Review: Jane Westaway*
Marion Molteno's novel If You Can Walk You Can Dance won the Africa section of the 1999 Commonwealth Writers Best Book Prize. This story collection preceded the novel and has been reissued in the Antipodes - after failing to attract a British publisher - to capitalise on Molteno's appearances at last year's Listener Women's Book Festival.
The scene has shifted to London and the stories focus on immigrant women attending English-language classes, at which the narrator is a teacher. Molteno was such a teacher, although her disclaimer states that while the narrator is "myself," none of the characters portrays an actual person. In fact, the strength of these eight stories lies in their documentary tone. While Molteno's concerns are more social than literary, she is a lucid, unpretentious writer whose compassion and honesty shine through.
She doesn't deliver sermons. Instead she explores the lives of those who are isolated and almost invisible at the bottom of the metropolitan pecking order, those steering a course between the traditional and the British way of life.
The narrator is almost always a reporter: observant, empathetic but not a strong presence. In only a couple of stories does her reality impinge, and then for the light it sheds on her real subjects.
She plays at wearing a sari given by one of her students, then forgetfully finds herself walking down the street in it and panicking. It's no longer fancy dress; she feels exposed and vulnerable.
She is enraged by racist graffiti but feels absurd painting it out. She travels to India and Pakistan and learns more about a woman who refuses to talk about her past.
The book itself is a fairly unattractive production, with cramped margins and small type. But it should be compulsory reading for anyone teaching English as a second language, and a lot more of us besides.
* Jane Westaway is a Wellington writer.