By MADOLINE MARKHAM
Claire Datnow thinks of her life in two parts: growing up in South Africa and living most of her adult life here in Birmingham.
“Why did I go from Johannesburg to Birmingham?” the Greystone resident said she contemplated for years. “I must be here for a reason.” The reason became clear this year when the publishing of her memoir about growing up in South Africa coincided with apartheid exhibits at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Birmingham Museum of Art. The exhibits alluded to parallels between South African apartheid and the Jim Crow era South. “It was wonderful to feel the connection between my two lives,” she said.
Born in 1939, Datnow tells the story of her family, country and immigration to the United States in Behind the Walled Garden of Apartheid: Growing Up White in Segregated South Africa. She paints the canvas of her childhood and young adult years amidst the exotic landscape of South Africa, weaving her personal stories with the historical context of apartheid.
The more she researched for the book, the more she realized how her family and comfortable suburban life had sheltered her from fully grasping what was happening in her own country in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Through her book, Datnow hopes readers will absorb some of historical complexities of the apartheid system.
Datnow and her husband, Boris, moved from South Africa to California in 1965 when he got a job with NASA, moving to Birmingham in 1972. They became acquainted with their new country during the Civil Rights Movement, and Datnow is quick to point out the differences she saw between it and apartheid.
“In America people could make change,” she said. “Having no censorship was so refreshing to me. In the grip of apartheid, there was nothing we could do to make a difference.”
In the book, Datnow chronicles the evolution of her view of right and wrong, from a child who accepted what she was taught to a young adult who questioned the morality of an unjust system. “Over time you see it’s not right,” she said.
“I had an uneasy feeling that what was being done was wrong, and we couldn’t right that wrong,” Datnow said. She hopes readers will reflect on how their personal lives are impacted by historical events as she did.
Always an avid reader, Datnow developed a desire to write in her early 20s. She published a few newspaper articles, but for years she focused on raising children and her teaching career. She taught gifted students in Birmingham City Schools before choosing to write as a career.
She began her fulltime writing endeavors with the memoir, writing the entire book in 1996. But the timing was not right to publish the work then, she said. The apartheid government had just fallen in 1994, and she didn’t think people were ready to read her story yet.
With the memoir draft on her shelf, she wrote a series of young adult environmental novels and The Final Diagnosis, a collection of real life medical mysteries based on autopsies she coauthored with her husband, an autopsy pathologist. Then, two years ago, she he pulled out the memoir manuscript and submitted it for publication. Local publisher Media Mint released it earlier this year.
“Apartheid is now an era that has disappeared,” she said. “There is a generation that didn’t grow up with apartheid, people want to know about it.”
Nelson Mandela Day, established on July 18, 2009, encourages people to do 67 minutes of community service in honor of his 67 years of service. There are also an Apartheid Museum and a Nelson Mandela Museum in South Africa now.
Today Datnow continues to write and speak to students. Who Stole the Cahaba Llly?, the latest book in The Sizzling Six eco-mystery series named for her six granddaughters, will publish soon, and she said she’ll never stop writing books for the series. She is also finishing The 9 Inheritors, a historical novel that traces a family inheritance from 1790 Jerusalem to the 21st century United States.
Datnow will be signing copies of her memoir in the bookstore of the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum on July 18 during their festivities for Mandela Day. The free family festival and cultural exchange will also feature music, dancers, vendors, a children’s village and free admission to their galleries.
The Nine Inheritors (Coming Soon)
Adventures of the Sizzling Six
The Lone Tree
The Living Treasure (Coming Soon)
Datnow’s books are available at The Little Professor in Homewood, The Birmingham Museum of Art gift shop, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute gift store and on Amazon.com and mediamint.net. Ebooks are available on the Barnes and Noble Nook, Sony Reader, Diesel ebooks, and Smashwords.com.