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Dora Taylor

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE


Speech by Sheila Belshaw at the launch of Dora Taylor’s final novel
held at Kalk Bay Books on Saturday 21 March 2009

I WONDER WHAT DORA would have done if she’d known about this magnificent Literary Posthumous Award. She longed for her fiction to be published, but my gentle, shy mother was far too modest to have ever dreamed of such a prize.

Thank you all for coming to share with Muriel and me the thrill of launching our mother’s new – but sadly her very last novel. Thank you, Ann, for so graciously hosting this event. Your launches are always special. And we are truly delighted to have Alison Lowry with us this evening. Thank you, Alison, for having the insight – and the foresight – to publish our mother’s fiction after so many years of obscurity. Thank you, Ciraj. Your research into Dora’s writing is – invaluable.

I was very lucky to find another little bundle of my mother’s letters in which she specifically mentions the writing of Rage of Life. So I know that she wrote it in 1961, not long before she left Cape Town for the very last time. Although of course she didn’t know then, that it was for the last time. She thought she was merely going to accompany my father on his sabbatical year at Harvard. So her letters from Claremont gave no hint of the dreadful thing that would soon happen to her, and in December 1961 she wrote happily and excitedly about her writing:

“You’ll be pleased to hear that Rage of Life is practically finished. It has taken only five months to write and I have greatly enjoyed the increase in power over the pen that steady work brings. The writing flows, and there is a facility in language that I find exciting. So – one can grow – till one dies. I’m not a laborious reviser of my work, like Flaubert for example, who weighed up every word and sentence in Madame Bovary – many times.

“In fact, I still regard writing as a curious process of inspiration, once thought and feeling have been warmed up sufficiently to let spontaneity take over. I just don’t know where the images and the dialogue come from, at the moment of writing. It’s best not to look into it too closely! Of course it was incredibly stupid of me to stop the novel writing just because the first one – Kathie – was rejected. I want to go on now – without stopping – to make up for all the ‘wasted’ years.”

But sadly, her exile shattered that dream. Being wrenched from her home, her friends, her country made her feel unwanted – unloved – unworthy – just as she had in her childhood and youth because of her illegitimacy. She lost confidence in herself. However, while in Boston in 1963, she did send the manuscript to one American publisher. Then, in a letter from Canada in 1965, this is what she says:

“At last I’ve got my novel back from Boston – rejected! After two years! But I must re-write the final chapter. In a way, an ending is a beginning reversed. And as it’s my only copy, I’ll have to sweat re-typing it.”

But she did not re-type it – ever. The manuscript is peppered with crossings-out and corrections, asterisks and arrows, and additions up and down the margins. She rewrote that final chapter with tears smudging the ink, but never sent it out to a publisher again. So for me to hold this book in my hands is – an amazing moment.

However, she was still hopeful. Because in another letter she says:

Whether it would find a place in the jungle of the literary world – that’s another matter. [She loved that word jungle] So I’ll probably discard it. Yet, I would like to make a little out of it so that I can give you a lovely present. Something you really want.

That was so typical of her. Always thinking of others rather than herself.

So I would like to give her a present. Because next Thursday – the 26th of March – is the one hundred and tenth anniversary of her birthday. And I can think of no better present for her than – a book! Books were her passion. The walls of our house in Claremont never needed painting because they were lined with books. Hundreds of those little Penguin paperbacks too. Remember them? So this is for you, Mummy. A brand new Penguin paperback – with all my love.

Unlike Kathie and Don’t Tread on My Dreams, in which she draws her inspiration from the people and places in Cape Town – and the Eastern Cape – this novel is set in Sophiatown in the late 40s, early 50s, before the government bulldozed it to the ground. “That seething pot of humanity”, to use Dora’s own words. The home of gangsters, yes, but also of thousands of ordinary people struggling to make a living. And of course, a unique enclave of writers, artists, musicians! Think of Can Themba, Miriam Makeba!

How Dora managed to portray the life there so vividly is a wonder to me. For she only visited Sophiatown once. Yet one is aware of the pulse of the place. The vitality . . . the vibrancy . . . the violence . . .

But Rage of Life is not just about old Sophiatown. And not just about violence. It’s a story of love, loss, heartache. Jealousy, treachery . . . intrigue! And as Dora says:

It’s also a tragedy. That – I can never get away from.”

She was not only a literary critic, essayist, novelist, poet – she was also a playwright. And you can see this in the immediacy of the writing. You feel you’re right there with the characters. You feel they are real people. Listen to how Dora herself describes to me the process of writing Rage of Life:

I visualise the action of the novel, scene by scene, as if it were on the stage. I see the actors moving from place to place. I follow them. I hear their dialogue as in a play. I laugh with them. I weep with them. I fall in love with them. I dance with them. I think I must be influenced by the modern film, which I so love. It would be easy to transpose this one into a play.”

The main character is interesting. Linda Malindi. Tough. Independent. Resilient. She has to be to survive. But she longs for love. Longs for someone to call her own. Longs for somewhere to call – home. And while the events bear no relation to Dora’s own tortured early life – you cannot help but feel the depth of her own loneliness, her homelessness – the pain of her own abandonment, through this character. In fact, Rage of Life covers the whole spectrum of human emotions – as experienced by Linda Malindi. And Dora Taylor. But known – to us all.

Before my sister Muriel reads a passage from Rage, I’ll return briefly to this wonderful tribute to Dora – the posthumous award. I only had a few days to prepare an acceptance speech for the occasion. But with each step onto the platform, high heels wobbling, confronted with a bristling microphone and a sea of what looked like at least five thousand expectant faces, my carefully rehearsed words vanished. So on the spur of the moment I told the audience how, whenever my mother was happy, she danced. Right now, I told them, she must surely be dancing non-stop – up there on that little cloud of hers.

Sheila Belshaw


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