For anyone who has ever browsed a library or bookstore for a children’s book, it’s not news that there’s generally only one type of princess on most pages – she has very long hair, big blue eyes and a slender frame. When writer Buhle Ngaba noticed the lack of female literary heroines who looked like her or the majority of little girls in South Africa, she set to work solving the problem with a story about finding a voice where once there was silence. With the goal of seeing the book published in all of South Africa’s official languages, Buhle is thinking big – and ensuring that her own story is a significant one. GLAMOUR Book Club finds out how she got people to listen.
When did it become clear to you that The Girl Without A Sound was a book the world needed?
From the second I started to reflect on the children’s stories that I read as a child. I was always passionate about imagination and I was reading (devouring!) books at a rapid pace by the time I was eight. When I think of all the magic and fantasy I loved to read about, it occurred to me that I was always slightly excluded from the story because none of the magic included little girls who looked like me. I also realised it was a book that was needed by the overwhelming reception it received.
Why is representation in fiction – particularly children’s fiction – so important?
If children cannot see aspects of themselves in imagined worlds, then how can we expect them to be able to imagine changing circumstances within a very harsh reality? The heroine in a story is one lens through which young girls can very directly “experience” (through reading or viewing) the trials and tribulations of life (as represented by dragons and the like), and see how one can survive them all. If young girls of colour are only presented with white heroines, surely we are very directly telling them that women who look like them aren’t strong and beautiful and determined with the potential to do everything.
What gave you the idea for the story in The Girl Without A Sound?
It is very loosely based on my relationship with my aunt. She handed me my first book of rhymes when I was six years old. That initial exposure to literature shaped who I am.
The Girl Without A Sound has received an amazing amount of media attention since it’s publication. Are you at all surprised, or is that what you hope happens when you provide something that was urgently needed?
I am in awe of the amount of attention it has received – it was completely unexpected! All I ever wanted to do was write a book for black girls that could be easily access by those girls. I think that the book has helped many girls and women of colour very directly identify something we have all been battling for many years: being silenced. Having that resonate with so many people and the fact that it’s inspiring them to actively identify their own voice and to use it is glorious. I can only hope that it continues to inspire action.
What should we do for the little girls in our lives to help them find their voices?
Let them know, and feel, that they are seen and heard, and are free to speak.
The Girl Without A Sound has been translated into Setswana. What does this mean to you?
Since I was little, the English language and its limitations always frustrated me as a Setswana speaker. So I dreamt of writing books in the languages my tongue finds comfortable. The Setswana translation, Mosetsanvana Yo O Didimetseng, is the first step in fulfilling that dream and reaching the people it has been written for. When I attended the Rutanang Book Fair 2016 in Tlokwe, it gave me the opportunity to launch this book in my hometown in the Northwest Province with #DecolonisingLiterature as the theme. We were lucky enough to reach 1 000 kids in their home language.
What’s next for The Girl Without A Sound? And for you?
We are focusing on publishing a hard copy of the book, which we have been lucky enough to do with the Centre for Early Childhood Development. We are also in the process of working on more translations. I am currently performing at the Artscape Theatre in Missing, written and performed by John Kani.
Love delving into the inner workings of authors’ minds? Then read our exclusive interview with Jojo Moyes, whose book Me Without You was adapted for film and is in cinemas now.