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“I wanted to give voice to a story I felt hadn’t been fully explored yet in South Africa – that of children who grew up in exile.” Sisonke Msimang discusses her Alan Paton Award shortlisted memoir, Always Another Country

Published in the Sunday Times

Sisonke Msimang lives in Perth, Australia, where she is programme director for the Centre for Stories. She regularly visits South Africa, where she speaks on current affairs. She has degrees from Macalester College, Minnesota, and the University of Cape Town, is a Yale World Fellow, an Aspen New Voices Fellow, and was a Ruth First Fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand. She contributes to The Guardian, The Daily Maverick and The New York Times and has given a popular TED Talk which touches on events that appear in Always Another Country.

Why did you decide to write this memoir?

I wanted to give voice to a story I felt hadn’t been fully explored yet in South Africa – that of children who grew up in exile. While we have had many amazing freedom fighters, I wanted to also demonstrate to young people and women especially that you don’t have to have a long CV and a long list of accomplishments for your life to be worthy of examination. All of us have stories – big and small. In South Africa we have tended to be interested in the big men of our history – black and white. As a contrast I wanted to look at my small little stories, set against the backdrop of South Africa’s much larger story.

Did writing your story give you new insights into your experiences growing up?

The process of writing always helps to clarify your experiences, but a lot of these experiences I had already worked through, so I was ready to share them.

It is an intensely personal and revealing book. Was it painful to write?

Not at all. There is a wonderful quote I use when I teach storytelling – “Tell your stories from your scars, not from your wounds”. I only shared experiences that I had felt I had fully dealt with at a personal level so that by the time I was sitting down to write, I wasn’t treating my readers like therapists. For me there is a very clear line between catharsis and publishing a book. Your diary is for catharsis; a memoir should be about what you hope people might be able to take away from the experiences you’ve had in your life.

What does the word “identity” mean to you?

Your identity is who you are; the component parts that make you a unique individual.

You became disillusioned after your return to a free South Africa. Why?

I didn’t become any more disillusioned with South Africa than other South Africans did during the end of the Mbeki years and the Zuma years. I had high hopes for our political leaders – as we all did. I think the last decade has taught us that anyone can let you down but only you as a person can take responsibility for addressing the challenges you see around you.

Now that you live in Australia, does the distance from South Africa help to focus your views on the country?

Not really. I am here a lot, so there really isn’t much distance. I see myself as being incredibly lucky; someone who is able to make a home anywhere, but who is fundamentally connected to her country – South Africa. It’s as though there is an umbilical cord tying me to this place. Exile made that bond very strong and I have come to realise that no matter what happens or where I live or go, that cord will never be broken. It makes me who I am.

After writing the book, do you feel more at peace with the past?

Ha! Well, the truth is I am a very balanced person because my parents tried hard to make sure that we were okay, in spite of all the moving. So I’ve been at peace with my past for a long time, and I am incredibly grateful for the journey I have travelled.

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