As a writer, I am more often reading to encounter wonderful prose than I am to be transported and/or entertained. My criteria is simple: I want to be bombarded with the language or event on the page such that I very well may need to set the book aside for minutes, even days, while I process. It’s usually easier for me to be impressed by creative nonfiction, memoir especially, likely because real stories tend to land harder by nature of their having actually happened. Yet, of the titles on my favorite books shelf on Goodreads, just over half of the 60 are novels and both of Bianca Marais’ appear.
Bianca Marais is a true gem. I fell in love with the writing in her first book Hum If You Don’t Know the Words which I read right after it came out in 2017. In 2018, when tasked with choosing and annotating a favorite book, I chose to read it again. I was grateful to have been able to spread out the time spent with her voice and her characters once each year over several years while I wait out the publication of her next work.
Additionally, I had the pleasure of meeting Bianca in person in July of 2019. We’d connected first on the book app Litsy and then on Instagram. After chatting over the course of a year about her books and what else we are reading and writing, and a bit about life in general, she let me know about her U.S. tour dates for If You Want to Make God Laugh. I made plans to drive down to DC so I could finally put a face to the name on one of my most beloved books.
When I arrived at the event she immediately greeted me with a warm hug. The following day we bonded over drinks discussing tropes and the hardest parts of writing. She was so genuine, listening to my struggles with my workshop group and encouraging me to carry on, taking criticism in stride while remembering that one cannot possibly please everyone, and likely, if I wrote something I was proud of and enjoyed reading as well as writing, other readers might like it more as well. Halfway through my yearlong writing class I was feeling particularly dejected and having her ear, just for an afternoon, allowed me to inject more motivation into completing my manuscript. She added that she’d be happy to read it for me and even introduce me to her agent when I was ready. Over the last few years I’d attended dozens of book launches but I’d never met an author who cared so deeply about befriending her readers. I left our lunch meeting feeling more like her peer than a fan.
That fall Bianca reached out to tell me she was coming to New York to visit. I was excited to see her again and offered to take her on a bookstore crawl through some of my favorite independent shops in Brooklyn. Together with Bianca and her husband, the three of us collected piles of recent releases from Center for Fiction, Greenlight Bookstore, and Books Are Magic, breaking in between stops to set down our purchases to grab a round of drinks and then lunch. It was a beautiful autumn day made better by our outing. We laughed, lamented about the political landscape, and tried to decide which books we’d bought would be read first. When we parted ways I promised that next time we got together it would be in Canada, and she assured me that even if I didn’t make it to Toronto, she could meet me in Montreal, for example. I’d wanted to visit for some time and I assured her it would happen, I’d bring one of my friends and we’d assemble a makeshift writers retreat. (Naturally, COVID-19 has messed up any plans we would have had in 2020, but Canada very well may be the first trip I take when international travel is safe again.)
Needless to say, I'm forever a fan of Bianca as both a person and a writer. I’m persistently in awe of the emotion that she injects into her stories, though having met her, not surprised. With her heart and mind, she can create a broad landscape that encompasses her personal experiences as well as the history of her first home, South Africa. So gripping are both of her books because of how diligently she spent time with the real world history, plotting here according to what followed the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela, delving into the growing AIDS epidemic, and the ceaseless racism. She is deeply enmeshed in every piece of this book (and in Hum If You Don’t Know the Words) and it shows.
In If You Want to Make God Laugh, the focus shifts between three women over four years: Zodwa, a young, poor woman, she’s heavily pregnant and hiding her true sexuality; Delilah, a former nun who has come home after 40 years at the news that a priest she knows is in critical care following an attack on his parish; and Ruth, a former stripper who has returned to her childhood home as she runs from the ruins of her third marriage and a botched suicide attempt. Delilah and Ruth are estranged sisters, forced together again, ready to fight over whether or not they'll sell the farm they both found their way back to. Delilah refuses to sell, even rescinds the power of attorney she'd handed over years before, but Ruth needs the money.
"I know better than anyone how the heart can play the most terrible tricks on the mind. It's a traitorous beast that can't be trusted at the best of times, but even less so when it's so utterly broken."
In limbo, Ruth drinks excessively and Delilah goes about her day, visiting the nearby ICU each day to see Father Daniel, when she is startled on the street one day by her old friend, "Precious" or Leleti, Zodwa's mother. Days later, in a tuberculosis haze and hours from death, Leleti takes her newborn grandson out of the shack she shares with her daughter and delivers her to the front steps of the white sisters’ home, telling Zodwa that her baby didn't live through the birth. Ruth is a big believer in signs and takes this to mean that she is meant to be a mother to this Black child despite the vitriol that the act of adopting him will bring upon the home on behalf of their racist neighbors. Delilah, traumatized by her past, won't help her less-than-maternal sister and insists they call social services to intervene and take the appropriate steps.
All the while, an exhausted and confused Zodwa feels cursed. When she found out about her pregnancy, a result of rape, she tried to confide in her best friend about the father, and is in turn betrayed for having spoken up. No stranger to loss, her brother a decade gone, it’s still incredibly overwhelming to then lose her son and mother within hours of each other. She struggles to accept the truth she has been handed. She moves on, gets a job and a boyfriend despite the torch she carries for her ex-best friend and spends some of her free time searching the orphanages of the countryside for her boy. She is an especially wonderful character to follow as the insights in her chapters hold so much raw emotion and introspection, like in the following:
"It sometimes amazes Zodwa that beauty can exist in a place like the township. With all its shacks thrown together from things the white man has found no use for, or hasn't been vigilant enough to guard, it's a festering pile of scrap metal. And yet as unsightly as it is, as fragmented and desperate and temporary, all it takes is seeing it in the reflection of dusk's forgiving gaze to realize that the discarded can be beautiful."
Zodwa’s chapters were so moving, so welcome. Despite the misfortune thrown at her over and over again, she retains a vigor for life that exceeds the power she believes her ancestors have over her fate. She hopes she can still make Leleti proud.
Historical fiction often reads as if it could reliably replace whatever actually happened in history because despite being fiction it is still well-researched and planned out and only just removed from true events, perhaps parallel to the prominent figures of the time and adequately specific enough to be believable. Marais’ novels are so successful in my eyes for that reason exactly. In her first, Hum If You Don’t Know the Words, the catalyst driving the rest of the plot is the Soweto Uprising of 1976. Reading about the protest in Marais’ hand was the first I’ve heard of it, but reading about the actual description and seeing documentation in photographs sure makes it seem like the narrators did an exemplar job placing me beside them on that turbulent day. Here in If You Want to Make God Laugh, the historical timeline is more secondary, though the story begins just weeks before Nelson Mandela will take office. The event to come is first made more prominent when Delilah is at a grocery store and encounters another shopper, wearing a t-shirt in support of apartheid. Delilah asks the woman why the lines were so long, with some people pulling multiple carts full of food. She replies, “For when Nelson Mandela becomes president and the civil war begins.”
The proceeding chapters unfold like a many-layered flower, allowing us a glimpse into the souls of these characters and the turbulence of South Africa's reality as this "unnatural" family comes together as best they know how in order to protect the child at all costs. No matter what threats come their way, no matter how much their lives flout tradition, they know love and are determined to share it with the boy, young Mandla. They have such good intentions, and yet there are many obstacles and revelations that they are confronted with along the way.
"Children, for the most part, are nurtured and protected. Adulthood is the point at which we're thrown to the wolves. Wasn't it just as I'd stepped over the threshold of selfhood–at the very moment when I'd expected my life to get easier–that everything had to spectacularly fall apart?"
Additionally each woman also has to grapple with their individual ideas of motherhood and what it means to them now. It’s a deep dive into the various realities of pregnancy, whether there is or isn’t any choice in the decision to be so, the trio here depicting a few of the many avenues available to (or forced upon) women. In their respective lives, though for very different reasons, they have startlingly little say in how they did/did not become mothers. Delilah has to confront a secret involving Father Daniel, which even her sister wasn’t privy to, Zodwa feels herself unraveling, questioning her sanity while unable to get any guidance from her deceased mother, and Ruth wishes her ex had been able to see how much she’d needed a baby.
“She wants to go back to a time when her future was promising, a time before babies were born and then disappeared into the night, before being eighteen years old made her feel ancient with all the weariness she is weighted with.” – Zodwa
“The baby’s sudden appearance felt ominous, as though my past was following me into my present, whispering that it couldn’t so easily be forgotten. I’d just left hundreds of orphans behind in Goma even though they desperately needed me, and the guilt I carried was already a constant reminder of that.” – Delilah
“I swallow back an unexpected rush of emotion that takes me back to all those times I visited parks and sat on benches, not even attempting to disguise my mission… I can only imagine the raw hunger that must have been written on my face as I stared longingly at babies in prams and toddlers running around on sturdy legs. When I started having fantasies about walking past a pram, picking a baby up and just carrying on walking, I knew it was time to stop going to parks to torture myself.” – Ruth
This is very much a book of the times, even as it takes place in the 1990s. It is a book we need, one full of lessons that advocate kindness and truth and perseverance. I was here for all of it. Going farther than denoting issues relevant specifically to South Africans of the past and present, Marais touches on many larger issues. Zodwa is punished for lusting after her friend, another young woman. The HIV/AIDS epidemic is ravaging more and more vulnerable populations, and Ruth meets a few sick, orphaned infants who are left alone, quarantined within the orphanage. White supremacy rules despite the push for change in South Africa and the Western world. The sisters point out how gender inequity piles on to the issues at the heart of the post-apartheid country:
"As women, we're told our worth and our value, and the many ways in which we fall short of others' expectations; we're told why we're whores and why society can't tolerate whores. We're reminded of the ways we dishonor the unwritten contract we didn't know we signed on the day of our birth: a contract in which we agreed to toe the line and know our place simply because we are the fairer sex."
Details like this do the work that allows the story to have the kind of foundation that Marais is a pro at building from the ground up, laying a solid foundation and fleshing out characters I can properly visualize, characters who will stay with me through the book’s end, their words reverberating in my head. It was wonderful to see each character’s arc throughout the novel, watching them grow when, had their lives not become so entwined, they may have stagnated. Instead they become rebellious women supporting their fellow woman, standing in the face of the naysayers, likely saving each other as much as they saved their beloved Mandla.
If You Want to Make God Laugh
By Bianca Marais
450 pages. 2019.