White Saviour Complex

On a Costco trip in the summer, I picked up a copy of Bianca Marais’ Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. I meant to read it up at the lake at some point but I only just read it.

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In June of 1976, Robin and Beauty’s lives will change forever. Nine year old Robin’s idyllic white suburban life comes to a shattering end when her parents are murdered on their way to a party and her maid, Mabel walks out forever. Beauty is in Johannesburg to find her daughter Nomsa, after Nomsa took part in the Soweto Uprising. When Beauty cannot find her she needs to find a way to get papers to stay in the city or she will be arrested.

From Goodreads:

After Robin is sent to live with her loving but irresponsible aunt, Beauty is hired to care for Robin while continuing the search for her daughter. In Beauty, Robin finds the security and family that she craves, and the two forge an inextricable bond through their deep personal losses. But Robin knows that if Beauty finds her daughter, Robin could lose her new caretaker forever, so she makes a desperate decision with devastating consequences. Her quest to make amends and find redemption is a journey of self-discovery in which she learns the harsh truths of the society that once promised her protection.

For whatever reason, when I bought this book, I assumed the author was a Black woman. Don’t ask me why, it was just something that made sense in my brain. When I saw that the author was in fact a white woman, I was a little disappointed. When I finally started to read the book, I was impressed by how Marais handled apartheid and the language she uses to describe the times. Marais doesn’t shy away from showing the realities of apartheid and honestly, sometimes the language can be shocking and horrific. Marais shows how a lot of white South Africans had a complete disregard for their Black countrymen and women, how they wouldn’t even see them as people.

I appreciated the way Marais alternated the story between Robin and Beauty’s viewpoints. Each was able to tell her own story, from her own perspective, coloured by the part of South Africa that each inhabits.

But the last third of the book disappointed me. Because in the last third, Robin takes over both stories and becomes a White Saviour.

Suddenly a NINE YEAR OLD GIRL is the one that provides salvation to a grown ass Black woman. A woman who has shown herself to be completely capable of looking after herself, and her family and of navigating a world meant to keep her down.

Robin is a selfish child. She makes decisions about the lives of Beauty and her daughter based on how they will affect her. In this way Robin is very much a product of her world – she disregards the needs of a woman who has shown her love and compassion because she finds her own needs more important.

I think I could have lived with a story that ended with Robin reaping the consequences of her actions. But instead, she is offered redemption and Beauty’s story is sacrificed.

It’s a shame because up until that point I was blown away by the eloquent prose, the seemingly honest portrayal of life for black and white people in the South Africa of 1976. Marais explored homosexuality, race, class and religion without being heavy handed.

But in her choice of ending, she let her own story down.

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5 thoughts on “White Saviour Complex

  1. Aah, yes. This. This year I’ve really worked on diversifying my reading, and I’ve ended up finding a lot of White Saviors where I might not have noticed it as much before. I’m really starting to see how often books by white authors about white characters are promoted where others aren’t always as easy to find!

  2. Oh, really?! How disappointing. I’m really interested in South African stories, but not interested in another variation of the white-saviour-story.

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