squatter camp on the outskirts of Johannesburg. How these three women come together will shake you–and just may have you cheering for each one, but for different reasons.
Delivered in short, alternating chapters narrated by Ruth, Zodwa, and Delilah, IF YOU WANT TO MAKE GOD LAUGH shares its characters’ divergent perspectives on class, race, and faith as it probes closely at the 1990s political and socioeconomic headlines. This narrative is complex and there are a lot things going on under the context–rape and rampant racism, stigma surrounding homosexuality, priest abuse and church corruption, orphanages, the AIDS epidemic, even cover-ups in government institution, one of which came as a surprise to me. There were just a few parts that I felt less connected to, or that seemed to drag, but this could just be me.
The writing comes from an experienced hand, one that is emotionally rich and resonate surrounding the blatant corruption of innocents and vulnerable populations. I found much explanation–and fully immersed–in a culture not typically visited by literature, which is exactly what I like–building empathy and understanding of other people and cultures.
I promise, IF YOU WANT TO MAKE GOD LAUGH will pull at your heartstrings and have you rooting for the underdog, which is just about everyone.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely Bianca Marias back to the author interview series.
Bianca, so thrilled you can join us! I am still thinking about these characters, the heartache, their complicated lives. What inspired you to delve into their histories? Did a certain character ‘speak’ to you, or was there a time or place you wanted to explore? Both? Something else?
Thank you, Leslie! I’m thrilled to be back again and thank you so much for your wonderful review of the novel!
The answer is definitely both! Characters tend to come to me before a plot and so I end up constructing a story around the characters. I spent a lot of time in South African squatter camps in the 2000s and felt extremely emotionally invested in the women there. Zodwa felt very real to me from the beginning because of that. Ruth and Delilah came to me early on as well although I wasn’t sure that I could explore them both in the same story – I’m so glad that I was able to.
For me, ‘truth’ has always been a very subjective construct. You and I could experience the exact same thing and yet we’d perceive it completely differently. That fascinates me and so having these three very different women experience the same time frame and much of the same space, and yet do so from such very different perspectives was what made this story so interesting.
That period in South Africa’s history has always been very compelling for me, both for the transformation that the country went through at the time, and because of the terrible issues it was facing: the AIDS pandemic, ongoing racism, forgiveness, etc. I wanted to explore it and these characters allowed me to do it.
I love that Beauty and Robin [characters from your 2018 book, HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS] make a sort of cameo appearance. Can you tell us about them and their connection to Zodwa, Ruth, and Delilah? Bearing in mind, this is not a sequel.
I fell so in love with Beauty and Robin while writing HUM and even started a sequel that I didn’t get to finish, and so I knew exactly what they were up to in the 90s when this story takes place. And life is just a series of interconnected threads, isn’t it? Our connections to people, those we have relationships with and those who we may pass dozens of times without ever meeting. I wanted all their threads to link up and so Beauty is Zodwa’s mother’s best friend. She lives in the squatter camp with them as she still searches for her daughter, Nomsa, who went back to the armed struggle after she was briefly reunited with Beauty in HUM. Robin is still a huge part of Beauty’s life and while she wants Beauty to live with her in her home, Beauty refuses to because she wants to be a part of building the country up again from grassroots level.
You’re originally from South Africa, but now reside in Toronto. How does place shape the writer you’ve become? Does it?
It absolutely does. I grew up during apartheid in South Africa and so that’s essentially what shaped me: being a part of the problem; always benefiting from the oppression of others; seeing people I loved suffering because of the color of their skin. Everything that I focus on as a writer stems from that. It’s the lens through which I see the world, and try and make sense of in my writing.
The part of IF YOU WANT TO MAKE GOD LAUGH that really pulled at my heartstrings was the orphanage. You have done some volunteer work with Cotlands, where you assisted care workers in Soweto providing aid to HIV/AIDS orphans. This had to have been such challenging—but important—work. What more can you share about that experience?
Spending time in an orphanage with terminally ill children changes you in a way you can never anticipate when you first decide to volunteer. When I started there in 2003, most HIV positive children were only living to the age of two. That changed later once Cotlands managed to make ARVs available to them. Eventually, there were so many children orphaned by the pandemic that Cotlands couldn’t house them all in the sanctuary, and had to start a Home Based Care Program in Soweto where children were homed with surviving extended family members or members of the community.
My time there was the most defining period of my life. It gave me enormous respect for the gogos (grannies) who stepped into the void that the AIDs pandemic had created and who, in their golden years, were having to raise sick grandchildren even as they mourned their own children.
“Lovely….Marais showcases her talent for pulling beauty from the pain of South African history with a strong story and wonderfully imperfect characters.”
Ultimately, I think IF YOU WANT TO MAKE GOD LAUGH is about love, loss, the resilience of the human experience, but it’s also about friendship. And how far would you go to save your heart—and that of the one you love—is that how you would sum it up? What do you hope readers remember?
Yes, definitely! It’s also about connectedness and how we have the families we’re born with but how we can also create family through choice. It’s about letting go of lifelong prejudices and loving a single person regardless of their race or religion. It’s about how much better we are, how much stronger we are, when we help one another and accept help from one another. It’s about realizing that we are so much bigger and more powerful than we think, and that we have an almost infinite capacity to change the world in small ways when we want to. It’s about standing up to those who bully, intimidate, discriminate against and violate us. It’s about taking your life back when so much has already been taken from you.
The page is blank. What is calling to you? And what advice might you give to writers who have reached a ‘lull.’
I have a few projects on the go at the moment. I felt quite emotionally drained after writing ‘If You Want to Make God Laugh’ because it was such a personal story for me. I’m taking some time away from the serious themes to write a domestic psychological thriller which I’m having a lot of fun with. And after that, I have another idea for a more literary novel exploring the loss of identity.
In terms of advice: just keep writing. The world is so full of stories and I don’t just mean the big ones that you see in the news every day. You just have to take a walk in a park to see dozens of tiny moments that can speak to you. Find a moment that compels you and that you want to capture, and then go and write it down. Don’t worry so much about the big picture or the big project – will it be a novel or what is it? It doesn’t matter. Just write it down and see where it takes you.
Bianca, it’s been a pleasure, as always. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Thank you so much, Leslie for your wonderful support of my work. It means so much to me! Your questions were wonderful!
For more information, to connect with Bianca Marias via social media, or to purchase a copy of HOW TO MAKE GOD LAUGH, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bianca Marais is the author of the beloved Hum If You Don’t Know the Words and If You Want to Make God Laugh. She holds a certificate in creative writing from the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, where she now teaches creative writing. Before turning to writing, she started a corporate training company and
volunteered with Cotlands, where she assisted care workers in Soweto
with providing aid for HIV/AIDS orphans. She runs the Eunice Ngogodo Own Voices Initiative to empower young black women in Africa to write and publish their own stories. Originally from South Africa, she now resides in Toronto with her husband. Listen to interviews and podcasts in which she talks about growing up in South Africa, as well as what inspired her to write Hum If You Don’t Know the Words.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Email: email@example.com
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Author and cover images retrieved from author’s website on 7.6.19. Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this].