As part of the research I undertook for writing my memoir, I travelled back to South Africa in 2007, for the first time in 29 years. The awful apartheid was gone (although many remnants remain). Everything had changed.
But the land was still the same …. or was it? The rural area outside Cape Town where we’d lived for 9 months, on 8 acres of bush near a pig farm – that was gone, now buried beneath a shanty town a million strong called Khayelitsha. Table Mountain and the mountain range joining it called the Twelve Apostles was still there and the glorious coastline with golden beaches and sparkling ocean. No more 'whites only' beaches, open to all of South Africa's 'rainbow nation'.
But oh no! The lovely near-deserted, empty beach called Hout Bay surrounded by wooded hills, with a small docks area for fishing boats, a place where we’d go braai (bbq) in the sand dunes and help haul in the smaller fishing boats? What had happened here? Another shanty town had built into the once rural woody hills around the beach, teeming with people. On the far side of the beach, a large modern complex of shops had been built including a huge Pick n Pay – that South African supermarket chain – to meet the demands of all these people, these Cape mixed race people – many of whom were now white-collar workers in Cape Town.Never go back they say, never go back, but if you’re a memoir writer sometimes you have to. Just be warned. Nothing will be the same. Someone said to me the other day, about memoir writing – ‘People choose the memories they want to focus on, the ones that relate to who they are now.’ I don’t know about that. All I know is that if you're writing memoir, be careful when you go back. Hold on to the memories of how it was. Hold those memories close to your heart. Because the present will trample all over them and kick your past to dust if you’re not very careful.
My new 'how to' book Writing Memoir, How to Tell a Story from Your Life will be out next month.
If you want to buy my memoir A Hippopotamus At The Table it's on Amazon - click on the title to get the link.