Marguerite Poland
Marguerite Poland

IT IS NOW a tradition for eminent South African author Marguerite Poland to dance on the family dining-room table, when she hears her latest book has been accepted by a publisher.

She sets the volume up high on What a Feeling by Fame, "and I run around like a lunatic. I’m allowed to behave badly."

She’s in Joburg, on a countrywide tour to launch her childhood memoir, Taken Captive by Birds (Penguin Books). Her joy was the result of her "Birds" manuscript being accepted by then Penguin publisher Alison Lowry within 24 hours of submission.

Poland says of its title that in Zulu the saying, "I have been taken captive by birds," means that the work of keeping seed-eaters from the ripening crops leaves no time for anything else. But it has other meanings too, including "to enter an awareness of another sphere".

"All my life I have been taken captive by birds. Their doings are the thread that runs through childhood, the link to people and to place. Their appearance and their presence can at once recall a name, a scent, a morning full of song and exploration; an evening sorrow, a childhood fear. It is the birds that saw it all."

That said, she is anxious that people "do not buy this as a nice bird book for a present. It’s not one. It is a book through which the symbol of birds, and love of them runs, but actually, in a strange way, it is a novel. People take liberties with their memoirs."

This is fascinating, coming from an author whose education, background and books are noted for her fastidious attention to every minute detail of the flora, fauna and indigenous people involved in her fiction — "I’m a bit of a frustrated scientist, very careful to get the names of animals and plants right."

Indeed, this is why Poland’s children’s books, such as Mantis and the Moon, and The Woodash Stars, have won awards as far away as Japan. It is the reason her adult novels, such as Iron Love, Shades, and Recessional for Grace, have won her such acclaim.

Her book, The Abundant Herds — A Celebration of the Nguni Cattle of the Zulu People, came out of her PhD thesis. It was exquisitely illustrated by internationally acclaimed artist, Leigh Voigt, and examines the role played by cattle and cattle-related imagery in the oral tradition of the Zulu. The aim of the book was to record a part of that unique heritage as well as celebrating the richness of Zulu linguistic versatility.

Poland’s lifelong, children-interrupted education has been focused on African languages and literature, especially on Xhosa and Zulu. She studied Zulu folk tales for her master’s degree. As we chat about her memoir, she continually refers to events "and little fragments, images, songs, smells that from your earliest age are planted in your being and one day they assert themselves".

Her conversation is as poetic as her writing, albeit sometimes halting and tentative, in keeping with her self-effacing and gentle demeanour. Her earliest memory of growing up on a smallholding, just outside Port Elizabeth, was aged two, watching cattle passing on a dirt road, "the smell of them, the feel of the dust and the image of their great horns".

She grew up running wild and free through the bush, cognisant always of the small wildlife "such as bush pigs, porcupines, jackals, tortoises and small buck. And the birds were always there — the thrushes, Cape robins, paradise flycatchers, owls, the fiery-necked nightjars calling in the dark and the dikkops crying when the moon is full".

There were chickens and ducks too, which feature in this beautifully produced book in shades of white, grey and silver.

The graphite illustrations are by Cape Town artist Craig Ivor, who has had a lifelong interest in studying and drawing birds.

"I feel that birds appear at certain times, almost serendipitously, and are associated with people I dearly love. My grandmother, who lived with us until I was 17, was so gentle that the wagtails, drongos and hoopoes near her, were never scared away."

Poland talks of a robin at her Grahamstown home that she calls "igugu, which means precious in Zulu. He cheers me up."

Chapter headings range from owls to spreeus, doves to gulls.

Game Birds is about a young friend of hers who committed suicide, "and I’ve juxtaposed that with a bird shoot, not something we did. Yet looking back, my understanding of what hunting was all about and our childhood, all came together. One explains the other."

Poland vividly recalls a woodcutter’s young daughter being brought to her compassionate mother after she’d been bitten by a puff adder. "But the nearest hospital wouldn’t take her because she was black."

What remains today is her mother’s fury and Poland’s sudden consciousness of an unfair, polarised world entering one that for her had always been idyllic.

In Crows, the three-year-old brother of a St Dominic’s Convent classmate is buried in the cemetery where nuns were laid to rest. Their habits were black and white and Poland, as a little child, felt the sense of death and gloom associated with sin, long before the funeral.

"I remember thinking that this little boy, whom I’d known well, would have to lie forever among the rather sinister nuns."

Poland emphasises that hers was a remarkably free and wonderful childhood. This does not sit neatly with a commonly held view that good writers "come from a dark and terrible place".

Describing herself as a peculiar child, she "wrote on the roof, under the bed, in my secret, favourite tree".

In her first story, penned at nine, a great love affair produces four sons in two weeks, "whom I made grow up quickly and sent them all off to war where I shot the lot of them. I didn’t know what to do with them."

Peals of laughter follow as the author, who was made an honorary "old boy" of St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown, in tribute to her biography on it, recalls another story involving guns.

It concerns her school set-work novel, Shades, which she hopes hasn’t met the fate of another set-work, Pride and Prejudice, studied by the son of a friend of hers.

"He put it in a thorn tree, took out a gun and shot it. As far as I know, I’ve not yet been shot."

Whimsical words from an author who daily receives letters from South African emigrants around the world, thanking her "for giving them a bit of the Africa they thought they had lost. That is, for me, every reason to have written anything at all".

"Birds" is vintage Poland, her words as deft and subtly layered as paint strokes; a collector’s item.