Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night by Sindiwe Magona (thoughts)
I have had marvelous luck with every South African author I’ve tried; Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night by Sindiwe Magona is no exception. It’s a short story collection in two parts: the first part is interlinked, telling stories from the viewpoints of various black ‘domestics’ who all know each other, while the second part is the more ‘random,’ standard short story collection model. The book is united by Magona’s incredible writing, wonderful characterisations, and ability to call attention to systemic wrongs (this collection was published in 1991, and is thus set entirely in apartheid times) without her characters becoming political mouthpieces. That last is a rare talent, and probably the thing that impressed me most about this very impressive book.
Magona herself worked as a domestic in Cape Town while pursuing her education, and that background really informs the first part. Each of the women felt so real, and their various experiences and voices were utterly convincing. All too often in fiction (of various geographic and temporal settings), servants appear only at the margins of a story, so it was wonderful to see them as protagonists here. In fact, I thought of Amy and Amanda’s The Real Help Project, which is based on a statement by the Association of Black Women Historians.
Most importantly, though, Magona brought me to her South Africa. I read so many international authors because I want to have a peek into lives lived around the world, and as a way to pursue my passion for travel when my life circumstances don’t allow me to do the real thing very often. And from that point of view, I found every page of Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night satisfying: there’s no exoticisation for a Western audience, just a firm sense of place grounded in Cape Town and its surroundings.
I fear that I’ve gotten a bit rusty on writing my thoughts on books, but I hope I’ve managed to convey a bit of my love for this gem! It’s quite short (about one hundred sixty pages), so you could read it in a sitting or two, but I promise you’ll be thinking about it for long afterwards. I definitely want to read more of Magona’s books soon: I suspect further acquaintance with her works will only deepen my respect. Definitely future favourite author material!
Suggested Companion Reads
- A Human Being Died that Night by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela (I can’t resist including this by another South African, one of the most powerful and well written pieces of nonfiction I’ve ever read!)
- The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (A novel with plenty of class discussion, albeit from a gothic, ghost-ly context.)
- A Time of Angels by Patricia Schonstein (Another one of my favourite South African writers: this is a novel that spans decades and focuses on Jewish emigres and their children in post-WWII Cape Town.)
- Tropical Fish by Doreen Baingana (In case this one leaves you in the mood for more sub-saharan African short stories: Baingana is a marvelous Ugandan author.)