Last night I went to illustrator/writer Niki Daly’s talk at the Observatory library : “How to travel lightly with 60 years of baggage”. I am so glad I went. Niki Daly told us about his journey through life, from working class child growing up in apartheid South Africa to an established illustrator – and how this journey has brought him to do the work he does.
The Observatory library was the perfect venue for this talk – my favourite kind of library, jammed with books and bearing the marks of thorough use. Niki Daly spoke quietly but with intense and sometimes painful honesty. One of the themes of his talk was the question of why he creates what he calls “multicultural” books – he asks himself the question – “how can a white man tell stories about black people – and why would he want to do so?”He spoke about apartheid – and about being “culpably ignorant” as a young man about the wrongs being done to fellow south africans. He has no struggle credentials, he said. He reminded us of his question – how can a white person tell the story of a black person – and then proceeded to suggest some answers.
“There is more to a person than their race, or their cultural practices. We are all human.” He spoke about being “inoculated against hatred” by the very system that dehumanised black people – because he was brought up by two black women who he grew to love. He emphasized that where apartheid focused on “difference” and “separateness”, what one should do instead is to find the common ground, that which we share. “As humans, we have the amazing ability to empathize. And after all, a writer can dare to imagine”.
He said that it is a mistake to classify his books a being about black children. They are about working class children. Children who like himself, did not have all the toys, all the parental attention, all the advantages. Who might also have spent most of their time “sitting on the sidewalk, picking the scabs off their knees.”
He showed how his own environment inspires him – how the changing face of Mowbray is reflected in his books. There local characters who appear in cameo roles in his books, and his attempts at gaining research experience by volunteering to be a sweeper and tea maker at a local hair salon.
I was impressed by his quiet passion, and his open mindedness, and by the obvious joy that fills his work.