Donald Woods, BIKO
BIKO was published in 1978… the year I began Grade 13. I did not read it that year… I did not read it until 1987 while I was attending school at Ohio State University. I read it after the movie Cry Freedom was released… the reverse order to what I would generally recommend!! I would also not recommend reading this without first having some general understanding of apartheid and the politics of South Africa at the time. Unfortunately for those not of my generation the reality of that situation means little!
In short, Biko is the biography of Steven Biko, a young black South African who is a leader of a resistance organisation trying to bring down the system of apartheid. Biko was murdered by government security forces. The book is incredibly detailed and very graphic. Not for the faint of heart.
As I think back on it there was a really interesting “convergence” happening in my life at that point in time. I was taking a graduate seminar that was being taught by a visiting professor from Durban… needless to say the focus of our discussions was the situation in South Africa: the living conditions and “facts of life” in the bantustans and the struggle to end apartheid in particular. At the same time I was involved with a student activist group called the CCLA… Campus Committee on Latin America. You could find me, every Friday afternoon without fail, in front of the Federal Building in downtown Columbus, protesting the Reagan government’s “involvement” in Latin America… after all this was the era of “Contragate” and Ollie North. I even made it onto the front page of the local newspaper, The Columbus Dispatch, one time (see the photo in this display). To this day I wonder what my FBI file reads like!
Also at the same time, you could often find me, of a Friday or Saturday evening, at a local rep theatre called “The Bexley”… which screened the greatest selection of films from all over… just as the Festival Cinemas used to in Toronto. The experience, however, was surreal, to say the least.
Bexley is an inner suburb of Columbus, of a similar socio-economic status to, say, Rosedale. Bexley was bounded on one side by the railway tracks and on the other side by “Main Street”… Highway 40. Kiddy corner from Bexley, across #40 and over the tracks was the largest continuous ghetto in Columbus. Words can hardly begin to describe the blasted out remains of what was at one time a thriving community, but which by this time had degenerated into nothing more than an assembly of skeletal remains… boarded up storefronts, fire damaged buildings, homes without windows and doors, etc. It remains, to this day, a huge expansive tract of racially segregated unmitigated poverty.
All of these seemingly disparate threads were coming together in my everyday life… I was witnessing the American incarnation of apartheid first hand every day… and it made me sick to my soul. The image of both of these communities was etched indelibly upon my psyche… and still speaks to me today when I try to come to terms with all of the injustices of this world.
Gabrielle Roy, The Tin Flute
This was the first book that we read when I was in Grade 13. I took a course called “English B”… it was all Canadian Lit. I loved the richness of the text (wished I had been able to read it in it’s original French) and the intimate understandings of the circumstances of people… the disparate circumstances in which people find themselves through no fault of their own.
In many ways this novel really started me on my life long journey as an activist. It really awakened my sense of social justice… and started me on the long journey which finds me where I am today. It really made me aware of the ways in which we all are vulnerable and how it really is a matter of “there but for the grace of God go I”. Through her character studies – that really is what stands out in the book – Roy beautifully documents the effects of grinding poverty and the huge costs that imposes both individually and collectively. You can’t read this book and remain the same person you were before you started.
This novel also got me involved in the sexual politics revolution. I became active in the movement during my Grade 13 year. Later, as a student at McMaster, I volunteered at, and eventually became assistant co-ordinator of, the student run Sex-Ed Centre… a place where trained student volunteers counselled other students about all things related to healthy sexuality.
This novel also started my love affair with Canadian Lit. After reading this we continued on with other amazing works including: Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel; Marie Claire Blais’ Mad Shadows; Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing; Robertson Davies Fifth Business; Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women; and Hugh Garner’s Cabbagetown. I recommend these and many more!