Insightful Q and A with Bianca Marais, author of If You Want to Make God Laugh – including her inspirational photos

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My Review:

I loved the author’s debut, Hum if you Don’t Know the Words, and feel the same about this wonderful newly released novel.  The beauty and strength of the South African women will stick with you…ORDER your copy today!

If You Want to Make God Laugh is the fast moving and compelling story of three ladies, Zodwa, Ruth and Delilah, set in South Africa.  Easy to read chapters alternate points of view:

Zodwa is young girl, raped, pregnant, living in a squatter camp and ashamed of her romantic feelings of infatuation with her close girl friend.  When her baby is born, she was taken from her and later the same day her mother dies, leaving her alone, desperate and feeling lost.

Delilah was raped when she was a teenager and was forces to leave her child at the convent she was excommunicated from due to her pregnancy.  She spent her years repenting while working at an orphanage, alone and lost.

After a career of stripping and feeling unhappy in her relationship, Delilah’s older sister, Ruth left her husband feeling sad and regretful for never being able to have a child.  Ruth and Delilah hadn’t spoken to each other since they were young.

The estranged sisters meet at their parent’s empty house, Ruth intending to sell it and Delilah hoping to live there.  Tension runs high between the siblings, but after a newborn black baby was left on the doorstop, Ruth realizes her calling is to adopt this child and give him the life he deserves.  Delilah is not in agreement and so much pain rises to the surface due to the past.  As the sisters work to break down walls and understand each other’s emotions, they are faced with prejudice and harassment from the neighbors.  The sisters decide to secure the house and hire a live in maid to help with the baby.

If You Want to Make God Laugh is a masterfully written emotional journey of three women where everyone is either running to or from something as they try to find peace and understand in their calling.  It is a testament to the incredible strength women have and what lengths mothers will go to to protect and care for their children.

Q and A with author Bianca Marais

How did you come up with the title If You Want to Make God Laugh?  The words appear once in the text – do you write the book first and then choose the title out of the text or do you fit in the words of the title after the book is written?  Was this the same process for Hum?

HUM was originally going to be called ‘It Aint Over Till the Fat Lady Sings’ because I envisioned Mama Fatty, the shebeen queen of Soweto, singing at the end. But that changed during the writing of the book when Robin’s aunt Edith tells her to hum if she doesn’t know the words to a hymn at her parents’ funeral. That line stayed with me because it was such a great metaphor for what the characters were going through.

With LAUGH, the title stuck from the beginning because of that saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans” which really sums up what all three of these women are going through. It’s always a thrill for me to write the title into the book because I love discovering the title when I’m reading a novel.

It comes clear while reading the novel that for your characters, having ideas and making plans for the future have minimal impact on how things turn out.  Do you believe in fate?  How much control do you think we have of our future?

Oh wow, this is a tough question. 

I think we have a lot of control over our lives in that the decisions we make today will influence the way things play out for us down the line. Work hard and you’ll generally reap the benefits. Be a kind person and it will definitely have a knock-on effect in both your life and in the lives of others. Take care of your health and you’ll live longer than if you treated your body like a garbage can.

But there are definitely things in life that we can’t possibly see coming: accidents, illnesses, bad luck. And this is the part that’s tough for me as an A-type Capricorn to accept: that there are certain things in our lives that are completely beyond our control. And that we can be good people and do good things, and we can plan and save and do everything right and still have tragedy strike. But even when the unimaginable happens, we then still have agency in terms of how we move forward and how we handle that situation which is what the women in my story show: how to keep going when the worst has happened.

In terms of believing in fate: it’s hard not to believe that some things are fated because they seem so improbable and yet they happen regardless. I want to believe in fate and that some things are meant to be. 

AIDS was an epidemic in South Africa at the time of the story and in it, the white people seemed to put blame and shame on the black women and children…what about the black men?  Did we just not see it in the story because the black men did not infiltrate the white people’s world in the same way that black women maids and housekeepers did?  

Black families were torn apart during apartheid with most black men being forced to work in gold mines and black women having to work as maids in the city. Husbands and wives got separated from their children and lived miles and miles apart from one another, often only seeing one another once a year. This led to the disintegration of the black family and allowed the perfect conditions for the spreading the HIV virus. Also, many black men refused to wear condoms despite having multiple sexual partners which put women at greater risk. 

Since most of the black men worked in gold mines or as laborers, they weren’t a part of white people’s lives like black women were. These were the women caring for white people’s children, living in their homes and being a huge part of their daily existence. When they began to get sick, white people were forced to take notice of the epidemic and focused that attention on the people who were closest to them and therefore at most risk of passing the virus onto them. 

The saying Blood is Thicker Than Water means relationships built through choices will never be as strong as family bonds.  The bonds your characters have seem to support this theory; Delilah and Ruth slowly reconcile through the course of the book (so skillfully written, I might add, that at first they were so at odds, and without realizing it, little by little they developed a wonderful, supportive relationship right before our eyes), Zodwa and Mandla felt connected the moment they met, Delilah and Daniel were drawn together virtually although they never met.  How do you feel about this?

Family bonds are incredibly strong in the story in all the ways you mentioned but I also believe that friendships and the relationships we choose can be just as strong if not stronger. I believe that it’s hardship and struggle that truly puts a relationship to the test, and it’s in overcoming adversity that true bonds are forged whether they’re familial or of another nature. Something I find fascinating is that often the people who are meant to love us most are the ones who can hurt us the deepest which we see playing out with Ruth and Delilah. For me, the important thing is choice. Choosing to work on a relationship and to be there for someone through the difficulties, and choosing to have them in your life. 

How did you come up with the rustic home environment for Zodwa?

A lot of Zodwa’s experience in the squatter camp was inspired by my ten years of volunteering in squatter camps in Soweto and the rest of Johannesburg. Here are some photos from that time.

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It was a joy to see Beauty and Robin from Hum weaved into this story…did you start this new book with them in mind with the story growing out of them or did you add them in after?

I started writing the sequel to HUM which I never got to finish, and so it’s always been very clear in my mind what Robin and Beauty were doing in the 90s. When I started writing this book, I very much wanted to incorporate their stories in this one but in an organic way so that if readers hadn’t read HUM, they wouldn’t find Robin and Beauty’s presence strange. It was lovely to get to spend time with them again and to give HUM readers a glimpse into their futures.

All of your characters have lost so much.  They are all searching for something…Ruth wants to fulfill her lifelong dream to be a mother, Delilah wants to connect with Daniel, Leleti wanted to find her son, Zodwa wants to be a mother to Mandla…they also have secrets from suicide attempts, to a secret child to sexual orientation.  These women are so well developed with a past, present and hopes for the future; do you have a formula you use or a certain process to create them?

Thank you. That’s a wonderful compliment!

I don’t have a formula, per se. I always start with characters. They come to me before the plot or the storyline comes to me. I see these characters as real people who are struggling with something and that then forms the basis of the story. I write to get to know them better and by the end of the book, I always know so much more about my characters than what finds its way onto the page. In that way, they become real to me. If I’m not suffering and laughing and crying with them while I write, then I’m not connected to them and how can I expect my reader to be? 

If this were to become a movie, who would you want to play the main characters?  

When I write, I often picture characters as actors or people I know, etc. They were pictured as follows for LAUGH though they obviously couldn’t all play the characters now:

Ruth: Debbie Reynolds 

Delilah: Dame Judie Dench

Zodwa: Lupita Nyong’o

Riaan: James Brolin 

Vince: John Goodman

Leleti: Lupita Nyong’o’s mother, Dorothy Nyong’o

Thembeka: A young Leleti Khumalo (a South African actress)

Here is what my vision board looked like while writing LAUGH:

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What are you working on next?

In a complete change of genre for me, I’m working on a psychological thriller. I thought I’d try my writing chops at murder, sex and mayhem. I’m having a lot of fun! LOL. 

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Bianca Marais holds a Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies.

Before turning to writing, she started a corporate training company and volunteered with Cotlands, where she assisted care workers in Soweto with providing aid for HIV/AIDS orphans and their caregivers.

Originally from South Africa, she now resides in Toronto with her husband and three pets (Muggle, Mrs Norris and Wombat). Yes, she is a huge Harry Potter fan. And also isn’t at all uncomfortable talking about herself in the third person.

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That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam

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My Review:

Rebecca Stone desperately needs help with her newborn and Pricilla, a La Leche nurse from the hospital comes to her rescue.  Pricilla, having mothering experience herself as she was a single, teen mom many years ago, leaves her job at the hospital to becomes the nanny for Rebecca’s baby.  Rebecca feels close to Pricilla, confiding in her and voicing her fears, hopes and dreams while learning how to care for her child and what it means to be a mother; she looks up to her and relies on her stability and competence, and in some cases, due to the fact that Pricilla is black, she causes her to think about the world in a different way.  After an unexpected turn of events, Pricilla becomes pregnant, has the baby and then is gone, and Rebecca volunteers to adopt the newborn.  Rebecca feels this is the least she can do to thank Pricilla for all she has done.  But there is a lot Rebecca does not know about raising a child of a different race.  And she is blinded by her rose colored glasses when she looks at life.  

This story brings up a lot of questions and it is difficult not to pass judgement and have an opinion on Rebecca’s thoughts and actions.  Is she “saving” this black baby by bringing him into a white, wealthy family, or is she doing him a disservice by not allowing him to grow up with black parents who can teach him what it means to be black in America?  She doesn’t know much about being black; how to take care of black hair and skin, and she doesn’t think much about what prejudices he might face as a black man.  That Kind of Mother is about the challenges of motherhood, race and how family can be created without being blood related, but it is also commentary on selfishness disguised as selflessness, lack of understanding blinded by positivity and hopefulness for the future.

Rebecca’s view of her relationship with Pricilla is so much different than what I saw as a reader.  She believes they are connected, the closest of friends, and she feels loyal to Pricilla because of what she has been taught about mothering and due to the support she has felt from her during the most stressful part of her life when she was responsible for her brand new baby.  But my opinion is this:  the relationship was one sided.  Pricilla was doing a great job being a nanny, supporting the mother, teaching her how to care for her child, listening to her talk, and providing her with the time to be independent.  But did Rebecca know anything about Pricilla?  Her family?  Her home life? Her hopes and dreams?  Did she ever ask her? Rebecca may have been privileged – white, wealthy, recognized in her field, and able to provide an adopted child a financially solid home, but I believe this perceived friendship, combined with her own self centered outlook on life (regardless of race) misguided her and adopting this baby was not necessarily the best thing for him or for Rebecca’s family.

To give you something more to think about, this book was written by Rumaan Alam,  the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, married to a white man and raising two adopted black sons in Brooklyn, NY.  Alam does a great job writing from a woman’s perspective as he explores women’s friendships, describes giving birth, breastfeeding and articulating thoughts inside the head of a woman.  He also shows how families are formed in many ways and can be very different, but they all have things in common too.  Parenthood is a challenge no matter who you are, and acknowledging what you don’t know can be a good thing – often it takes a village.  I highly recommend this book, and particularly for bookclubs as it has so much to discuss.

Goodreads Summary

 

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About the Author:

My stories have appeared in StoryQuarterly, Crazyhorse, Meridian, and elsewhere. I’ve written on design and other subjects for the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, and other places. I studied writing at Oberlin College. Now I live in New York with my husband and two kids. I am very good at building things out of Legos and making overly-complicated dinners.

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

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My Review:

The Rules Do Not Apply is a well written memoir about real life, disappointments, successes, grief and joy.  Ariel Levy has a compulsion for adventure, drawn to  untraditional relationships and the need to become “the kind of woman who is free to do whatever she chooses.”  She was a writer, following stories of powerful women around the world, and during this time she also experienced much drama and trauma.

At 5 months pregnant Ariel agreed to take a business trip to Mongolia, a choice she later regrets.  “When I got on the plane to Mongolia, I was pregnant, living with my spouse, moving to a lovely apartment and financially insulated by a wealthy man.  A month later, none of that was true.  Instead, i was thirty-eight, childless, alone, emotionally and monetarily unprepared to be a single mother.”  Grief and sadness expressed so eloquently in this memoir yet Ariel Levy writes with a sense of hope and trust in nature.  Powerful and heartbreaking, this honest memoir is infused with humor and I highly recommend it.

Goodreads summary

 

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About the Author:

Ariel Levy (born October 17, 1974) is a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine and author of the book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Vogue, Slate, Men’s Journal and Blender. Levy was named one of the “Forty Under 40” most influential out individuals in the June/July 2009 issue of The Advocate.

Levy was raised in Larchmont, New York, and attended Wesleyan University in the 1990s. She says that her experiences at Wesleyan, which had “co-ed showers, on principle”, strongly influenced her views regarding modern sexuality. After graduating from Wesleyan, she was briefly employed by Planned Parenthood, but claims that she was fired because she is “an extremely poor typist”. She was hired by New York magazine shortly thereafter.

At The New Yorker magazine, where Levy has been a staff writer since 2008, she has written profiles of Cindy McCain and Marc Jacobs. At New York magazine, where Levy was a contributing editor for 12 years, she wrote about John Waters, Donatella Versace, the writer George Trow, the feminist Andrea Dworkin, the artists Ryan McGinley and Dash Snow, Al Franken, Clay Aiken, Maureen Dowd, and Jude Law. Levy has explored issues regarding American drug use, gender roles, lesbian culture, and the popularity of U.S. pop culture staples such as Sex and the City and Gwen Stefani. Some of these articles allude to Levy’s personal thoughts on the status of modern feminism.

Levy criticized the pornographic video series Girls Gone Wild after she followed its camera crew for three days, interviewed both the makers of the series and the women who appeared on the videos, and commented on the series’ concept and the debauchery she was witnessing. Many of the young women Levy spoke with believed that bawdy and liberated were synonymous.

Levy’s experiences amid Girls Gone Wild appear again in Female Chauvinist Pigs, in which she attempts to explain “why young women today are embracing raunchy aspects of our culture that would likely have caused their feminist foremothers to vomit.” In today’s culture, Levy writes, the idea of a woman participating in a wet T-shirt contest or being comfortable watching explicit pornography has become a symbol of strength; she says that she was surprised at how many people, both men and women, working for programs such as Girls Gone Wild told her that this new “raunch” culture marked not the downfall of feminism but its triumph, but Levy was unconvinced.

Levy’s work is anthologized in The Best American Essays of 2008, New York Stories, and 30 Ways of Looking at Hillary.