“It was healing in ways I never thought could happen.” Thuli Nhlapo on writing Colour Me Yellow, shortlisted for the 2018 Alan Paton Award
Published in the Sunday Times
Thuli Nhlapo studied journalism, communications and script writing. She has written for Drum, The Star, City Press, Mail & Guardian and True Love. Other writings appear in Orbit Magazine, Scottish Daily Mail and the Guardian. She has published books in isiZulu and siSwati and Colour Me Yellow is her first English book. She is the managing director of her media company, Thuli Nhlapo Media.
Why did you write your memoir?
It all began when I was a reporter at the Mail & Guardian. My editor asked me to write a story and the response was overwhelming. Publisher Erika Oosthuysen saw the piece and encouraged me to write, following my every move for over 10 years. In the end I decided I was mature enough to tell my story.
How important is it for us to tell our personal history?
As an avid reader — reading other people’s personal stories — for me it is therapeutic. Even though it’s now changing, it’s not a fashionable thing in black communities to go for therapy. But by telling our stories, we can go back to our roots and the tales told by our grannies and aunties as a way of imparting knowledge and assisting us to cope with life. The response to Colour Me Yellow confirmed my worst fear: there are many out there hurting, unable to share their grief because they think no one will understand.
You write about how you grew up feeling like an intruder in your own family; about how badly your parents treated you. How you were called “yellow” or “boesman”. That for adults like you to heal, a good idea would be Unwanted Babies Anonymous. Can you explain more about that?
I borrowed the idea from Alcoholics Anonymous. I imagined a group of adults who were unwanted babies sitting in a circle and telling their stories in a safe environment, with people who won’t judge them but who relate to their experiences. Well, it hasn’t happened in a formal way, but I get calls daily from people and all they want is to talk to someone who will understand what they are going through. It’s amazing that even men 50 years and older still break down over this. It shows that there’s a need to have a dialogue and to heal.
Why is knowing our ancestry important?
We get our inheritance — wealth, wisdom and other traits from our ancestors, those in our families who once walked this earth. If one doesn’t know who their ancestors are, there cannot be a connection and communication. How are people’s ancestors supposed to pass on their inheritance to someone they are not in touch with? It’s crucial to know who you are and where you come from to be certain about where you are going.
Do you see your story as a microcosm of South Africa’s dysfunction?
Most definitely. Why do we have to deal with such violent crime, violent rape, loveless marriages and abandoned children in our society? There’s a lot of bottled up anger; wounds that have not healed and it manifests in our daily life. How can you love if you have never been loved? And you have not acknowledged the fact that you were deprived of love? I’ve visited juvenile centres and the bulk of teenagers in those cells come from dysfunctional families. They have no knowledge of who their father is, or had an abusive stepfather or biological father who was emotionally absent. While it is a great idea to have campaigns focusing on the girl child and their empowerment, we also need to focus on the boy child and adult male. There’s healing that needs to take place for our society to be safe to live in.
How did your family react to the book?
The word “family” for me isn’t the same as family in other people’s lives. My two sons are my family. I had told them about my childhood and they had witnessed some of the nasty events while they were growing up. It wasn’t a complete shock for them to read the book . My “other family” — people I share a surname and have blood relations with — had mixed reactions. Some didn’t react at all. The younger generation congratulated me on the book and those who read it asked a few questions. Others have blocked me.
Was writing about your life a cathartic experience?
It was healing in ways I never thought could happen. I feel light and free now that I have nothing to hide and nothing that will need to be explained later in life. I no longer walk around with shame buried deep down inside me. I’m walking naked and it’s liberating. I’m just myself — warts and all. Take it or leave it.
How different was it exploring your own story to writing about other people’s experiences as a journalist?
Telling my own story was extremely difficult because I couldn’t divorce myself emotionally. I felt the pain with every word I wrote when I had to relive hurtful experiences. When telling other people’s stories I had a deadline to meet and after the story was published, there was nothing forcing me to keep in touch with them. But in my case, I was the story and I have to deal with the consequences of every word in the book. I must answer questions and comfort those who hurt after reading it.
Do you feel that you have all your truth, or are there still some missing pieces?
Finally, I can say I have all the truth even though it was not the truth I was looking for. I thought it would be a happy reunion with my paternal family but it turned out the family I’ve been looking for was in the next room in the same house and in the same yard. There’s no missing pieces now but the healing continues.
- Colour Me Yellow: Searching for My Family Truth by Thuli Nhlapo
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