By age 24, Arushi Raina has lived in six different countries, read more books than she can count, and, as of this spring, published one of her own. Her debut novel When Morning Comes (Tradewind Books, 2016) takes place in Apartheid South Africa on the brink of the 1976 Soweto Uprising—a massive student led protest that would change the country forever. Written from the perspectives of four different teenagers with four very different backgrounds, the book explores questions of status, sacrifice, and the power of youth.
Expertly researched and equally well written, When Morning Comes is the kind of story that will make you smile, make you think, and maybe even make you cry—very loudly and in public, if your timing half as bad as mine was. To find out more about the book and the incredible history that inspired it, I called Raina last week and asked her all about “closet writing,” South African teenagedom, and her upcoming book launch on on July 12, 2016.
Alice Fleerackers: Tell me a little bit about yourself: how old are you, where are you from, and what do you do?
Arushi Raina: I’m 24, and I’m pretty new to Vancouver—just two years in. I’m from South Africa, but I’ve also lived in Nigeria and Egypt and studied in the States, so where I’m from is sort of a mixture. In terms of what I do, I would say I’m a closet writer, just because I have a crazy day job in management consulting.
AF: When did you realize you wanted to become a “closet writer”?
AR: Back then I didn’t realize it was going to be in a closet! I was 16, and I remember reading books and thinking that I didn’t want them to end. I just felt so invested in them; I felt like I needed to write one. I wrote a series of terrible chapters of a novel. I didn’t actually know how to write at all, but I was convinced that I was going to become a writer. But once I started writing, I realized that it isn’t about becoming “a writer”—that iconic figure. It’s more about the process, about how it makes you feel.
People process things in different ways; for me, sometimes processing is writing about a world that doesn’t exist and feeling somewhat peaceful through it. It’s a very personal experience. Tell me a little more about When Morning Comes.
AF: What inspired you to write about Soweto?
AR: I went to prep school in South Africa, and I had two or three years of Apartheid history there. We covered some of the key events, like the Soweto Uprising. It was an amazing event: 20,000 township students self organizing a very well orchestrated march to protest against an education system that was disadvantaging them—all without the police knowing, without even their parents knowing. Unfortunately, when we study things in the classroom, we often don’t understand the value of them. So although I took some of it in at the time, I didn’t really internalize any of it until years later, when I was studying at Vassar College.
It took me being in the heart of winter in upstate New York, realizing that my family was leaving South Africa, to connect back to Johannesburg and growing up there. That’s when the sheer volume, the sheer courage of Soweto struck me.
I thought, “I need to write about this, and it needs to be fiction to be real.” Because fiction, for me, is sometimes more real than history. To make it real, emotionally, I needed to fictionalize it.
AF: I was really struck by how you chose to structure the narrative: through four different protagonists, four very different voices. Why did you make that decision?
AR: I couldn’t see any other way to tell this story. I’ve always been fascinated by different points of view—by how very intelligent individuals who want the same thing can still driven to conflict by socioeconomics, cultural differences, personal quirks. That’s why I did it.
AF: Do you see yourself in any of those characters?
AR: In almost everyone, really. The white boy, Jack, for example. I related very strongly to his voice—not necessarily in terms of what he does, but to the environment he was in and the mentality that that environment drags you towards. I grew up in Johannesburg as sort of upper middle class. Increasingly, as inequality was rising, I was becoming the 1% in Johannesburg; I was living in many of the environments that the character Jack was living in. Apartheid has radically changed in South Africa, but affluence, and the way affluence can mask you from reality, has not. Writing Jack’s character helped me process some of the ways in which I lived in Johannesburg.
But Zanele, too, has some of the same character traits I see in myself. She can be quite blameless, quite confrontational, and she accepts guilt and responsibility too readily—things I’ve seen myself do sometimes.
And Meena. She’s South African Indian, so many people see her and I as being very closely aligned. Growing up, I was always an observer—sitting in the background, seeing how things play out. But although Meena starts out as an invested observer, she later becomes sort of a force. I think a lot of readers can relate to that; we’re often observers, watching other people’s lives. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t care, that we don’t have a stake in the action.
AF: There’s some pretty heavy subject matter in the book—racial tensions, violence, death. Was it difficult to retell such a harsh history without alienating readers? To balance fact and fiction?
AR: Jonathan Safran Foer, an author of several books, said something about writing once that has stayed with me ever since: At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much of your book is fact and how much is fiction, it just has to have the ring of authenticity. It’s hard, and I’m still discovering how to do it, but that principal allowed me to understand that some of the best, most authentic writing is not necessarily going to come from fact.
Having said that, one of the things that I wanted to be very fact-based was the violence. I didn’t want to dramatize racial events and protests through violence, especially when navigating such a tense racial and political landscape. That would feel irresponsible. So the violence that’s depicted in the book traces true events very, very closely. I had to trace from reality to understand the proportionality of those acts—to understand how far people were driven and the system they were operating under.
AF: Was the history of Apartheid still very much present when you lived in South Africa? How did it affect your daily life?
AR: Very much. I came to South Africa in in 1997, when the Truth and Reconciliation mission was underway. I was about six at the time. Apartheid had ended, ostensibly, in 1994, when Nelson Mandela came into power. I went to a school that was pretty racially open—something that was relatively new at that time. At recess, all the girls would get together and play house. You know, “You’re the mommy, you’re the daddy”—that sort of thing. Me and this other black girl would always play the help. My mother would come and pick me up and see this happen over and over and over again.
Even today in South Africa, the help is black. And while there’s so many cases of extreme racial acceptance, there’s also cases of nothing having moved on at all. Because these things can’t just change overnight. Especially now, with increasing inequality and economic strife, a lot of those demons are coming back to the surface. So the situation in South Africa has changed substantially from how I describe it in the book, but it’s still a lot more variable and volatile than people think. I think it can be hard for people from outside to see that.
To be a little more positive though, South Africa has changed dramatically since our parents’ generation, if you look at how frequently people of different races interacted back then. I grew up in a very, very diverse group of students. I was very privileged to be openly accepted in that mix and to have very frank dialogue about race. In many ways, people have moved on with their lives and reinvented the way they relate to each other.
AF: How does When Morning Comes—and the history that inspired it—relate to us today, here in Canada?
AR: Regardless of time or place, I think the message of the book is quite clear: that your perspective—your upbringing—can make you willfully ignorant of other populations. Even in Canada, we are still ignorant of how some other communities are living. They may be immigrant communities, for example, or First Nations communities. When I first came to Vancouver, I was shocked by that legacy, by how fresh and deep that pain is and how little processing of it we’ve done. Of course, Canada has made a lot of progress, but there’s a lot of work to be done. First Nations issues are talked about, but not to the extent that you would think.
The second parallel is the role of youth. This story is kind of amazing: you have sixteen year olds without internet, without cellphones, without any ability to meet in big crowds, and yet, they make this incredible protest happen. I think that’s a lesson for today and for youth. It’s about feeling empowered in this society. When it comes to things like climate change or Wall Street excess, for example, I think youth have a big role to play. Do with it what you will, but don’t underscore your power in your teen years. You’re incredibly powerful.
AF: What do you hope to leave your readers with? What do you hope to achieve with this book?
AR: I wanted them to respond emotionally. Every person is different, and whatever that emotional response leads them to think or say or do is up to them. Of course there’s a story and a context, but at the end of the day, I just want the reader to feel something.