By Sheila Belshaw Dora Taylor was not one to seek rewards. Selflessly, she gave far more than she ever received. This prestigious South African Literary Award honour would have been beyond her wildest dreams, and oh, how I wish I could tell her about it. And if I could, how would she react? Well, undoubtedly she would be overwhelmed. She would probably cry. And then she would dance. Whenever my mother was happy she danced. I can still see her gracefully twirling around our lounge in Claremont, her large innocent-looking greyblue eyes sparkling with the sheer joy of music and movement. But do not be deceived. Beneath Dora Taylor's wide-eyed, innocent look, the quiet voice, the gentle, shy, reserved manner, lay an irrepressible fiery spirit - a determination to fight with her pen to gain human rights for every person in South Africa. This everconsuming passion finally led to her exile in 1963. ”Oh, how my heart aches to be in Cape Town,“ she wrote to me in 1964. ”South Africa is where I belong.“ But even this isolation did not stop her, and until her death in 1976 she continued to pour every breath of her passion into her fight for equality for “the people”, as she called the then non-citizens of our country. Quoting

from her diaries, she dedicated all her writing “To and for the people”. When the timid young Dora stepped off the Union Castle ship in 1926 to join my father, James Taylor, who in 1924 had accepted a post as lecturer in psychology at the University of Cape Town (UCT), she could not have envisaged the enormous change about to engulf her. But with her keen sensitivity to injustice she was predictably attracted to Cape Town's political and intellectual groups, and on Saturday nights our house would resound with the impassioned discussion of likeminded friends and colleagues. Throughout the forties and fifties she poured much of her literary expertise into expressing the ideas and ideals of The NonEuropean Unity Movement (NEUM), the anti-Stalinist liberation movement at whose heart lay the fundamental principles of a non-racial democracy. As a founder member together with the NEUM leader, I.B. Tabata, with whom she collaborated on his own writing, including The Awakening of a People the teacher in her saw her role as one of bringing to the people as much knowledge as possible so that they would not be left behind in the sea of ignorance into which their oppressors' segregated education

system was sinking them, and would thus be equipped to comprehend the enormity of their oppression. Equal education for all was one of her pet obsessions. This was a basic human right, she argued, and no society could advance or prosper without the evenly balanced participation of all its inhabitants. Only now is it being acknowledged that much of the political education and social analysis contained in the pamphlets and books the movement distributed widely to “the people” was not only from her literary pen but also from her own wealth of innovative ideas. Her anonymous voice also found an outlet in the Cape Times and Cape Argus, and in almost every issue of the fortnightly radical magazine, Trek, where under cover of numerous pseudonyms she would regularly wear the cap of political analyst probing the complexities of economics, poverty or war, and also that of literary critic. Her literary criticism was unique in that she always looked at the authors' fundamental beliefs, including their racial attitudes in the context of the socioeconomic backgrounds. This gave her work a wider significance within the political climate of the time. Olive Schreiner, Thomas Pringle, Pauline Smith, Peter Abrahams, Sarah Gertrude Millin, Alan Paton and others all came under her indepth scrutiny. And when she died she left an unfinished study of Nadine Gordimer. “Her vivid and sensuous imagery makes her writing exciting to me,“ she wrote in one of her last letters. ”She's never sentimental and the reverse of didactic; she has an eye as keen as a cat's in the dark.“

In 1952, under the pseudonym Nosipho Majeke, Dora published her major historical work - The Role of the Missionaries in Conquest.

This brave book broke new ground in its exposure of the true history of colonialism, and had a major impact on the minds of young people seeking emancipation from the yoke of oppression. It was reprinted in 1986 when her true identity was revealed and although out of print is still much sought after. But alas, this selfless dedication was at the expense of Dora's own literary aspirations. Nevertheless, amongst the plethora of non-fiction, we are fortunate that there is a small treasure trove of fiction, published for the first time in 2008 by Penguin SA. Kathie, a novel revealing an astonishingly perceptive and accurate picture of a Cape Town family torn apart by differences in the colour of their skin; and Don't Tread on My Dreams, a diverse collection of short stories based on true events. And in March 2009 Penguin published her second and last novel, Rage of Life; a tale of love, violence and betrayal, with an uncanny bird's eye view of 1940s and -50s Sophiatown before it was obliterated by the Nationalist Government. Her keen, observant eye makes these works a rare contribution to recent South African history. A treat still to come is her hauntingly beautiful, long dramatic poem, Tristan and Iseult based on the medieval romantic tragedy that has inspired so many poets and authors, but with a distinct Dora Taylor flavour. “I have no desire to imitate Wagner who made the legendary tale famous in his opera. My story has a totally different direction, motivation and feeling,” she says in a 1961 letter, revealing a need to get close to herself and recapture her old love of poetry., ”I can't write anything unless I feel deeply,”. she goes on. “And my perception is always visual as I write, whether prose or poetry.“

My Mother's Gift To Me

My mother spoke little of her childhood in Scotland. She never solicited sympathy for the cruelty and deprivation she had suffered as an orphan. [The foundation of her intuitive understanding of all oppressed people undoubtedly lies in her never knowing the security of a happy home life or the loving caress of a mother or father; being ill-treated, unloved, frightened and alone] Through working intimately with her tragically few works of fiction, I have discovered and uncovered much of the sadness and horror of this early rootlessness.

For it is only in the freedom of fiction that an author can divulge his innermost thoughts and deepest secrets, though in my mother's case I am sure this was unintentional.
Yet, how else could she have portrayed so much of human suffering? Although her work is not autobiographical, there nevertheless lies hidden in the psyche of her dramatis personae, a complete spectrum of her own early tortured emotions. While in exile she wrote to me every By ??????????? week. All her earlier feelings of loneliness and persecution were reignited and exacerbated by this demeaning experience. But gaining strength from my father's lifelong stoic bravery in the face of his severe physical disability, an even greater determination to continue her fight against the tyrannies of apartheid rose from the ashes of her banishment. First in the USA, during my father's sabbatical year at Harvard, then in Canada, where he contributed his behavioural science expertise to the Space Research Programme at Toronto University, and later in England where they both died, she never ceased in her efforts to

fight for human rights, and even raised funds for victims imprisoned on Robben Island. Disheartened that none of her fiction had been published, she told me in a letter from Toronto that she thought she would abandon Rage of Life. But nevertheless, at the height of her despair, she rewrote the final chapter. This despair had led to a loss of confidence in herself - a feeling that stemmed from her early childhood when because of her illegitimacy she was made to feel inferior and unworthy of being alive. But her life was not all sadness and pain. I think she was happiest when she was writing, but also when she was being a wife, a mother and a grandmother. ”You know, don't you,“ she wrote in 1964 when she had just received a long-awaited letter from me, ”that we live through others, or die. If I could not exchange words and thoughts with you, if you did not love me or understand me, part of me would die. So is it with the devotion I give to what I believe in, and the work and thought I constantly give to it. It is literally a way of life. Not 'happy', because too much suffering is involved, but because one gives the best of which one is capable, it is a source of life.“ In one of her sadder letters she says, ”I feel I did not give you all I should. Oh, I know I looked after you devotedly, but I had something over and above to give you, and somehow I wasn't able to.“ But how wrong she was! And it is only as I have grown older that I realise just how much she did give me and how fortunate I was to have such a singular mother. To begin with I was not fully aware of the enormous political role she was playing. She was just this very unusual mother who surrounded me and my two sisters, Doreen


Tribute By Sheila Belshaw

and Muriel, with every possible stimulus of the arts. Against a background of Beethoven, Bach or Mozart, which my father played at orchestra pitch on his enormous hi-fi gramophone, we were exposed to the world of theatre, film, dance, art, sculpture - and of course, literature. Her own love of the written word has rubbed off on all three of us, and also on her grandchildren, to whom she wrote inspiring letters filled with gems of science, art and any other insightful knowledge she felt compelled to pass on to her offspring. Little Granny, as she was to her grandchildren, left a lasting legacy of her own thirst for knowledge. Her grandson, Peter Belshaw, when I told him about the SALA award, excitedly recalled ”as a small boy being taught bits of German, French and Latin over lumpy porridge for breakfast; being taught the value of books, being given books for every birthday and Christmas, some of which I still have and treasure. Her passion for literature, her encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject, her outpourings of writing, mainly by hand in her miniature copperplate, her sense of outrage at injustice wherever she saw it. Above all, her kindness and gentleness: far and away these are the qualities that shone out.“ And from her grand-daughter, Sheila Sheppard, equally proud of the SALA award: ”She gave me a lifelong love of literature, and the beginning of an understanding of how literature is life and not something separate from life. She passionately abhorred anything ugly or violent and was often moved to tears at images or reports of cruelty and violence around the world; these things truly caused her pain.“ And Ivan Clutten, her eldest grandson, remembers ”a fiery, energetic and passionate person with drive and

determination, who read to me every night at bedtime.” For me, and for my sisters Doreen and Muriel, and every member of Dora's family, the SALA Posthumous Award is an unexpected honour after so many years of our matriarch's literary obscurity: a culmination of the realisation of her dream to have her fiction published; a reward for her lifelong dedication to the cause of freedom. But I too have been rewarded: the privilege of being able to work so closely with her fiction has afforded me the utmost pleasure and fulfilment. Not only have I learned a great deal about good writing, but I have been given the opportunity to get to know my exceptional mother as I never knew her in her lifetime. What greater gift could a daughter receive?
Dora Taylor: 1899-1976 Winner of the 2008 South African Literary Posthumous Award


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