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Writing Presumes an Audience

The reader as detective: Allegory in Literature

By Charlene Smith (c)

 

Every reader is a detective; he or she reads hoping to discover new information, fresh insights into life, in the best literature, learning is osmotic and not didactic. Allegory aids this subtle process. Great works of writing tend to be allegorical; they have hidden meanings that often hold a moral lesson.

The story of "The Tortoise and The Hare" is a well-known allegory with a moral that a slow and steady approach (symbolized by the Tortoise) is better than a hasty and overconfident approach (symbolized by the Hare).

Characters, events, locations, and objects in allegories usually symbolize:
·  Virtues, vices, or other abstract ideas. A crooked banker might symbolize greed, while the character of Mr. Legality in the allegory Pilgrim's Progress symbolizes a viewpoint that prioritizes the law over faith in Jesus Christ.
·   Real people and specific historical events. For example, one character might symbolize Russian communist leader, Joseph Stalin, as Napoleon does in Animal Farm. The baobabs in The Little Prince represent the Axis Powers during the Second World War (Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and nationalist Japan, or anything evil).
     Although the symbolism in some allegories can be subtle, the analogy is often apparent. For example, Mr. Legality, who symbolizes a mindset focused around the law, is named Mr. Legality! And in  Geoffrey Chaucer's House of Fame, Lady Fame is a character who determines the social reputations of others.

 

     Historical allegories

    Writers may use symbols to mask the real subject of their writing (for instance, to avoid censorship or punishment, as an example, British publishers initially did not want to publish Animal Farm because they said it was too evident that it criticized Joseph Stalin). Sometimes a historical allegory is used to distill a complicated history into a simple story that will interest readers on an emotional level, for example, Anna Sewell's book, Black Beauty is apparently about a horse, in fact, it tells the story of slavery and its evils.

 
Conceptual allegories (parables)

A conceptual allegory uses characters and events to symbolize abstract things rather than actual events or people. It's common for writers of conceptual parables to use characters that embody moral qualities, such as purity, bravery, integrity, or love. Most religious and social allegories fall under this category since they usually don't have to do with a specific person or historical event, but rather a virtue or vice. 

In E. B. White's, Charlotte's Web the protagonist is a pig, and his best friend is a spider, both are creatures frequently scorned, but this beautiful book gives a great story about love, courage, and the importance of never taking anyone at face value.
 
Although an allegory uses symbols, it is different from symbolism. An allegory is a complete narrative (or story) that involves characters and events that stand for an abstract idea or event.

A symbol, on the other hand, is an object with a particular meaning, for example, writing about acorns falling on a roof like machine-gun fire is symbolic, it tells you what the sound is like, it does not form the whole story.
Writers use allegory to add different layers of meanings to their works. Allegory makes their stories and characters multidimensional so that they create deeper meaning that thoughtful readers understand.
 

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Sensory Detail - The Emotional Content of Story-Telling

 

By Charlene Smith (c)
 
Readers respond to sensory detail. If you can describe the call of a bird, how bark feels under fingers, the sight of a newborn foal on a misty morning, the aroma of coffee mingling with that of freshly baked bread, the taste of fresh truffles grated onto toast… readers will respond better to your writing.
    However, a danger is that in an attempt to describe you overuse words and phrases, you become like Jackson Pollock throwing words at the page without achieving his artistic effect. To appear smart or literary, you use big or obscure words. The purpose of writing is to communicate. The best writers use simple language.
     Lucille Moncrief writing in Medium notes: "Purple prose is flowery and ornate language. It sacrifices plot and clarity for indulgent detail. A piece of prose can be entirely purple, or throughout ornate bits are sprinkled. We call cases of the latter 'purple patches.'
      "Purple prose is like showing up in stilettos to go on a hike. The language doesn't match the occasion or the character. It draws attention to itself. It doesn't advance the action, clarify the plot, or reveal a character's intentions or thoughts. It's fluff — description for description's sake. Imagine being thirsty and drinking out of a fire hose instead of just getting a glass of water. This is what purple prose does. It drowns the reader."
     In sensory writing, and all writing, tell do not show. First-person – active tense - is always more powerful. Use writing (not big globs of heavy words) to convey drama.
 
Tana French in The Witch Elm gives a fantastic example of sensory detail done well at the start of Chapter Three:
      "The drive to the Ivy House, that Sunday afternoon, felt a lot like an acid trip. It had been months since I'd been in a car or been anywhere much outside my apartment, and the sudden torrent of speed and colors and images was way more than I could handle. Patterns kept popping up everywhere, frenetic and pulsing, dotted lines leaping out at me from the road, strobing rows of railings zooming past, grids of apartment-block windows replicating themselves manically into the air; the colors were all too lurid and had a shimmering electronic zing that made my head hurt, and the cars were all going much too fast, whipping past us with a ferocious whoosh and smack of air that made me flinch every time. We were in a taxi – Melissa's car was somewhere else or being fixed or something, she had explained but the explanation had been too complicated to stay in my head for any length of time – and the driver had the radio up loud, some talk show with a woman getting hysterical about being housed in a hotel room with her three kids while the host tried to make her cry harder and the taxi driver shouted an outraged running commentary over it all."
 
In the New Yorker, November 26, 2018, we have Raffi Khatchadourian writing in "Degrees of Freedom:"
     "For eighteen years, Jan Scheurmann has been paralyzed from the neck down. She is six feet tall, and she spends all day and all night in a sophisticated, battery-powered wheelchair that cradles her – half sitting, half reclining – from head to toe. In effect, the chair has become an extension of her body. To navigate the world in it, Scheuermann manipulates a cork-tipped joystick with her chin. She can move in this way with remarkable agility, but her height combined with the bulk of the chair and the unrelenting nature of gravity and matter, can limit her. Over the phone, though, it is possible to not ever think of her paralysis. She has a soft voice, a wry sense of humor, and a warm, gentle manner. Sometimes when she speaks she pauses to inhale: the deliberate breaths are necessary because her lungs do not automatically pull in enough air, but a listener tends not to notice them. Across a fiber-optic network, her words are converted into weightless digital information. She floats to you."
 
Out Stealing Horses by Norwegian author, Per Petterson is filled with exquisite writing, here is an example –
     "Lars got there first, he grabbed the gun and swung it around and shouted:
'Look at me now!' And then he pulled the trigger. The report and the shock from the butt sent him to the floor with a shriek, and he did not aim at anything, he just wanted to hold the wonderful gun and be Jon, and he might have hit the woodbox, or the small window over the steps, or the photograph of grandfather with his long beard that hung just above the peg in a frame painted the colour of gold, or the light bulb that hung there without a shade and was never switched off so that anyone out in the dark would see its light in the window and never get lost. He did not hit any of those things, he hit Odd straight in the heart at close range. And if this had been something that happened in a western, those porous pages would claim that the very name of Odd had been written on that cartridge, or it was written in the stars or on one of the pages in the fat book of Destiny. That nothing anyone could have done or said would have made the lines that met in thatburning moment point any other way. That powers other than those controlled by man had made the mouth of that gun point in that direction. But that was not how it was, and Jon knew it where he lay huddled up on the grass of the meadow and saw his father come out of the house with his brother in his arms, and the only book where the name of Odd was written and could not be crossed out was the church registry book."

 

An excellent way to start?  Walk through a greengrocer or farmer's market, can you describe all the colors you see? The taste of that gorgeous Georgia peach? It's scent? The texture of its furry skin, the way its flesh feels against your teeth, and how juice slips through your fingers and into your throat...  Sit and watch people observe their body language, how they express or restrain themselves, always have a pen and notebook with you and take notes. Writers observe the world around them.

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Making Friends of Your Enemies: Challenges for the USA

Making Friends with Your Enemies by Charlene Smith, Biographer of President Nelson Mandela
by Garn Press, New York, NY | Jan 20, 2017 | Activism, Editorial Features, Politics, World News|

 

By Charlene Smith

 

I'm the sort of immigrant Donald Trump finds acceptable, blonde, attractive, accomplished, and with a British accent.
On the last point, come to think of it, most Americans would let me in.
This is where it gets difficult; I am South African-born. I've lived under neo-Nazis. Some apartheid presidents were jailed during the Second World War for active Nazi support, and the biggest spy ring ever uncovered in the U.S. was led by a South African Nazi. My parents were racist, and my father, a bully.  I was a kind child and when about eight-years-old, my siblings and I were playing in a park. I saw three black children holding the diamond links of the fence, watching us.
"Come and play with us," I said.
"Our mother said we can't," the boy closest in age to me said.
"Oh come, it will be fine," I urged, and they, tempted by the colorful merry-go-round, the swings, and slides, ran into the park. There we played until we heard sirens and saw police vehicles skid to a stop outside the park. Something terrible must have happened. We stood transfixed. The police ran toward us. We were confused, we hadn't seen any baddies.
They grabbed the three black children, who screamed and cried, as they were hauled off to police vans. A black woman, a maid, came out of one of the houses and fell to her knees pleading with the police officers who ignored her.
She wailed as the police vehicles sped off.
I had done this. I brought harm to this mother and my friends. Even now I feel shame.
Children are wise, they understand injustice, and no matter what their parents say or do, they know.
I was a clever child who won academic and good fellowship awards at school, I was never promiscuous, nor used drugs or alcohol, but arguments at home intensified. I felt apartheid was unjust. At the age of sixteen, a month after I graduated high school, I was labeled a 'traitor' by my parents, and a 'kaffir boetie' (the equivalent of 'nigger lover') and banished from home. I had no money and scant education but a journalism cadet program at the largest newspaper group accepted this shy child. I became the youngest cadet reporter ever and the first woman crime reporter in South African journalism. In that year black students protested inferior education. I saw the first dead bodies of my life as children my age and younger were gunned down by police. More than 600 died in a few months and that radicalized me. Five years later I was active in the underground of the African National Congress, the outlawed liberation group that Mandela belonged to.
There were three levels of commitment – were you prepared to be arrested?
To prepare we read St. Augustine's Just War theory. I became a disciple of Gandhi and satyagraha, non-violent resistance. He counseled that we should not respond to haters in like manner – or as Michelle Obama put it, "when they go low, we go high." Gandhi also wrote in his 1928 book, Satyagraha in South Africa, "you shall not bend your knee before an oppressor." Stand tall, be dignified, never cower.
The next decision was, if I get arrested and am interrogated and tortured, will I speak, or remain silent, or give them a little but not that which is most important? Do I shame the oppressor by carrying the harm in my own body, as Gandhi suggested? The apartheid government loved torture as much as Trump.
The last personal assessment was, am I prepared to die? Nelson Mandela said in his statement from the dock:
"We, of the ANC, always stood for a non-racial democracy. We shrank from any action which might drive the races further apart …Fifty years of non-violence brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation and fewer and fewer rights … Our complaint is not that we are poor by comparison with people in other countries, but that we are poor by comparison with white people in our own country. … I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
He was influenced by "Letter to a German Friend, July 1943," in Resistance, Rebellion and Death, by Albert Camus, which was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1963. (I have the copy Mandela used.) These were letters the French Resistance dropped over German lines. Camus ends with words we need to start with:
"This country is worthy of the difficult and demanding love that is mine. And I believe she is decidedly worth fighting for since she is worthy of a higher love… Your nation … received… only the love it deserved, which was blind. A nation is not justified by such love. That will be your undoing. And you who were already conquered in your greatest victories, what will you be in the approaching defeat?"
The U.S.A. is not worthy of blind love. I love it with my eyes open. I hear the fear of the white working class who have lost work, forfeited homes, status, and struggle to pay excessive interest rates on student loans. Hate is a product of fear. Always.
I am disturbed by the militarization of the police. The notion of service is being surrendered to force, and this enables the shooting of too many black men.
I didn't want my children to live in a society that discriminated against anyone for any reason. I didn't want them to ask when they grew up, "what did you do mommy?" And to have no answer.
My road led to Nelson Mandela.
We left South Africa for a time because my American husband feared that he would be deported and I would be jailed. In 1989, I returned after the assassination of a close friend. Four months later, Archbishop Desmond Tutu asked if I would begin the first investigations into government death squads. God blessed us because within two weeks a death squad assassin escaped the noose in Pretoria by giving us an affidavit of some of his crimes. Liberal lawyers brought a stay of execution. It was my task to prove or disprove his claims before making them public. We did not know if this was security police disinformation. It included claims of police officials torturing a man then putting him on a spit to burn to death, while they barbecued nearby. They locked the doors of minivans with students inside and firebombed them. They used waterboarding, the helicopter, electric shock torture – all devices that the U.S.A. employs and we've mostly turned our faces because it was to others. It never could happen to us. Could it?
Pastor Niemoller, interned at Auschwitz wrote:
"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."
On February 10, 1990, I visited a friend recovering from pneumonia, Cyril Ramaphosa, now deputy president of South Africa. He was reading Barbara Tuchman's, The March of Folly, and said, "every politician must read this." In it, Barbara Tuchman writes:
Folly is a child of power… The overall responsibility of power is to …keep mind and judgment open and to resist the insidious spell of wooden-headedness. If the mind is open enough to perceive that a given policy is harming rather than serving self-interest, and self-confident enough to acknowledge it, and wise enough to reverse it, that is a summit in the art of government.
On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela, aged 71, walked free. Cyril held the microphone for him at his first public address in Cape Town. Two days later I was the second journalist to interview him in Soweto. He had such grace. Before I began he said, "Ms. Smith, I have read your works, I want to know about you." He quoted verbatim things I'd written years before, and asked me to describe persons or events.
Nelson Mandela was always interested. He cared. If he met you once, he would remind you, when next you met, of what you discussed six months or a year before.
The world loved Nelson Mandela because he loved us, all of us. He came out of prison and told South Africa's deeply divided people to 'make friends of your enemies' – when at that time there were government death squads, the right-wing were planting bombs at taxi ranks, and internecine violence saw hundreds of people die a week.
His approach caused anger among some ANC leaders. He listened to them patiently, and then asked, "What will it cost to negotiate?" They had no answer. We had lost so much peace was the most radical act of all.
No one was invisible to him. Our Madiba would arrive at an event and first greet the cooks, the cleaners, the security detail, the waiters; the rich and famous could wait. Everyone was important to him. Everyone is important.
He went to the white-only homeland of Orania to visit Betsy Verwoerd, the widow of the architect of apartheid and the man that sought Mandela's execution. When they emerged, his hand gently on her old shoulder, she looked at him with pleasure. It flabbergasted a nation of haters.
If a woman or child was gravely harmed, he would travel across the country to comfort them. He was our president, our best friend and trusted ally, regardless of our political persuasion. We called him Tata (father).
He wasn't perfect, he made mistakes, but he would admit when he was wrong and change course. He was as flawed as we, he simply tried harder to be better.
I knew Nelson Mandela for 23 years. In July 2013, my father died and I did not mourn.
In 2015 I wrote a 'letter' ending with these words:
"I kept thinking about my absence of feeling. A few months after your death, Mandela died and I mourned deeply. I still do. At Christmas 2013, I thought of how sad your life was, how narrow, and how blessed I am to love many, and be loved by many. Sorrow for your sad life is what I now have, and so dad, my father, the architect of the person I am today, I want to thank you. I hope you have at last found peace."
In America today, we fear. People are angry. Friendships have splintered. People whisper behind closed doors. They have panic attacks or insomnia. As apartheid became more vicious I developed a stress-related heart condition that saw me in the I.C.U. a few times a year. Since moving to the U.S.A. I have never been hospitalized. Don't give bullies power over your mind and body.
I believe Mandela might say, "You know American people are very clever, they have achieved much. Along the way, they became lost, they were so busy telling others what to do that they ignored the cries of those at home. We are not ungrateful for their meddling, because of sanctions – first called for by Martin Luther King in 1961 and finally defying a presidential veto from President Ronald Reagan in 1986 – saw me walk free less than four years later. As my good friend, the Archbishop Tutu might say, 'There is a time for everything, this is America's time, to build, to heal, to mend, to speak, to heal.'"
The word courage comes from the French word, coeur, it means heart. Courage comes from the heart. It is an act of love.
Open eyes are the fuel Lady Liberty needs. Pain leads to new awakenings, a fresh appreciation of what we are and all we can be. Listen with an open mind. Courage demands we make friends of our enemies and denounce persecutors. And always, as Mandela did, make time to dance.
Freedom challenges us. Justice Jackson ruled in 1941 in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (who refused to salute the flag), "Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order."
After receiving a Congressional Gold Medal on October 6, 1994 (14 years before being removed from the Terrorism Watchlist), President Nelson Mandela said: "At the end, goodwill prevailed. At the end, the overwhelming majority, both black and white, decided to invest in peace."

This is my prayer for the land that has given hope to so many. In years to come may you look back at the courage you found, and the enhanced love you have for our United States of America.

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The Breathers

By Charlene Smith (c)

 

A friend, a smoker for all his years, was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer just over a year ago. Some months before his diagnosis, I received the same diagnosis, I've never smoked although I've been asthmatic for just over a decade. The diagnosis came after three bouts of pneumonia in two years, also, the pulmonologist said, I also had a partially collapsed right lung, small cell disease (cancer), and a tumor in my lung's middle lobe, double cancer.
Around the same time, a friend in Houston received a lung diagnosis that gave her a life expectancy of two years; she began lugging around a large oxygen bottle to help her breathe. She, and we started researching the hell out of her disease and lung machines. She is a sculptor and dust, like smoke, is not your friend.
And then yet another friend, a Zimbabwean found her lungs were collapsing and she went onto high, permanent doses of Prednisone - probably the drug I hate most in the world next to Warfarin (Coumadin). Warfarin is awful because you can't eat the green leafy vegetables I love, but Prednisone makes me crazy; it causes mood changes, but not her, a fabulous person anyhow, she became nicer, although it caused her to develop a classic moon face (makes her more beautiful, lucky girl).
Another friend, in Maine, who struggles to walk more than the length of her apartment without oxygen joined us on a Facebook inbox chat we call The Breathers.
According to the doctors, we should all be dead or dying, but the human spirit and faith are remarkable.
My first friend has a fantastic wife, friends who adore him (me too), prays as much as the Texan and me, and was lucky enough to get onto a clinical trial. This week he celebrated because the tumor is less than 1 cm - that means, bye-bye cancer. We don't talk remission; we focus on farewell.
The Texan friend got onto her treadmill each day with her oxygen tank and walked, then started running. She also launched a significant sculpture in a park, found more commissions started coming in, started renting out part of her home for Airbnb, told very few her diagnosis. Instead of retreating from life, she went toward it.
I was similar; I was so traumatized after my initial diagnosis, I told one person who burst into tears and kept saying, "please don't die." I was so appalled by her theatrics that I thought, that's the last person I'm telling, I don't need drama, I need support, and if it means being on my own so be it, but thank God, I found The Breathers.
My Texan friend, like me, scorned the drugs the doctors wanted to put her on. With a two-year life expectancy, she started living, her treadmill work saw her lose weight, look the best she had in years, and my favorite pic is of her doing headstands on a beach. Her life and work have gone up a few levels with more awe-inspiring sculpture projects.
The Zimbabwean woman came to terms with her moonface, and is shining in all the best ways including reimagining her business. She has also become a profound source of inspiration to all who know her. Her health and spirit are strong.
The woman in Maine is studying Gaelic, is an artist, and deeply spiritual she helps people in war-torn or poverty-stricken areas across the world. All via the internet. Motivated by our little group - who speak in occasional bursts, she began writing a book that will be launched this fall.
Me? I refused chemo or radiation. I asked the doctor for three months to do things my way. I deepened my practice of Ayurveda - an ancient Indian medical system, older even than Chinese medicine. I switched to a mostly vegetarian diet with occasional fasting; I walk a few miles a day, I started training as a Kundalini yoga teacher - which is robust, active breathing, I disrupted the first few classes because the exercises would see me cough so much I'd have to leave the class. At three months, all the scans showed the tumor shrinking, my cells opening.
My doctor asked what I was doing. I told him, he, thank God, also practices yoga and believes in its healing potential.
He still said, maybe start chemo now?
I said another three months please, and with me too, by the time I went back after the additional three months, the tumor was negligible, the small cell disease gone. All along, I also thought that if the tumor grew, I would go to India for 21 days and go on an Ayurvedic fast.
And if I died? You know, this has been a pretty fascinating life, it's okay.
Maybe we are all just lucky, but I think having the support of loving friends in a similar situation, going for alternatives and not panicking and going straight onto heavy pharmaceuticals, maybe that helped.
I'm blessed to know The Breathers, I am so lucky we were all sick at a similar time and reached out to each other. I am grateful we are all healing or managing our conditions better.
When I first wrote this and posted it on Facebook, a New Zealand friend inboxed me; she has sarcoidosis - same as the Zimbabwean woman, a single parent, she is struggling to breathe. She is also rejecting Western pharmaceuticals, she has eliminated alcohol and red meat and says that even after a month, she can feel a positive difference.

If you have a diagnosis you're anxious about it - just BELIEVE, try different things, don't make doctors gods. Keep a positive attitude, keep the faith, and if it is your time to go, then give thanks for all the good life has given you.

If someone close to you has a negative diagnosis, cut the drama because then it becomes all about you. They need you to be calm, sensible, someone they can tell everything too, even the stuff that scares both of you. Don't obsess about the disease - they're doing enough of that - be knowledgeable, but also focus on pleasant distractions, going to listen to music, having friends round for a meal that you cook (take-out and processed foods are not suitable for us), use these lessons to live life better, to love more, and stress less.

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Responding to journalist questions about Mandela Feuds & Legacy

By Charlene Smith (c) 2013

My mailbox is groaning with emails from journalists who send copious questions about Nelson Mandela and his feuding family. As a self-employed writer, I don't have the time to type the answers that they'll get paid for, so I send my phone number.

Here are some recent questions and my responses.

Q: What do you believe Mandela's legacy is?

CS: A legacy, the dictionary tells us is the inheritance, usually financial, that someone leaves to others. In this instance, Mandela’s will is set, no doubt it will cause further fighting when it is read. The 24 trusts he established for his family have kept them in luxury, Maki, as an example, lives in an R13.5m house in Hyde Park, paid for by a trust, and which would place her among the elite of the elite. Still, it seems, according to her recent lawsuit, she believes she deserves more.

I believe most reporters want to use legacy as a synonym for inheritance or heritage. Or perhaps even, “what example did Mandela leave?” But then again s/he may want to know – what were his most significant achievements? This would be my partial response. At other times other things come to mind, it depends on how you phrase the question and what is on my mind at the time. I've known Mandela for 23 years, written three books about him, made four television documentaries, so there are deep reservoirs of knowledge, anecdotes, and emotions. But I also don't hold myself out to be expert; people are too complicated for us to presume to 'know' them. I know far more than average, but I also only know that which I have researched and personally experienced in my relationship with him, those around him, my involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle, and as a journalist.

Mandela would hate hagiography, and there is a lot at present, and there will be more when he dies. He is ill-served by those who make him a saint. Nelson Mandela was exceptional, no doubt about it. I've never met anyone who had an aura of such greatness; it was as though he knew he was born to greatness. Nor have I met anyone with less pomposity, okay, Arch (bishop Desmond Tutu), you too, and both of those men infected all who came into their presence with joy, a real delight in life, and the people around them. But for those who experience such intense pleasure in life and people, disappointments can be particularly painful, and the experience of the corruption and lack of respect for the poor in South Africa today is deeply sorrowful. It is convenient to point fingers at the disgraceful antics of the Mandela progeny, but we need to reflect on how those of us who love him have failed to honor him in our personal lives and our conduct.

Mandela led South Africans, together, as one united nation to the polls for democratic elections, the first in its history in April 1994. He was 75 when he voted for the first time, many others I interviewed at that time, and who walked barefoot for days and miles were far older. I, a white South African refused to vote until all could vote, I was in my 30s, I can’t describe the reverence it has given me for elections and the need to vote if you have the privilege. Even in the United States, where I live now, I'm active in political canvassing and poll-watching. Every time I experience an election I am in awe of those who come to vote, and those who sit for hours enabling the vote, I wonder how many realize how precious it is, and that some of us were prepared to die to ensure all could have that honor? Mandela wasn't the only one prepared to die, every single one of us who became active in the anti-apartheid movement and the underground gauged how active we would grow by what we were ready to endure - arrest? Detention? Torture? Death? And so Mandela led people who are content with their anonymity but are among the bravest of the brave.

Mandela showed the importance of persistence, commitment, tolerance, and sacrifice.

He saw the value in every person; he understood that it was not the degrees behind your name or the balance in your bank account that made you consequential, it is the way you live your life. Is it with honor? Do you show respect and compassion for others? Or are you among the wretched of the earth who think the clothes you wear and the car you drive give you status?

At any gathering, he would greet the “invisible people” first – the cleaners, waiters, guards. He was genuinely interested in them. He cared. He didn’t have screaming black car motor cavalcades and flocks of black-suited bodyguards speaking into their cuffs; he often mingled with the public. He was dedicated to escaping the guards, to their ongoing frustration. He'd lived with them for 27 years in prison; he didn't want to live with them in freedom.

He truly loved us. We are his family. He sacrificed everything for us, not just for South Africans, but also for the people of the world, because in his sacrifices and his successes were lessons for us all.

Mandela is not a saint, and he would hate to be treated as such because one of his most important lessons is that anyone can overcome the most significant obstacles if they take on a foe without thought of personal gain, and in the hopes of righting a great wrong that hurts many. Although it was only late in his life that he decried military solutions, he powerfully lived Gandhi’s exhortation that we carry suffering in our bodies rather than destroy the life of our enemy.

Q: Do you feel the fighting between his family members will have an effect on his legacy?

CS: How can it? His achievements are far greater than the petty wranglings of the greedy. And not all members of this sprawling family are involved; some are deeply distressed by this situation.

Q: How did it happen that a man known for peace keeping has a family with (apparently) so much friction?

CS: Let he or she who lives in a family that never has discord raise their hand.

How can we blame a parent, especially one who was not there for most of the years of his children’s upbringing? His daughter Zindzi was two when he went to jail; she was 15 when he was next allowed to see her. He first touched the hand of his wife Winnie after he had been in prison for 21 years. He first saw his daughter Zenani, who he’d last seen when she was a toddler after she married. He wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral of his mother, nor his son Thembekile, who he had last seen as a small boy, and who died in a car accident as an adult.

In his first decade or so in jail he was allowed one 500 word letter in or out every six months, he was granted a half-hour visit once a year. If he or his visitor said anything, the warders didn’t like the visit was terminated.

His second wife, Winnie, has severe Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome as a result of being held naked in solitary confinement for 18 months in 1969. She was taken from her home in the early hours of the morning and forced to abandon her two small daughters; it was 18 months before she knew what had become of them.

She was allowed no visits nor cleaning materials. She was given no sanitary towels during her periods, and so the blood caked on her, and she was given nothing to clean it off. And that has left her with erratic conduct.

His daughter, Makaziwe, he saw last when she was an elementary school pupil and then next when she was in her forties. She and Winnie loathed each other and formed two primary factions in the family. Into this came Graca Machel, a foreigner, who married Mandela when he was 80. Some family members insultingly called her a 'kwerekwere,' slang for a foreigner. Graca had her burdens; she kept the name of her first husband, Mozambique’s president, who died in a plane crash and she maintains close ties with her homeland.

Maki was verbal about how she resented her father for not making enough time for his family, which sounds like the sort of complaints often directed toward successful parents in business and politics.

Mandela was subjected to 27 years of emotional torture, so was Winnie, and through her, her daughters, Zindzi and Zenani. Mandela was aware of this, and it pained him deeply. Yes, thousands of other South Africans experienced similar or worse - and look how dysfunctional our society is today.

I become drained by journalists from privileged backgrounds, who ask tabloid questions of me. We journalists, in our race to be first, do too little research and fail to understand that empathy allows us to see things in new ways, without compromising our news coverage. Indeed, it enhances it because our readers have experienced many grades of pain too, they understand, if we present it correctly, how troubles form, and how difficult it is to resolve them. We should be people first.

We should look with a fresh understanding of the challenges Mandela faced as a man, a parent, a husband, a father, a politician – and the difficulties his family faced. I'm not excusing the corrupt in his family, especially the venal grandchildren and great grandchildren, I'm simply arguing for more thoughtful reporting.


Q: What do you think South Africans think of the fighting?

CS: South Africans are deeply upset and ashamed by the family feuds, but they also think it is symbolic for a country that has become greedy, corrupt, and grabbing. Shakespeare would have found South Africa is filled with tragedies and farces.

But too, I think of the feuding Reagan children, Mark Thatcher’s checkered background, the scandals around the family of Martin Luther King, and Gandhi. In the end, the families of the great, are people too. It would help if the media, of which I am one, do not treat this like Jersey Shore, we created reality shows and the nightmare of 24-hour news cycles and with them scant respect for fact, as well as tabloid nonsense. It helps if we show more compassion and less sensation toward those who sacrifice their lives to create a better world.

Q: What do you think of the fighting?

CS: I’m pleased it is happening now because the family has opened Pandora’s Box, many of us would have died with what we know rather than dishonor Mandela. But they’ve opened it, and you can bet there are already journalists nose deep funneling out the endless dirt that is there to be found, not about Madiba, but about some who disgrace the name, Mandela.

Most of all, I am angry that they began this while he is still alive. He has had dementia for years, but he is not unaware of all that goes on around him. The lack of respect is disgraceful, but by their actions, they have revealed themselves.

Q: Finally, what is your official title and occupation?

CS: Ahem, why are you writing to me if you don’t know who I am? What happened to Google?

I want to add something, in a letter to the Young of America in 1993, Mandela wrote: “A time of crisis is not just a time for tears. It gives us a chance, an opportunity to choose well or choose poorly.
“The past does not dictate our choices.”

Somehow in his long dying, I feel that Mandela is giving South Africa and South Africans a chance to see themselves in the mirror that the conduct of his family holds up to society. In it, we all need to look at ourselves, and say, “What have we become?” Mandela gave us the golden key; we melted it and sold it. We’ve been so short term in our attitudes we forgot about the long run, the days of forever, the days of our children, I fear for their future in South Africa.

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Me and Nelson Mandela

By Charlene Smith (c)

I love to cook and so there came a point during the anti-apartheid struggle, where I gave up full-time journalism, became a full-time activist, part of the underground, and after long, endless meetings, would cook for strugglistas.
Murphy Morobe loved my veal Marengo, Cyril Ramaphosa (now African National Congress deputy  Read More 
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Struggling to Dance as Mandela Did

By Charlene Smith (c) 2013

“How we danced,” retired judge Albie Sachs said remembering the years of Nelson Mandela’s presidency.
Sachs lost an arm to apartheid bombers then became a Constitutional Court judge in a democratic South Africa. One of the world's most liberal constitutions, it was the first to enshrine gay rights.
Tributes  Read More 
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