Writing Across Boundaries

The apartheid era ended only in 1991
Five years ago, Natalie Yates was working with some GCSE students on poetry from other cultures. Amongst the poems the students studied in depth, was 'Nothing’s Changed', by Tatamkhulu Afrika, which describes the poet’s thoughts and feelings on returning to District 6, Cape Town, post-apartheid, only to find that nothing had in fact changed.  

One stanza in the middle of the poem states: ‘No sign says it is: but we know where we belong.’

From this inspiration, Natalie set out to write a YA novel set in South Africa. 

Cultural Appropriation? 

How tragic, I thought, that the physical barriers had been taken away, yet still the culture remained segregated.  I wanted a new setting for my next novel and chose South Africa.  And why not?  No one said I couldn’t.  And with the wealth of information on the internet, Google maps, transcripts of the TRC hearings, etc, I had the relevant information at my fingertips.

It wasn’t until 2014, when I seriously started writing it, that I realised my naivety.  I had started my MA in Creative Writing at Hull University and chose my South Africa story for my thesis.  I had put a powerful synopsis together on the course and felt I just had to tell the story.  But I lost count of the times I questioned my right to do so (let alone my sanity).  Yet I was getting some positive and useful feedback, not only from fellow students and tutors, but also from the NE SCBWI contingent, who I first met in 2015 while putting the bare bones of the novel together.

A township in Cape Town, South Africa

Through my research, I contacted various people connected to South Africa, as well as some who lived there.  Of those who replied, some were incredibly helpful and provided valuable information, especially one lady whom I got in touch with via a South African professor from Northumbria University, who had grown up in a township in Johannesburg. 

So grateful and humble I felt reading her long emails recounting her painful past.  I remember, though, that with each email I sensed a little voice in my head asking, ‘How can you tell this story?  You have no experience of South Africa, let alone living in a shack on a township, coming face to face with racial abuse and segregation on a day-to-day basis…’ 

Natalie uses photographs as an inspiration for Zola
However, reactions to my story on the whole have been positive and encouraging.  It was longlisted last year for the Commonword Diversity Writing for Children’s Prize, and while I was on the SCBWI retreat, the feedback from the attending author and agent was very promising – no one questioned my reasons for writing the story.  In September last year, I found a reader for my manuscript via Cape Town University, mainly to check its authenticity with regards to the voice, setting and dialogue.  My reader, Zimpande, responded with very detailed and helpful feedback.  With a couple of name changes, adjustments to dialogue and structure regarding the antagonist, he stated that the story was authentic and ‘really very interesting, there is accelerated drama, tension and complexity which as a reader [he] enjoyed, immensely.’  Yet, when attending the Agents' Party, I was surprised to be told by one of the agents that I would not find a publisher interested in my novel because I am not black.  Suffice it to say that conversation was cut fairly short.  Interestingly, a SCBWI friend has suggested I submit my manuscript under a pseudonym – as yet I have not decided to go down that road.

Despite the voices in my head, my writing was driven by my desire to share Zola’s story with others.  Others who have also grown up experiencing racism, others who have friends with different ethnicities, others who have no idea of South Africa’s history, or those who just want to enjoy the experience of living in another world for a little while.  To experience a little of what it is like to live in a society that has been oppressed and is still fighting its way out. Isn’t that what reading is all about?  Sharing experiences, feelings and understanding.  Isn’t that how our empathy can nourish and develop? 


Natalie Yates has been a SCBWI member since 2015.  She has worked as a Teaching Assistant in many schools across East Yorkshire over the past seven years.  Aside from that, she works as cook, cleaner, taxi driver & mentor to three girls, husband and two schnauzers.  In her spare time, she loves to write for YA and MG, generally realistic fiction based on historical events.  Her previously self-published novel, Michiko and the Match Girls, is available on Amazon.  She graduated from Hull University last year with a MA in Creative Writing and her novel, now retitled The Colour of Forgiveness, is currently out on submission.

Natalie Yates' blog


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