Our story begins with a little girl, bright eyed and curious, in search of her place in the world. This is a story whose tale can be found in all of us yet whose journey resonates mostly with those who find themselves denied their place.
This is the story told in the children’s book by Buhle Ngaba, beautifully titled, The Girl without a Sound. Buhle describes herself as a Black female post apartheid storyteller whose exact moment and place is now, the South Africa context. She is an actress who seeks to find new ways to tell stories which for her has mostly been through her theatre background. Yet for her, writing this book could have only made sense using this medium, as this was her way of finding her voice.
The protagonist loves to tell stories. She starts her journey in search of her voice. She is born special yet finds herself with a golden cocoon, where her voice should have been, unable to make a sound. She finds herself ignored with fewer people looking into her eyes and listening to her stories. It is here that her winged guide appears and introduces her to the stories of little girls that looked just like her who had so much courage. So begins her journey through books of magical places as she search for her voice.
Buhle started writing this book as a letter to her Aunt, who features prominently in her life, whose birthday she had forgotten. Weaving this story was her action in response to that unfolding moment. She had a message for her Aunt but ended up sharing so much more. She had a story to tell. Buhle would later post this message on social media using the tag #booksforblackgirls. At first it was called “a girl without a voice” but would later change it, at the instruction of her editor to make it more accessible, to the girl without a sound. This change would mark her move to a more visual representation of her work. The online response was incredible and it was here that she realized that she had actually written a story. She would begin shooting for the images for the book soon after.
A story of Language
Imagery plays such a significant role in this book because of its ability to transcend the written word. In her recent visit to Colombia, Buhle would be reminded of its power in how her non-verbal performance was understood by non-English speakers, as they were able to relate to the injustices of an apartheid South Africa. For her the dialogue in the book would have to be minimal so that the readers would be able to insert themselves into the story.
She finds that language can be very restrictive and looks for non-verbal ways to communicate. A child must also be able to hear the stories and so the intention was to make them draw the images in their own minds. They must be able to experience the story with the protagonist. The writer does this through the style of magical realism. She worked directly with the photographer, Neo Baepi, in directing the photography used for the book. She specifically wanted a background of a wall where she would be able to cut the illustrations onto the frame. These illustrations would later function as the visual guide for the reader as they follow the footsteps of the protagonist on every page.
At the start of the story the reader is greeted with the words “for the one’s with moonlight in their skin.” Buhle explains that for her the moon represents the black woman, older and in particular our grandmothers. The image of the feminine is a constant throughout the book. The guide comes as a woman and we follow the journey of the girl. For her the moon represents a state of changing, ever present yet very mysterious. For Buhle Black women follow such characteristics as we too are made up of such extremes.
As black woman we are elemental, we give birth to life. We are also made up of something strong as it takes so much to bring up children in a world that is anti-black. At the same time we too can be sad and vulnerable to the hardships we face. She felt that this book needed a dedication and this was her call to the reader. It was meant for those who feel such as she felt that these words would speak to their condition as Black woman.
The story of Magic
What affected Buhle to writing this book was her experience of going to the shops and finding no books for black children. Her Aunt’s child, who at school was reading Harry potter, would even ask why is it that only Jessica could be Harry and not her? Buhle wants to tell the stories where black girls can see themselves within the pages.
She argues that black girls are not expected to be queens and princesses. Yet we also cannot always be strong in response to such pressures. Black children should not have to be “strong” they are meant to be children but find themselves in a hostile space that can rob them of their opportunity for magic.
Black life is one of violence. It is one where we are constantly reminded that we are deemed valueless in both our lack of representation in the books we read and the cultural content that is not made for us, surviving as a historically marginalized group. It is also one where we are constantly told that we should feel grateful for our current gains even though we live in pain and anger over our continued unjust conditions.
The story of the little girl becomes one of having to find new stories about ourselves. The little girls reads stories of others who look just like her and have achieved so much even though they themselves have also lost their voices. It is here that she is encouraged to seek out her very own sound within the world. The little girl chases a glimmer in the distance, yet never finds its source. Instead she collects various treasures on her journey. For Buhle the journey is constant. You will never understand it unless you live it, taking with you the various experiences you gather on the way. It is such experiences that also drive her to speaking out declaring that she will no longer be silent in order to make others be more comfortable around her.
The story of a Call.
Amidst the growing political protest with the student movements and calls to decolonize the university seems to permeate the realization that the education system has failed those it was meant to serve. Students no longer find value in the books and theories that speak to the challenges and material realities. There is the call redefine a curriculum that would exclude those from the production of knowledge that is meant to impact.
Buhle’s book is apart of this story. Where most of the focus is on primary, secondary and tertiary education, she has decided to engage with the age group that easily left out of the discussion. Her book is apart of the movement to re-write the curriculum in the image of the young children it targets.
Yet the journey in this fiction is not limited to children. Buhle makes the important point that we are all responsible for our own inner child. We must also look after her. Even now as adults the cocoons in our throats tighten up and even we need the tools to start thinking about how we can free our own sound. For her, as an artist, it is her responsibility to not ignore but to be responsive to this violent reality of ours. She wants to create a response that is both honest but also beautiful.
Through her book she is able to create a world of magic in which one’s voice has been found. The world can be a dark and debilitating to the point where one is almost paralyzed in shock. In reaction to this she wanted to respond to such with hope and strength, a guide to finding the next baby step forward. This book creates a place where we as black girls can feel whole because there has to be a place where we can feel whole. As soon as we realize that such a place is ours then comes the call to action to make that place a reality. We are then called to transform the world.
In the book it’s the image of the butterfly that escapes from the silenced voice. It functions to represent the transformative nature of being, but such is only possible through a willingness to change. The little girl must first do the work in the world and only then can we make it our own.
Buhle explains that all the work she does to some extent tries to encourage others to tell their own stories. She runs workshops for children in whom she encourages them to tell their own stories and feels that too many children who, just, like young self, feel that the world constantly ignores them. Buhle argues that we need to let go of such complexes that say that we need to rely on others to do this task for us.
Her book is available for download so share and answer its call to Action!