Marguerite Poland is an author who’s known not only for her children’s books and adult fiction, but also her non-fiction. She co-wrote the well-received The Abundant Herds: Celebration of the Nguni Cattle of the Zulu People (Fernwood, 2003) with Professor David Hammond (illustrated by Leigh Voigt).
And last year saw the release of Taken Captive by Birds (Penguin) which offers readers a glimpse into her past, growing up in the rural Eastern Cape. Not only is the book a literary treat laced with nostalgia, but it is also lusciously illustrated by Craig Ivor.
Explaining how the book came into being, Poland relates: “I was in the middle of writing a novel but, due to family commitments, had too little time to sustain it.
“I decided to write something for my daughters – vignettes of childhood, things that meant something to me. I guess I have reached that age! Taken Captive by Birds is the result.”
Who hasn’t heard hadeda ibises honking overhead, or the liquid trill of a laughing dove in the garden – and has had memories of their own attached to those bird calls? Poland’s book is themed according to recollections that relate to a particular bird’s song and mannerisms – and her environmental awareness remains in play.
She says: “I spend half the year in Grahamstown and half in Durban where my family is. In Grahamstown, the birds that had significance for me as a child are still there – the owl, the hoopoe, the wagtail. Two favourites in my garden are the olive thrush and the Cape robin-chat – they remind me of my childhood and people I have dearly loved.”
Poland also draws on our country’s rich cultural heritage. “My life in the Eastern Cape and the history of my family have had a profound influence on all I write and much of what I believe. I studied Xhosa and anthropology at university and later Zulu (when I moved to KwaZulu-Natal), which were natural choices, given my upbringing and interests. The history of the Eastern Cape as well as Xhosa and Zulu mythology, imagery and cosmology have been central to my understanding of my environment.”
In Taken Captive by Birds, Poland comments sensitively on the political issues South Africa was facing at the time. “My personal childhood was sheltered – but certainly not my part of the Eastern Cape. I was writing from a child’s perspective and its innocence, but I had hoped that the darker undertone, the sad realities were evident in what I wrote – and more specifically so for being unstated. I wished to highlight the ambiguities of that experience without being overt – which would have been inappropriate in reflecting from a child’s perspective.”
Time is a theme that runs throughout the book, underscoring the ephemeral nature of the precious moments of life.
Poland adds: “Inevitably one’s perceptions change or are refined as one grows older. Current experiences and one’s understanding of them reflect back to childhood experience and give them new significance. And one comes to appreciate, in hindsight, much of what might have been taken for granted.”
But it’s not just Poland’s words that so vividly evoke her past. Ivor’s illustrations, too, come alive on the pages, and complement the words. Poland concludes: “As soon as I saw Craig Ivor’s beautifully accurate drawings, I knew they were what I wanted.
“It has been such a privilege working with a man whose work I admire so much and whose knowledge of and sensitivity to birds are profound. I didn’t need to give input – he knew instinctively what was right. It was a seamless collaboration.”
Poland recommends Shades (Penguin, 1993) and her “heart book” Recessional for Grace (Penguin, 1993) for those wishing to read more of her writing.