When you and your family don’t speak the same language

Review: Vivien Horler

A Long Letter to my Daughter, by Marita van der Vyver (Tafelberg)

Fifteen or so years ago, I was one of a handful of book journalists invited to interview the Afrikaans writer Marita van der Vyver at the Mount Nelson Hotel.

Van der Vyver was on a visit to South Africa to promote a new book, and had brought her daughter Mia, then about five, to the interview because her child-minding plans had fallen through.

After about 20 minutes of beautiful behaviour, the little girl became bored and started climbing over the backs of the chairs in the elegant tea room, and looking with chilling intent at the bone china cups and saucers.

“Ag Mia,” said an anxious Van der Vyver. “Jy’t mos gesê jy gaan soet wees!”

To which the little girl replied with an angelic smile: “Maman, je t’aime.”

In this delightful memoir, Van der Vyver writes: “…in the meantime I continue to write and speak and live in Afrikaans, at least some of the time. Because although ‘the future’ surprised me two decades ago by washing me ashore in France, and although these days I speak three languages every day, Afrikaans remains the one I speak best. And because as a mother I believe that I should give my children the best, I still speak to you in Afrikaans. Even though you often answer me in a different language.”

Forty or so years ago Van der Vyver, at that stage the single mother of a son, went to France to see what it was like. There she met a Frenchman, a father of two sons, and they ended up married with a daughter of their own.

Four decades ago she never dreamed, she says, that she would end up living in Provence with a French daughter. Many Afrikaans parents today live between languages, having been blown away to faraway lands “like the poet Van Wyk Louw’s plumed grass seeds. And the fact that our children no longer even know who NP van Wyk  Louw was, is part of the dilemma.”

Van der Vyver has lived in France for longer than she lived in South Africa, and yet South Africa is still in a vital sense home, and Afrikaans is the language of her heart (this memoir was translated into English by Annelize Visser). Her novels are first written in Afrikaans, a language her French husband cannot read.

The first time Mia flew between Europe and Africa she was barely two months old. Van der Vyver, now in her early 60s, flew for the first time when she was 18. Boys in her matric class left the country as conscripts “to do things that they would never be able to talk about to their loved ones”.

Her youth, she says, was like living in a bubble of blissful ignorance. There wasn’t even television here then. “We are contemporaries, your father and I, we born in the same year. But we were raised in different worlds.”

And so this letter is an attempt to explain to a young French woman where her mother has come from, and therefore where she has partly come from herself.

Van der Vyver writes of her great-grandparents, whose only book was a bible. Yet for Van der Vyver herself, books have played a vital role in her life. Books, starting at the Bellville library, stories that she loved and yet stories her daughter will never read, because mother and daughter, like Van der Vyver and her husband, grew up in different worlds.

She muses on growing up white in apartheid South Africa, on the future of Afrikaans, on writing, on philosophy, on travel, on motherhood.

As someone who is also in her 60s and also grew up white in apartheid South Africa, I find much of what she says about this country deeply familiar. But there is plenty that is different and surprising too. A Long Letter to my Daughter has been a joy to read.

  • A Long Letter to my Daughter is one of Exclusive Books’s 25 recommended titles for May.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *