A Marvelous South African YA Novel: ‘Dreaming of Light’ by Jayne Bauling

You’re probably tired of hearing me mention that I spent 2 months in South Africa in 2011. Well anyway, I did, and I have a lingering infatuation with the country. So when I spotted the little paperback Dreaming of Light among the pile of IBBY 2014 Honour List books, I knew instinctively that I was going to have to read it. And I am so, so glad that I did.

Dreaming of Light by Jayne Bauling

Dreaming of Light is a mere 111 pages, but it’s richer than some novels twice or even three times that length. When I was nearly finished with the book, I read the brief author bio pasted within the front cover and was completely unsurprised to learn that Jayne Bauling is a well-known poet. The prose in Dreaming of Light is so simple, light, and beautiful that I knew no one except a poet could have spun those gossamer phrases. Fitting, then, that it was included on the 2014 IBBY Honour List for the quality of its writing.

Mostly I think about light, especially the sun’s light, but also all the other sorts of light there are. The light you get when you’re up there and outside at night — the white brightness from a big moon, or the thin smile of light when it still has to grow. The bristly points of light from stars, whole masses of them clustered close together, growing into a swirling spill like milk dropped in water. (p. 16)

The novel is narrated by an 18-year-old boy, a foreign zama zama from Swaziland (that itty, bitty, country just to the right of South Africa that people always seem to forget exists). Like the other illegal immigrants from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho, as well as desperately poor South Africans eager for any work they can find, Regile Dlamini is more or less a slave, a disposable zama zama, known only by that derogative Zulu term used to describe the unfortunate men and boys who toil below the Earth’s surface in previously shuttered mines.

It troubles me when people make noise underground. These rock tunnels have their own sounds, the creaks and groans as troubling as explosions or the roar of rockfall. I imagine men’s noise competing against the earth’s voice, and the earth resenting it, and shifting to punish us. (p. 24)

When I started this book, I assumed that it was set 40, 50, even 60 years ago during South Africa’s mining boom. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. It seems that illegal mining has been on the rise in South Africa as recently as the past few years. An article in Bloomberg describes how an estimated 14,000 workers spend months at a time below the Earth’s surface, working to extract ever-more-difficult-to-find gold in mines that were long ago declared too dangerous to work in. This criminal industry generates $6 billion Rand a year, which explains why people are willing to break through the thick slabs of concrete covering mine entrances, force young men and boys recruited illegally from neighboring countries down into the shafts, and refuse to let them re-surface until months afterwards. As you can imagine, many of the workers die from being forced to live underground for weeks, either from exhaustion, poor nutrition, tunnel collapses, or carbon monoxide poisoning.

A substantial percentage of the workers toiling in the mines are children. Bauling’s conflicted hero Regile Dlamini is only 18, yet he has hardened far beyond his years. It is only with the arrival of a hopeful Mozambican boy, Taiba Nhaca, and his small friend, Aires, that the last traces of humanity are awakened within Regile.

Taiba waxes lyrical about the legendary Spike Maphosa, a former South African zama zama who allegedly escaped from the mine in which he was forced to work. Now Spike spends his time working to liberate other children from the same fate. Regile no longer believes that Spike Maphosa exists; indeed, neither do any of the other boys in the mine — except for Taiba. Eventually, Taibi wears through Regile’s tough exterior, reawakening the small kernel of kindness lodged deep within Regile’s largely hopeless existence.

Bauling has remarked that although her YA novels are quite dark, she suspects that they are helpful for children and teenagers facing many of the challenges discussed in her books:

I think teens want and possibly need to read about people their own age facing the same challenges as they do. It’s a way of knowing they’re not alone, and while my stories can be quite dark, I believe they also offer a spark of hope. (source: interview from For Books’ Sake)

The plot of Dreaming of Light might seem farfetched, exaggerated, blown out of proportion, but sadly it isn’t at all. It’s hard to imagine that level of desperation and greed unless you’ve seen it yourself — not that I really have; I’ve just come closer to observing it than some people, I suppose. One would think that by 2014, child trafficking for illegal and often fatal mine work wouldn’t be happening in South Africa, but it is. And perhaps most tragically, there doesn’t seem to be much compassion toward the illegal immigrants who flee even worse economic conditions in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, and elsewhere for a chance at something like prosperity in the relative powerhouse that is South Africa. Just have a look at some of those comments on the Bloomberg article. Racism and xenophobia, that. I remember that when I was in South Africa, people always warned me to be on the lookout for “dangerous Nigerians,” who were supposedly criminal by nature. (I bumped into one at the beach. He wanted my phone number.)

Back to the book. As I’ve said before, it’s beautifully written. Here are a few more of my favorite passages:

Telling someone things about myself gives me a wrong feeling, as if some other person is using my voice, speaking through my mouth. (p. 14)

As if we aren’t facing enough dangers here, forcing the angry earth to give us its gold. (p. 30)

‘It’s a story like smoke, I think. No one can catch it because there’s nothing there. It changes all the time.’ (p. 31)

Will he have turned mad, lost his mind? Become a creature of the darkness? He must belong to the earth after so long. Maybe he won’t want to come out. Won’t want to leave the mine. (p. 43)

I lie on the mattress and stare up at the sky I haven’t seen for so long. The trails of massed stars look like swirls of foam. (p. 61)

‘His hope is in you, Regile.’ Katekani’s voice drops into such thoughts like the first plop of rain into the dust and the end of the dry season. (p. 95)

I don’t want to give away the ending, but suffice it to say that a few tears may have been shed. I was so relieved on Regile’s behalf; I never wanted him to have to go back down into the mine, ever again.

Dreaming of Light is undoubtedly a dark story, not least because everything that is described in the book is actually happening in South Africa. This is one of those rare cases in which I would advise sticking with the recommended age, 12+. It’s almost universally adored on Goodreads, and it is a quick, simple, moving — and ultimately, hopeful — read. Jayne Bauling has a newfound admirer in me. I hope to read many more of her YA novels, starting with E Eights and Stepping Solo.

Overall rating: 5/5

YA Lit Author Spotlight: Jacqueline Woodson

Many thanks to Matt Black of the blog The Little Engine that Couldn’t for hosting this “Young Adult Literature” blog party, which inspired me to pull this post together! Matt’s a teenager who has more common sense that (dare I say) most adults, which just goes to show that age isn’t always correlated with sense. 

Jacqueline Woodson is a well-known children’s writer whose wonderful work has been recognized recently in the form of a Hans Christian Andersen nomination. For those unfamiliar with this honor, the Hans Christian Andersen award is the most prestigious international recognition of children’s writers and illustrators. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Woodson now lives in Brooklyn with her female partner and two children. Her novels usually feature African-American adolescents exploring self-identity while grappling with a wide range of difficult, realistic issues.

To introduce you to the wonderful Ms. Woodson, I will break this post into 2 parts. First is a Q&A with the author that took place during the U.S. Board on Books for Young People conference in St. Louis last month. (No, I didn’t conduct the interview, just took prolific notes). The second is a short review of her Newberry Honor Book After Tupac and D Foster, which, excitingly, I got signed by the author herself!


The Q&A
(Bryan Collier, an American illustrator, also participated in the Q&A. For the purpose of brevity, I haven’t included his answers here. But that may be in a future post!)

Please note that I took handwritten notes during the Q&A, and therefore some of the text below is an approximation. When I managed to record an exact quote, it is denoted by…you guessed it…quotation marks! 

Q:  The U.S. Board on Books for Young People was looking for a range of different styles and perspectives when we selected the nominees for the Hans Christian Andersen Award. How do you feel about your ability to represent the U.S.?

Woodson: “Representing the United States is very complicated.” I write from a sense of being on the outside. “I feel like I’ve always been in the world but not of the world.” [I believe what she meant was that as an African-American woman, she is able to express a different way of seeing the world in her books for children.]

Q: The image of the American flag is perceived quite differently abroad. Is it a risk traveling to other countries as an official representative of the United States?

Woodson: “We take the risk here first.” What keeps me writing are the readers, and “that reader is waiting everywhere” in the world, not just the United States. “I write these books because I’ve been waiting my whole life for them…I’ve gotten censored in this country lots.” All it does it help to get the book out faster! I remember when I won the Coretta Scott King Award [in 2001 for Miracle’s Boys]. There was a picket line outside of the building where I was supposed to officially receive the award in San Francisco. I refused to cross that picket line. We held another ceremony in a different location instead.

Q: Is is easier for you to get books about slavery and Martin Luther King published over just regular stories about African-American life in America?

Woodson: Not for me. But publishing is changing so quickly, and not necessarily in a favorable way for people of color. Speculative fiction is now very popular, and I tend to write more realistic fiction. And “people don’t gather in the same way anymore.” The Internet is so vast and confusing. I think to some extent it’s keeping the stories from getting out into the world.

A final, insightful quote from Woodson: “I always write because I have questions, not because I have answers.”

After Tupac and D Foster

After Tupac and D Foster
My signed copy of the book. (Plus a hint of some of the other things I’ve read).

I selected this book at random from a pile by Woodson that were on sale at the conference. I chose it because of the title…I knew who Tupac was, and I originally thought that “D Foster” referred to David Foster Wallace or possibly William D. Foster. That was not the case…

The book is about two African-American girls growing up in Queens. They are insanely close friends, having lived across the street from each other since they were born. One day, a mysterious girl named D Foster shows up on their block and asks them to play Double Dutch. They oblige, curious about where this girl with the strange, beautiful green eyes came from.

It turns out that D, who doesn’t reveal her full name until the end of the book, is a foster kid (hence the last name) who likes to wander around the city and escape the watchful eye of her foster mother. Her loneliness is heartbreaking and obvious, and the two close friends soon become an inseparable trio.

I was impressed by this novel for many, many reasons, but I’ll just attempt to share a couple of them here. First, the language. It’s not often you find books written in a genuine, contemporary African-American dialect. The only good examples that I know of are books from quite a long time ago–Huckleberry Finn, which for obvious reasons isn’t the most accurate representation, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was published in 1937 by Zora Neale Hurston. Perhaps there are other, more recent examples, but since the African-American style of speaking is often stigmatized, I would argue that it’s comparatively unusual to find it in mainstream texts. Woodson writes naturally; some words are different (“moms” instead of “mom,” for example), but it’s not an exaggeration. It’s written the way that real people would actually talk.

Second, the range of issues that Woodson manages to include in a relatively short 150-page novel is astounding. She addresses homophobia, discusses systemic racism and structural violence against black bodies, includes a range of family types–from foster kid to only child & single mother to six-sibling family–and has one of the most important scenes in the book take place in a jail. So! I can understand why some people would feel nervous about her books, and why they have been banned in some places. But her criticism is channeled through a 12-year-old African-American girl, and thus is implicit rather than constructed. One might read this book, for example, and realize that it’s true that one family can be challenged by ALL of these issues at the same time, and that furthermore, this is a typical–not unusual–portrait of what it’s like to be an African-American girl growing up in the United States.

All in all, I really wish that I had read this novel, and others like it, when I was younger. To be honest, I never found anything like Woodson’s work in school libraries. Perhaps this is because I attended elementary school in a conservative region of North Texas and then middle school in small-town, rural Illinois. While I appreciate what books like The Secret Garden and A Little Princess and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn have to offer, none of them even come close to discussing what Woodson does in After Tupac and D Foster. I can say with certainty that my own adolescence would have been richly supplanted with the alternative perspective offered in Woodson’s books for young adults.

P.S. If you care to view the rest of the posts from everyone who participated in this YA blog party, just click here