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A Novel

Written by Pamela GienAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Pamela Gien

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-307-43267-4
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In this heartrending and inspiring novel set against the gorgeous, vast landscape of South Africa under apartheid, award-winning playwright Pamela Gien tells the story of two families–one black, one white–separated by racism, connected by love.

Even at the age of six, lively, inquisitive Elizabeth Grace senses she’s a child of privilege, “a lucky fish.” Soothing her worries by raiding the sugar box, she scampers up into the sheltering arms of the lilac-blooming syringa tree growing behind the family’s suburban Johannesburg home.

Lizzie’s closest ally and greatest love is her Xhosa nanny, Salamina. Deeper and more elemental than any traditional friendship, their fierce devotion to each other is charged and complicated by Lizzie’s mother, who suffers from creeping melancholy, by the stresses of her father’s medical practice, which is segregated by law, and by the violence, injustice, and intoxicating beauty of their country.

In the social and racial upheavals of the 1960s, Lizzie’s eyes open to the terror and inhumanity that paralyze all the nation’s cultures–Xhosa, Zulu, Jew, English, Boer. Pass laws requiring blacks to carry permission papers for white areas and stringent curfews have briefly created an orderly state–but an anxious one. Yet Lizzie’s home harbors its own set of rules, with hushed midnight gatherings, clandestine transactions, and the girl’s special task of protecting Salamina’s newborn child–a secret that, because of the new rules, must never be mentioned outside the walls of the house.

As the months pass, the contagious spirit of change sends those once underground into the streets to challenge the ruling authority. And when this unrest reaches a social and personal climax, the unthinkable will happen and forever change Lizzie’s view of the world.

When The Syringa Tree opened off-Broadway in 2001, theater critics and audiences alike embraced the play, and it won many awards. Pamela Gien has superbly deepened the story in this new novel, giving a personal voice to the horrors and hopes of her homeland. Written with lyricism, passion, and life-affirming redemption, this compelling story shows the healing of the heart of a young woman and the soul of a sundered nation.

Praise:
A gripping first novel in the tradition of such great southern African writers as Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing. Spare beautiful prose builds to an unforgettable climax. 
--BOOKLIST, starred review
 
           
Pamela Gien's novel is impressively affecting. She is a wonder. The Syringa Tree as a play was uniquely moving, but Gien has taken it beyond its walls, and given us remarkable writing that stands freely as a deeply affecting and fresh telling of this classic story. -—Lillian Ross
 
The story of a young girl and her cherished caretaker is the
story of a heartbroken country. Pamela Gien brings South Africa to vivid life, illuminating how the bonds of love are stronger than the forces of history. I read the end of the book through tears.
-–Amanda Eyre Ward, author of How to Be Lost

This book plunges us inside the skin of humanity and is suffused with a rare understanding. The Syringa Tree reminds us that every life can be a drop–and a great deal more–in the sea of history.
-–Scott Simon, NPR, author of Pretty Birds and Home and Away

Evocative and impassioned. Gien captures perfectly the voice of the child Elizabeth and the grown woman she becomes. --Baltimore Sun, Summer List    

Highly recommended...Gien here illuminates the shameful history of a country, by highlighting the juxtaposition of race, anti-Semitism, and class privilege. -Library Journal                                                                                                                     
A spare, yet poetic account that steadily works its magic on the reader as both a portrait of individuals, and a country, in the tumultuous time of apartheid. --Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Gien...renders South Africa...as a virtual paradise, which
painfully contrasts with the blood spilled on its soil. She’s an expressive, fluent writer whose best passages are lyrical yet intimate, bringing you right into the room. --Seattle Weekly

A gorgeous, hopeful, heartrending novel. . . . This uncommonly moving, deeply humane novel nearly dances in a reader's hands with the rhythms and the colors, the complicatedness and the inimitability of southern Africa."--O The Oprah Magazine


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

.......

SOEKMEKAAR, LOOKING FOR ONE ANOTHER

e Newly six, I lay in the dark listening to the rattle of my shutters. The moon was gone from them.

Something moved in the passage outside my door. My heart banged up into my throat. I strained to listen, tried to be still. I must have called out. I felt warm fingers close my eyes. My father’s hands smelled of long hours and antiseptic soap. “It’s nearly midnight, Lizzy,” he said, in the hope I would finally submit to sleep in my Johannesburg bed. In the dim light, I saw he was still in his creased shirtsleeves rolled up from the day, but without his polished brown shoes. Usually at night, he left them by the front door. He must have had to go out again after we fell asleep, on another call, someone sick on a farm at Fourways, maybe, or further out at Honeydew, a child bitten by a snake, someone trying to be born, someone stabbed. Newly qualified as a doctor, he was not yet thirty, with dark rims beneath his eyes.

“Is Mommy still in her bed?” I whispered.

“She’s in her bed.”

He closed my eyes again and turned to go. Still no moon.

“Tell of the wild dogs,” I said.

He sat down around the middle of the bed where my feet ended under the blanket, and rested his head on his hands. He began rubbing his fingers against his scalp through his short-cut dark brown hair, slowly, like medicine for his head. “He loved the wild dogs,” he began. “His black eyes, like newly lit coals, glowed within the small, flat plane of his features. He had never seen the face from which he peered, Elizabeth, never caught sight of the fire within him.” He was the first, he said, the first to walk the African veld we now called our own.

The moon had not returned. In its place it had left only relentless night. Like the moon, I drifted away. It was the first of May, 1963, with the whipping dust of early winter already taunting the bleak Transvaal highveld with the promise of more drought. Evenings were starting to prick with cold. Veld grass blew flame-ready in dry whispers. Miles deep, men tunneled, dreaming of the beauty of the sky. Crickets kept the night awake, and outside, the city of gold lay quiet.

It must have been Salamina who lifted me in the dead of night from my sheets, her strong, brown Xhosa hands paper-dry from cleaning and washing. It must have been Salamina who wrapped my sleeping limbs tight within a musty blanket and heaved me, limp with dreams, up over her pregnant belly.

She must have carried me silently down the slate passage, through the kitchen door out to the waiting car, its headlights on, its hot breath steaming into the black highveld cold. It must have been her Xhosa tongue, clicking like soft rain on a tin roof, that kept me from crying out in my brief moment of waking, kept me from thinking it was the Tokolosh come to suck me away. “Tsht, Monkey . . . thula baba, jhe,” I must have heard her whisper.

“Thank you, Salamina,” my father said in the murmur of the house rustled into waking.

It must have been Salamina’s sound and smell that lulled me back to the safety of sleep as she ran with me quickly to lay me in the backseat of the car. And it must have been Salamina who closed the gate behind us, watching as we drove away, her stomach swollen, ready, with a child who was not to be mentioned outside the walls of our house.

Before the first gleam of dawn began to light the Great North Road on the outskirts of the city, I woke in my blanket on the backseat. Peering out into the night, I saw the piling yellow sands of gold mines ghosting by like dark castles, their glimmer robbed, long gone. I knew, with a leap in my chest, this was the way to Clova.

It was the acrid odor of smoke that woke me—thousands of fires already fueling the daily life of the native townships, Soweto and Alexandra—the same smell that seeped from the pockets and folds of Salamina returning from her servant’s day off each week—a black and sour smell. A smell I did not notice near my home, where electricity burned bright and there was no need of a fire except as a frippery on a chilly night. You are not allowed to go in there, not without a special paper, my sleeping head bossed me, into those townships. They lapped, silent as we passed, at the edges of Johannesburg.

Through the sweet, laden orange trees of Nylstroom we went, and out into the northern veld far from the lights of any city or town, where the sky was higher, blacker, and the early dawn deeper, quieter. It told you nothing. Only the swift rub of tires sounding their long, dark call.

My mother sat in the front seat, the promise of Clova in the distance ahead, her rough edges softened, calm again, with my father driving us further and further out into the veld. Too early for smoking but not finding a reason to wait, she lit a cigarette, filling the car with the scratching smell of a match. She opened the window, washing us in cool air, and rested her head back. From the backseat, I saw her eyes close down at the sides as she breathed out. The wet corners of her thick, black lashes wove top into bottom, like shongololo-worm legs folding together in the rain.

Not brushed or neat now, the soft curls of her Jacqueline Kennedy hair fell a bit over the neck of her green wool jersey, where the label stuck out. She managed to hold the cigarette and simultaneously finger her delicate pearl earring with the same hand, between her fourth finger and thumb—soothed, in her small cloud of smoke.

I did not risk tucking the label in for her, lest it scratch her skin, or aggravate her.

I thought, suddenly, of promising not to root in the sugar box when no one was looking. It was a promise I knew she would welcome, as it would cure the horrible, spiky condition called hyperactivity that routinely befell me soon after—prompting Salamina more than once to cry out, “Jheh, Miss Lizzy, you are jumping like a monkey!”

But on second thought, I decided to save the sugar box promise for later, if things got worse. For now, I would just be exceedingly quiet. I would say very little when we got to Clova, and would not appear like a pest too much in front of her, except maybe to stroke her feet as they peeped out of her blankets, if she napped there in the afternoons. Through sleeping eyes, she would not see me. I would smooth her feet, keeping my hand flat and gentle, the way she sometimes smoothed me.

As we drove, my head banged inside with the commotion of the day before. Usually, no one said anything about my mattress. Usually, Salamina and Iris, the newish nanny for baby John, carried it out to air in the sun. They’d lay it on the grass in the backyard for their lunch hour, then settle themselves, unbuttoning their cotton uniforms a bit under the powdery, yellow mimosa trees behind the house, eating doorstop-thick jam sandwiches and embroidering white pillowcases with jaunty flowers for their servants’ rooms.

Late in the afternoon, my mother had come into my room to lie down next to me on my cured bed. In her yellow linen dress, creased and slept-in like a crushed lemon-cream biscuit, she lay with her face close to mine, loving me, her body grateful, like a boat that had drifted unexpectedly to safety after a terrible storm. She put her hand on my hair—chopped off in brown tufts to make it grow lustrously full in the future. One day I’d be jolly thankful for thick hair, she often told me. She kissed me, dozed with me a bit, and then said suddenly, getting up again, “Oh God, Elizabeth. You’re doing this on purpose, aren’t you? I just can’t bloody cope with it. . . .”

It wasn’t that I didn’t remember to run if I felt it coming. I promise it happened without my noticing, creasing my khaki cotton broeks into burning, smelly folds. Mostly I waited for it to dry, hoping it would not stink and thereby alert someone. The sun helped a lot, if you were jolly clever and hared out there quickly enough. And rubbing the back of yourself in the dried-out flower bed helped, soaking it away in a sandy crust that stuck to the sopping broeks. If you were lucky and got the mixture exactly right, it would cake itself on to hide the chafing patch.

She must have smelled it in the mattress, smelled me, the bad stink of the dried sand. I had never heard her swear, or really even raise her voice. She held on to me again, and said she was very sorry, and again I was her harbor, wet with her tears.

By the time my father came home after dusk, her door had been closed for hours, and I had been quiet for just as long. I heard the tires on the dirt driveway. I heard his car door close, and waited in the passage until I saw him at the end of it. He was tall to me, with glinting, sad eyes, a quick temper, and, they had just said in the Rand Daily Mail, brilliant.

He put his black physician’s bag down and covered his brow with his hand as if he had seen enough for one day.

“Mommy’s sleeping,” I whispered.

“Where’s Salamina? Why are the lights off?” he asked. “Hello, my Lizzy . . .”

I leapt up to him. He had been at his consulting rooms all day, setting up his first practice at the top end of the stony hill that was Bell Street, where the buses came in from the black townships, and the dirt road was lined with tiny, sharp stones glinting like salt in the sun. Most of his new patients were going to be Afrikaans, some English like us, a whole lot black, and a few in between. He’d navigated with some skill and a bit of humor, he’d later say, the Afrikaans whispers about the new doctor Isaac Grace being “Jood,” and more disgusting even than that, his wife, Eugenie, “Katoliek!” He’d separated, as required now by the laws, the black consulting rooms from the white, blacks going up the back stairs to their section, and whites up the front to theirs—thinking all the while of time wasted walking between the two. And there were other whispers he’d heard, surreptitious little jokes, subtle questions from patients, meant as feelers to discover where the new doctor stood in the ongoing problem of the native question. Predictions were offered about the teeming, likely violent masses. And now he had come home to find us in a heap, not coping with ourselves.

He said nothing to me about the wet broeks. I might be in the clear. Perhaps he’d already decided, before the broeks palaver, to take my mother to Clova for a rest, and let her parents restore her. He walked up the passage and went into her room.

Later, he let me ride on his shiny shoes, his feet under my bare ones, around the darkening acre of our garden. He told me how proper Mrs. Engelbrecht had mistakenly gone up the back stairs for Blacks Only at the new doctor’s rooms, and about the giggles and whispers in his waiting room when, in her embarrassment, she sternly admonished him to mark his stairs more clearly. “Why was she cross?” I asked. “Don’t know,” he said, and then as if he wasn’t really speaking to me, “Afraid she’ll catch something dire on the black stairs. Probably leapt into her shower and scrubbed her bloody skin off.”

At the tangled granadilla vines, we’d paused to search high above for a tiny light in its unimaginable orbit. Four years before, in 1959, a monkey peered out of his porthole as he soared through the heavens, his eyes lit with tricks, doubts, and fears. I scanned the nocturnal sky for him, his face glued to his window in the high silence above.

Suddenly, everything blurred.

“Brown pools . . . they think they’re pools,” my father said in the bug-thick dark, licking his finger and digging a miggie or some flying thing out of my eye.

The night smelled heavy-sweet with rotting moonflowers left over from summer. The throb of crickets drowned the din of my mother’s quiet absence in my ears. Our house from outside was unlit, except for the passage so we could find our way to bed. Oh no nothing will happen GOD won’t let anything happen Oh nonothingwill happen, droned in my night-head as we walked. The world inside our fence seemed suddenly as unpredictable as the world outside.

Bluer than English violets, my mother’s eyes were already closed when we went back in—just her cool feet sticking out of the blanket she’d pulled over to cover herself away. My father splashed his face with water in the bathroom. I heard it drip on the floor. He did not put on the light in there.

I stood by her bed in the shuttered dark. Her room smelled of Blue Grass powder, skin, sweet tea, and sadness. I had crept in to soothe her, to pat her feet, to let her know that I would no longer wet the bed, or my khaki broeks, that I would not be impossible in any way, that I would wash myself jolly clean with Vinolia sandalwood soap (guaranteed to work, I knew, because it was by appointment only to Her Majesty the Queen, and you’ve never seen her filthy), that I would try to look pretty and to smell nice.

I patted my wishes into her soft skin, hoping they would melt into her sad understanding as she slept. I told her that I loved her. And not wanting to ever mention the words again, I hoped in my head that she had not meant it when she’d said earlier that she wanted to die, or run away.


From the Hardcover edition.
Pamela Gien|Author Q&A

About Pamela Gien

Pamela Gien - The Syringa Tree

Photo © Guy Webster

Pamela Gien was born and raised in South Africa. She is the recipient of the Obie Award for Best Play 2001. She currently lives in the United States. The Syringa Tree is her first novel.


From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

A conversation with Pamela Gien

Matt Salinger is the original producer of the play, The Syringa Tree, both in New York and internationally, and an independent film producer.

Matt Salinger: Some of the reviews of the novel of The Syringa Tree place it on a continuum of South African fiction, and compare your work very favorably to the work of other South African writers: Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, and Doris Lessing. I’m wondering how you feel about being classified as a South African writer, and having your novel categorized as a South African novel?

Pamela Gien: Honored, and humbled. These are legendary writers who have contributed wondrous work. I’m just at the beginning, so it inspires me. I very much appreciate the past, the great traditions of storytelling that seep into one from childhood, and from which my own writing must have grown. And it helps me to look to the future, to appreciate writing as a lifetime passion. I love that the book is thought of as a South African novel, especially now. Recently, in Cape Town, I learned that many of the writers who were prolific during the apartheid years stopped writing once Nelson Mandela was released. There was no more struggle, nothing to push against. Young writers there now are being encouraged, to give voice to new challenges–the devastation of AIDS, the orphans it leaves behind, the still-daily struggle of so many adults who lost so much during those years. The Syringa Tree spans four generations, a bridge from the past into the future. It’s hopeful. To be classified as a South African writer honors my roots, honors me.

MS: Yes, I think it’s partly the potent mixture of the almost unbearably sad with the hopeful that so captures us in the story. Could you touch upon who your major influences were, and how it feels to be compared to people such as Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing?

PG: You know me well, and you know I never imagined I’d write The Syringa Tree, either as a play or as this novel. I think I always secretly wanted to write, because I love literature, poetry, language in all its varied forms. I’m drawn to dialects, mannerisms, the way a phrase turns, changes. I notice those things because I love them. But I never had the confidence to think that I could tell a story, or really that I had anything at all to say that might be of interest to anyone else. So it comes as a shock to be compared with these writers because I’m only beginning to think of myself as a writer. And while I’m scared to even look at those very kind comparisons, and want to remain simple and pure in my work, of course it delights and inspires me–shots of needed confidence, and I’m grateful for them!
As for major influences, I’d say I loved poetry early on, particularly that of Adam Small, a Coloured poet. He used the words “God’s forgotten,” to describe people of mixed race, classified as Coloured in South Africa. Just two words, but they changed my perception of the place in which I lived. During my first year at Rhodes University, at the formative age of eighteen, I had the great fortune to have the novelist Andre Brink and the poet Guy Butler as lecturers. And then later at the University of the Witwatersrand, I had wonderful teachers like Don McLennon and Barry Ronge. I also attended a lecture there by Yvonne Bryceland, for whom Athol Fugard wrote many of his early plays. She spoke so eloquently, in such a simple but powerful way about bringing his language to life on the stage. And then I saw her perform Hello and Goodbye at the Market Theatre. I began to love Fugard’s words, and I still find him immensely courageous, not only in his writing, but in the struggle he endured to create his work. Nadine Gordimer is a legend to me. Perhaps above all, Alan Paton. Most moving to me is that he wrote Cry, The Beloved Country while away, abroad. The underlying longing, the remembered beauty and cruelty, deeply affected me. As a student I loved Keats, Milton, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, James Joyce, and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I also loved Toni Morrison. On the silly side, I enjoy Noel Coward’s plays, and a funny book written by Robin Malan called Ah Big Yaws? (I Beg Yours?) celebrating South African dialects, utterly delighted me. One felt so far away from the world in South Africa. Because of censorship, and the massive divide of apartheid, there was not much new propaganda-free political literature around when I was growing up, and not much from the black community because so many were being denied a basic education. It seemed to me that ‘real’ writers were mythical creatures that lived on distant clouds. In The Syringa Tree, Elizabeth says “The sound of the train at Clova . . . always made me feel like I lived nowhere . . . [but] I was really somewhere then.” As an adult, reading Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela’s book about events that were kept hidden for decades, was like re-learning my own backyard.

MS: Evidently there has been a real interest in, if not more of a hunger for, writing that comes from South Africa for a great many years now. Why do you think that is?

PG: For centuries Africa has been a place of danger, mystery, and magic. The fact that South Africa was mired in the struggle of apartheid, and in the grip of a secretive government that censored dissenting voices (indeed banned them outright) makes the unfolding or telling of everyday life there informative and moving. I remember the words of John Kani, the magnificent South African actor who recently said to me, “It is over ten years now since the end of apartheid. We have banked our freedom. No one can take it from us. We are ready now to hear the stories. We are ready to cry again, to laugh again.” I think there’s so much interest in South Africa because there is a desire to understand a place caught for so long in misery, not in the simplistic terms of black and white but in a deeper, much more personal way. South African literature reveals enduring bonds between people who lived through the struggle, the heroism of great men like Nelson Mandela, and the victory of ordinary men. I think it captivates us because it’s different than what most of us know–an exotic, intoxicating physical and social landscape–and yet it resonates with familiarity, because it is about the triumph of the human spirit. South Africa is a miraculous example of redemption.

MS: The Washington Post reviewer wrote that your “evocative debut novel” is “a subtle layering of tone and detail” and that “The Syringa Tree is beautifully written.” The character of Elizabeth is described as narrating with “Scout Finch-like candor.” Are the themes in the book uniquely South African or can they be read as more universal?

PG: I’ve received many letters from Americans who grew up in the South, or who experienced racial conflict here in this country. The experiences they share with me are very moving, and one realizes that our lives are not that dissimilar. I think people from varied backgrounds, and of any race, can relate to The Syringa Tree precisely because it is not a political saga. It does not hit the reader over the head with a political message. It is universal because it is essentially a human story about a family, about their connections to a magnificent place, and to one another–a story about great triumph in the face of terrible loss. It has been described as a love story. I love that, because that’s how it unfolded within me. I came to understand the profound love I had for a country I had fled. The world, as we know, is full of strife, and leaving a beloved land is not an uncommon experience. Also, because the story is told through the eyes of a small child, we are invited back to that place of innocence within ourselves, that pure place into which we are born before we learn how to fear, how to judge others as different. I think it surprises readers to find themselves, through Elizabeth’s experience, willing to be disarmed, willing to be vulnerable, to feel again all those young feelings. The magic and joy of an African childhood are specific to that faraway place, but familiar to all of us in feeling.
MS: Your work began its life as a play, a play that won quite a number of awards around the world. Can you tell us how and why you translated the theatrical piece into a novel, and how the two works differ?

PG: The play won the Obie for Best Play in New York, to my utter astonishment. You were there, and you said you never saw anyone’s mouth open so wide in shock! It was at that time that Random House commissioned the story as a novel. I was intrigued by the idea of writing it as a novel, but honestly daunted by the magnitude of the challenge ahead. I struggled for a long time to find the right voice. I couldn’t limit the language to a child’s vocabulary, and yet I knew instinctively to tell the story in the first person. What I didn’t know at the time, in fact until my editor, Daniel Menaker, gently informed me, is that writing in this point of view is one of the most difficult things for a writer to accomplish. Once I found the adult voice through the child’s point of view–in other words, the young, immediate but “remembered” experience–I felt as though I’d scaled a mountain and could run down the other side. That’s when I began to enjoy the process, but it took almost two years of work to find that voice. And then it took another three years to complete the novel, so five years in all.

MS: What was the writing process like for you?

PG: I realize now that finding Elizabeth’s voice required a kind of personal bravery. I suppose writing any novel does. One has to be willing to be vulnerable on the page, to allow deepest thoughts and feelings to emerge without fear of judgment. I’m a very private person, perhaps even a bit shy, so the first two years of writing were really about giving myself permission to write freely. And then the reward, I think and hope, is that what is on the page is vested with emotional truth. Larry Moss, the wonderful director of the play, used to say to me in rehearsal that an artist has to be willing to go to the most painful place within. I remembered those words in the solitary years of writing the novel, and they helped me to be courageous. Writing opens up a well of emotions: grief, shame, joy, pride, confusion, and then the peace of clarity. Also having great friends like you, and Jayne Brook–who kindly read for me and let me know what was on the page and what wasn’t, and who guided and encouraged me through the loneliest times–was invaluable. And I’m grateful too to have had skilled editors in Dan Menaker and Stephanie Higgs. And Heather Schroder, my invincible agent, who persuaded me to write the book in the first place, and buoyed me up till it was done. Five years can seem like an eternity, so it’s good to have caring anchors. Much of the process was also joyful. What one can accomplish in the scope of a novel, in terms of history and context, is immense, and having an unlimited canvas, within the bounds of disciplined writing, of course, is lovely. Playing with memory, with imagination, is lovely. Dreaming of what could have been, or what might be, is lovely.

MS: If you had written the play after having written the book, instead of the other way around, do you think the play would be different?

PG: I’m extremely lucky to have the opportunity to work on this story in different forms. Each form has its challenges and limitations, and each has its strengths. It’s like fitting a beautiful puzzle together in different ways. I’m very glad the play came first, because it was organic, and emotionally raw to begin with, and then rigorously cut to the ninety-minute confine required by the theater. I feel proud now of the discipline in the text–not one extra word, nothing superfluous. I learned from that rigor and applied it to the novel. And you reminded me along the way to “make every word count”! My greatest fear was that the novel would not ‘live’ on the page in the same way, but I’m relieved to hear from readers around the world that they find the book both funny and powerfully emotional. It’s a gift to hear that. I’m working on the screenplay now, the third incarnation of the story. The language of film demands the telling of the story in a whole new way. It’s exciting.

MS: After several very public tussles, it seems that authors these days are increasingly sensitive about calling their work “memoirs.” You do not, and yet I understand that some of the events are inspired by your own life. Can you describe why The Syringa Tree is not a memoir but a work of fiction, and how you draw the line between the two?

PG: The Syringa Tree is based on a true, catastrophic event that occurred on my grandparents’ farm in South Africa when I was a young child. Obviously, as an adult now, recreating it on the page requires a blend of memory–recalling what I was told at the time–and imagination, since one cannot ever, especially as a child with all that is concealed for one’s own protection, be privy to every detail. When I first began to tell the story, I was writing completely autobiographically, thinking no one else in the world would ever see it, and that it was purely an exercise for a class I was taking. I had no idea at the time that it would become a play seen around the world! Once it had tumbled out in its earliest incarnation onto the page, I discovered I had no interest in writing a factual account of my life, and realized that if I fictionalized it, wrote ‘away’ from myself, I could tell a story that held a deeper fascination for me as a writer, a story I felt was telling itself within me. I got quiet, and listened for that whisper. I began to trust it more and more, and then to love the freedom of combining language and images from real memory, but woven into a broader story that belonged to all of us, not just to me. I’m often asked if Elizabeth is me. While I have no objective memory of myself as a child, I remember acutely how I felt. Elizabeth is deeply invested with my childhood feelings, fears, delights, excitement, and dread. Certainly some of her is rooted in memory and actual events, but she is imbued more with the feeling of my life than the actual facts. Similarly, some of the characters are inspired by people I knew and loved then, but they are also removed from “memoir” because sometimes they are composites of several people, sometimes based on just one remembered characteristic, sometimes on the characteristics of an entire community. I’m relieved I made this choice early on. It was a decision that gave me a wonderful liberty to tell the story I heard in my heart and mind. And I believe it’s the reason I receive so many letters from people who thank me for telling “their” story. I’m always profoundly affected by that. Recently, in South Africa, people of different races–black, white, and mixed race–said those words to me again and again. So, something that was so personal to me, something I never imagined would have meaning to anyone else, has so much resonance for others. It’s heart stopping. It means more to me than anything.

MS: The main character in the book, Elizabeth Grace, leaves South Africa during her University years. Is that when you left?

PG: No, but I was thinking of it then. One of my earliest memories is of my father encouraging me to leave, fearing for the future of the country under apartheid. “Don’t ever make this place your home, Elizabeth,” Dr. Grace says in the novel. I completed my honors degree at the University of the Witwatersrand, studied in Paris for a year, and then worked in South Africa for four years before leaving.

MS: Why did you leave? Did it take courage to leave, and/or did it take courage to stay? And how do you feel about being South African these days?

PG: I left for two reasons. I was curious about the world, especially America. I’d dreamed of living here as a young child, seeing it in films at the drive-in. And as I got older, it became a symbol of hope to me, a place where people were indeed deemed equal. As my eyes opened to the real situation in South Africa, I couldn’t reconcile myself with what was happening there, and I did not know how to fix it. I was politically na•ve, and scared. It seemed to me that one had three choices: to become a revolutionary for change and face solitary confinement, even death; to close one’s eyes to what was happening, extending help and kindness to those one encountered in daily life; or to leave, and try to make a difference elsewhere. So that idea, combined with the natural curiosity of a young person, fueled my decision. I didn’t realize until much, much later how complex, how sad, how confused my real feelings were about South Africa. I buried them, ran from them. But as most people know, one cannot escape one’s own heart for long. When I first began work on the play and was strenuously resisting all that emotion, Larry said to me, “You think it is shame you feel, but really it is grief–profound sadness for a place you obviously love and miss so much.” I must have wept for three days. It helped me to understand, to move forward. It gave me permission to express that love, and that’s really what The Syringa Tree is. I feel enormously proud to be South African, and humbled to learn from that country’s journey of forgiveness. And I’m also grateful to have earned American citizenship, to feel part of a place that has extended such generosity towards me. I’m very lucky to have both.

MS: Elizabeth goes back years later in the novel, looking for a certain kind of resolution to her pain and conflict. Is this something that you have been able to do?

PG: Thankfully, yes. I believe I wrote Elizabeth’s journey as a wish for my own life, and for South Africa. My return there after many years of feeling unable to do so was nothing short of ecstatic. I cried when the wheels touched down at Johannesburg’s airport, the place I’d left from, all those years ago. And I cried when I left again, and have done so every time since! It’s a beautiful place, filled with love and tremendous kindness. And joyful! John Kani, again, said to me, “Some of us still walk at the side of the roads in vlenterbroek [ragged pants], but now we walk with faces up!” And that’s what I feel when I’m there. The faces up! It’s miraculous. And there are so many people now doing committed work to help South Africa, both on a large scale and on a small, personal one. The country really does have a future. And I don’t mean to sound na•ve. There are tremendous problems to be resolved. But now, with faces up!

MS: How did developing and then playing the various characters in the play help you when it came time to write them for the novel?

PG: It helped enormously. I had worked so hard to create and bring them to life, and then perform them for magnificent audiences. I’m very lucky and extremely grateful to have had such in-depth work with them, to have ‘lived’ with them. They have become an integral part of my spirit. I know how they speak, how they think, move, live. And I love them. So it was a pleasure in many cases to expand them, to bring to light more aspects of each character. It’s work I treasure, because it unfolds mysteriously, almost from a spiritual place– it’s like entering into the soul of another, with respect and integrity. For me it’s about listening, allowing the character to inform and enlighten me. I suppose it’s about instinct, really. Often it’s surprising, and great fun.

MS: Were you intimidated at all to write the many black characters in the novel?

PG: Of course. I’m not black, and I approach those characters with the utmost love and respect, with my best effort to feel what it must be to walk in their shoes. I don’t think one ever really can know what it’s like, unless one has suffered those indignities. I can never say I really know what people felt as they got off the trains in Auschwitz after those grueling journeys. But I believe one can empathize deeply, and that as a writer, one has, in fact, a responsibility to do so. I think readers love the characters of Salamina, Zephyr, Iris, and Mollie so much because they “feel” them, not through an explanation from me of what the characters are feeling, but through their actions, their example. And I bring my own love to the writing from my early memories: the smell of Sunlight soap on my nanny’s skin, her skin against mine– indelible images. What one hopes for is something truthful and real on the page, not a clichŽ, shadow, or stereotype. It’s sometimes hard to write painful things from that era, but they must be part of the story, because they affected the lives of millions of people. And they continue to affect people today wherever racism occurs. You were there, Matt, when we took the play home to South Africa. A lovely thing happened. Numerous black South Africans had seen it in the States and in London, and had told me, many through tears, that it honored them–probably the greatest tribute one could wish for as a writer. I was anxious about how it would be received in South Africa. And it meant so much to me personally, to finally take it home. I felt hopeful because I knew well from growing up there that despite the separation designated by apartheid, there is an intimacy between black and white, a kind of unspoken camaraderie or connection that is uniquely South African. As fate would have it, my first audience in the 700 seat theatre was almost entirely black South Africans–mostly writers and artists. Very different than anything I had experienced elsewhere. They were interactive with me, like a church congregation, very vocal, sometimes even playful, throughout. I had no idea what they were thinking. Towards the end, they grew silent, and I heard what I can only describe as a wave of grief through the theater. At the end, they raised the roof with their cheers. I thought, “I’m finally home!” What a gift they gave me. Complete acceptance. They had no judgment for a white girl playing black characters. Compassion for all that had passed, celebration for all that is new.

MS: You have dedicated this book to the children of South Africa. Why is that?

PG: Because old and young, near and far, they have been through so much, and have much still to overcome. The children of today’s South Africa, especially–a rich and glorious blend of beautiful faces that not too long ago stood a world apart from one another. They stand together now, but are still paying a hefty price. They are filled with breathtaking optimism. They show us the way.

MS: Are you planning on writing another novel, and if so, will it be set in South Africa again or in your adopted country of America?

PG: I have another South African story haunting me, and just as I wrote parts of The Syringa Tree while in South Africa, I’d love to spend some good writing months there again. The Wilderness coast is an inspiring place. I also have a story about an American family that I might like to set down as a novel.

MS: If there is one theme that you would like readers to take away with them, or perhaps to keep in mind even when reading the novel, what would it be?

PG: That the color of our skin does not matter–only what is in our hearts is of consequence.

Praise

Praise

A gripping first novel in the tradition of such great southern African writers as Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing. Spare beautiful prose builds to an unforgettable climax. --Booklist
“Pamela Gien's novel is impressively affecting. She is a wonder. The Syringa Tree as a play was uniquely moving, but Gien has taken it beyond its walls, and given us remarkable writing that stands freely as a deeply affecting and fresh telling of this classic story." —Lillian Ross
“The story of a young girl and her cherished caretaker is the story of a heartbroken country. Pamela Gien brings South Africa to vivid life, illuminating how the bonds of love are stronger than the forces of history. I read the end of the book through tears.”–Amanda Eyre Ward, author of How to Be Lost
“This book plunges us inside the skin of humanity and is suffused with a rare understanding. The Syringa Tree reminds us that every life can be a drop–and a great deal more–in the sea of history.”–Scott Simon, author of Pretty Birds and Home and Away
"Gien captures perfectly the voice of the child Elizabeth and the grown woman she becomes. Evocative and impassioned."-- Baltimore Sun
A gorgeous, hopeful, heartrending novel. . . . This uncommonly moving, deeply humane novel nearly dances in a reader's hands with the rhythms and the colors, the complicatedness and the inimitability of southern Africa."--O The Oprah Magazine


From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. The novel is set in South Africa during the time leading up to apartheid. The story is told from the point of view of a six-year-old girl for most of the novel. How does this affect the way you perceive the situation in South Africa?

2. Lizzy thinks, even before Moliseng is born, that it is her dire responsibility to protect and save her loved ones. She literally thinks her mother is “kept alive by her exceedingly good behaviour.” Why has she come to believe that her actions and thoughts will direct the fates of others?

3. Both Eugenie and Salamina are maternal with Lizzy. How are Lizzy’s relationships with them similar, and how are they different?

4. Family is a major force in Pamela Gien’s story. How does Lizzy understand and how does she feel about her mother, her father, and her grandfather? How does she understand/feel about Salamina and Moliseng? Does Lizzy perceive them to be equal members of the family? Is she aware of any differences?

5. Lizzy is raised by an atheist parent. How do you think this helps or hinders her in her chaotic environment? What of her credo: “Oh no nothing will happen God won’t let anything happen”?

6. Compare Lizzy’s two ‘siblings.’ Moliseng plays a large role at the beginning while John comes to fruition as a character much later in the story. Why do you think this is? Is it significant that she refers to Moliseng as “the speck” and to John by his real name?

7. Why do Lizzy’s parents choose to risk so much by allowing “the speck” to stay at their house?

8. What is the role of Moliseng’s character in the story? Think about her relationship to Lizzy, her social position, and her status in the world. What about Loeska? What is her role in the story? Do Moliseng and Loeska symbolize anything beyond their individual characters?

9. Why does Lizzy want to be friends with Loeska so desperately?

10. Why is the book named after a tree in the Grace family’s back yard? Think about its description in the novel, physical and otherwise, and about trees as symbols in general. Think about what goes on in and around this tree, and the spirituality it evokes.

11. Dr. Milton Bird tells Dr. Isaac Grace that Eugenie’s depression is “unrelated to circumstance.” Do you agree?

12. Why does Lizzy bludgeon the chameleon in her backyard?

13. Why was Grandpa George murdered? Why did the murderer steal Grandpa George’s medals?

14. Why do you think Salamina leaves? Why does she do it secretly, in the night, and not say goodbye?

15. Why does Lizzy finally return to Africa?

16. How does the book’s tone change throughout the novel? What factors provoke the change?

17. The themes of displacement and disappearance surface over and over again in the novel, both on personal and cultural levels. Who really is lost and who is gone? Who is trying to forget and who is forgotten?


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