#4 Writing my children’s country – Tiah Marie Beautement

Augustus 6, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

“Write what you know.”

I tried that once. I took my undergraduate thesis, written at UCT, then listened to the advice.

“Do you think the majority of your readers will be women?” 


“Then your main character must be female. Do you think the majority of your audience will be Americans, like you?”


“Then even if your story is set in South Africa your main character must be from the United States.”

Thus, I wrote my first book believing I was writing a book primarily for American women. Adult American women, like me. But due to some random (good!) events my book was published in South Africa. Bit by bit it appears that this country, the country of my husband’s birth and education, the country of my children’s upbringing, has become the home of my work. 

Even so, moving to South Africa in August 2008 was a harsh shock of reality with all the instructions seemingly written in Afrikaans, a language I could not (and mostly still cannot) speak. Weighed down by two small children, I attempted to navigate the bureaucratic muck and build my family a home. Husband’s job may have come equipped with an HR department and employee handbook, but nobody gave the American spouse a manual for international parenting. Which school? Can anyone recommend a doctor? A dentist? What on earth is a BCG? What do you mean the house doesn’t have a phone jack? And why does my bank always want to speak to my husband when talking to me?

Two years later, I have reached an uneasy peace with my new home and am genuinely happy to be here. But still I wonder, as I sit tippy-tapping away at my keyboard. Am I overstepping my bounds? Do you, South African readers, feel spied on? Will I hit a nerve one day? Will there be a demand to mind your own business? How far is an author allowed to write outside of her own upbringing, gender and cultural norm? Does the colour of my skin, my passport, or at times my gender, disqualify me to tell these stories? Is my perception skewed? Are people sick of hearing voices from the West?

Write what you know.

I cannot claim to understand it all. South Africa is a country with eleven official languages and an even greater wealth of cultural diversity. But I have been listening as I breathe your nation’s air, buy your nation’s books, scan your newspapers, teach your children, and raise two of your country’s citizens. The longer I live here, the more it seems that South Africa is a country full of people that may “know thyself”, but are strangers to their fellow citizens. Yes, I am an outsider, but perhaps in this nation, feeling outside while living in may actually be the norm.   

South Africa and the United States – the two countries’ differences may be wide, but the list is surprisingly short. Our countries’ woes of the past echo each other’s mistakes. We share similar triumphs. Our landscapes may at times vary, but more often than not share eerily similar challenges and personalities. I come from a country that tried to rip itself into two, and remains divided into fifty ferociously loyal states, each boasting its own laws and regulations. The United States is just that – a nation of states standing side by side, but lacking much in the way of commonality.

Perhaps, then, the key to writing in South Africa may not be writing what one knows, but learning to write with empathy in areas of the less familiar. Or at the very least, make sure as writers we surround ourselves with good editors who can assist in painting a more accurate portrait of South Africa’s varied realities. For writing is akin to a conversation: in the end, the writer speaks, but first the writer must listen.

5 antwoorde op #4 Writing my children’s country – Tiah Marie Beautement

  1. damaria het gesê op Augustus 6, 2010

    When I first started to write,I also got the “write what you know” advice. Problem was, I was young and hadn’t lived much yet. So it seemed I didn’t know squat.

    I grew up in a village, and it seemed that nothing ever happened there ( or if it did, the stories didn’t seem exciting and worth telling).

    I majored in Chemistry and Biology, with minors in Physics and Maths at varsity, and no-one wanted to hear stories about those things!

    My point is, I wrote what I wanted to know. And I still do. It helps me get excited about topics I research and write about, and I feel like I’m always learning something new.

    So in my view, your being American adds another dimension, so that South Africans get a new perspective on their stories. Being new, you see South Africa with fresh eyes, and some things that I may take for granted and not highight in my writing may look different/fresh/strange/worth commenting on. Which adds to our collective storytelling.
    BTW, my intention is not to imply people shouldn’t write what they know. There are talented writers who can write what they ( and their readers) know, and imbue it with such detail and mystique it’s exciting all over again.

  2. tiah het gesê op Augustus 7, 2010


  3. tiah het gesê op Augustus 7, 2010

    It worked!!! Must be a mac thing, then. Damaria, thank you for commenting. I think there are two things with the whole ‘write what you know.’ What I should have emphasised in my post, not only was I unexpectedly published in South Africa; but, my readers were not the readers I envisioned. Yes, US women have read the book, but my first readers were SA students and my first review was written by a gay man. That even when you think you ‘know’ you don’t – my audience ended up being a wonderful group of people that never occurred to me that would read my story. So here I am now, writing what I know, and don’t, for readers I am less acquainted with. This is not a bad thing. It is a brilliant adventure. But with South Africa’s varied culture, an SA writer needs to be aware that: 1) his readers may be living a life that is completely different from the writer’s norm; 2) that both SA writers and readers can benefit from writers trying to push the boundaries of writing beyond the comfort zone.

  4. Very interesting comments Tiah and Damaria. I must say that it took me about ten years of writing before I began to write “what I know!” I wrote about my own feelings before then but expressed them through the lives of characters very different from me. Somehow it made it easier to contemplate my thoughts in someone else’s life. Only after some success with my own work and years of building up my confidence did I turn to my own life story. Only then could I write about the rather traumatic circumstances of my early childhood and adolescence. But before then I used what all writers have in bucket loads – or should have! – my imagination, but rooted the stories in authentic feeling. I think that’s the way to do it in my humble opinion. As long as you can relate to your characters authentically, you should be able to create believable characters who can move outside your own experience of life.

  5. tiah het gesê op Augustus 11, 2010

    Janet, this thread reminds me of my philosophy professors, who drilled into students brains that generally people know very little, and on the whole only have “true opinions”. They would (quite rightly) feel that my essay is being very sloppy with the use of “know.”

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