Marion Molteno grew up in South Africa and left after being involved in student protests against the apartheid regime.
She has pioneered education projects in multi-ethnic communities, was the founder of the South London Refugee Project, and has been a policy advisor with Save the Children, supporting projects with vulnerable children in over 50 countries.
Her fiction draws inspiration from the cross-cultural range of her life experience. Her latest novel, Uncertain Light was a finalist in the Indie Book Awards, 2016. Set among international development workers, it follows events sparked by the abduction of a UN peace negotiator in Tajikistan, and was described by Alistair Niven, judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, as ‘a moving and necessary book.’ If You Can Walk, You Can Dance won a Commonwealth Writers Prize for the best book in the Africa region, and was selected in the top 20 titles of the year for the New Zealand Women's Book Festival. The story of a young woman's life on the run across frontiers and life-styles, it is also an exploration of the power of music in all cultures. A Shield of Coolest Air, set among Somali refugees in London, won the David St John Thomas Award. Somewhere More Simple, set on the Isles of Scilly, explores relationships among outsiders in a small community cut off from the mainland. Her short story collection, A Language in Common, reflects the experiences of the first generation of South Asian women in Britain, and was translated into five languages including three South Asian languages. 'The Bracelets' was a winner in the London short story competition.
She studied at the School of Oriental & African Studies & the Institute of Education, University of London, and the Universities of Manchester and Cape Town. She has written and lectured widely on language, culture and education; her books for development practitioners have been translated into many languages and are used across the world. She is the literary executor for the work of Ralph Russell, scholar and translator of Urdu literature: the most recent publication is The Famous Ghalib: The Sound of My Moving Pen.
In her books, Molteno challenges borders built along colour and ethnic lines; her characters experience diaspora as they move to foreign places where their identities are remoulded and reinvented.
Her fictional and non fictional works argue that cultural difference does not necessarily mean isolation and marginalization, but that a productive dialogue can be established across cultures. Molteno brings her own experiences to her literary understanding of diaspora. A white South African woman who opposed the apartheid regime and left her home country to settle down in Britain after several years spent in Zambia, Molteno has worked with different immigrant and refugee communities, pioneering a variety of educational activities and advocating programs for the development of a multi-cultural British society.
Focussing on the interactions among characters coming from different parts of the world and with different religious and cultural backgrounds, Molteno shows how diasporic subjects mingle across their communities of origin in their new nation. The different ethnic communities that feature in her books are never portrayed as insulated capsules of racial purity. On the contrary, they are described in their contacts with each other on a foreign land. Molteno’s characters always experience displacement and have to negotiate their identities within their new place of residence and the encounters that they make there. Molteno’s first short story collection, A Language in Common (1987), draws on the author’s experience as language teacher for groups of immigrant women mainly from India and Pakistan. The first-person narrator is not simply an observer of the groups of women she teaches, but becomes actively involved in their lives to such an extent that she comes to share crucial events in their lives. In the short story devoted to her journey across India, the narrator visits the families of her students, thus functioning as a bridge between their diasporic lives and their places of birth. In addition, several passages of the short stories reverse the usual teacher-pupil dynamics. Teachers become more aware of the social realities around them thanks to their students who help them to revise their assumptions on immigrants and refugees. For example, English teachers learn to pay attention to the racist graffiti on the walls of London thanks to their conversations with immigrant families. One of the teachers, Jill, becomes aware of the ‘awful graffiti scrawled all over the place’ after talking to one of her student’s husbands. His reluctance to let her come to class is not due to an old-fashioned conception of gender roles, but to fears for her own safety.
The main characters of Molteno’s two subsequent novels, A Shield of Coolest Air (1992) and If You Can Walk, You Can Dance (1998), are two South African women forced to move away from their family homes for political reasons. In their new locations of residence, they are considered outsiders. Yet, this marginality does not confine them to their own ethnic community, but enables them to cross the colour line and find new communities. In A Shield of Coolest Air, Rachel is a South African woman forced into exile in London because of her husband’s radicalism and opposition against the apartheid. In Britain Rachel finds herself increasingly alone as her husband travels throughout the world because of his journalistic enquiries. She falls in love with a Somali refugee case worker, Hassan, and, through their relationship, she becomes aware of the plight of asylum seekers in Britain. The novel shows how different communities can coalesce as Rachel and Hassan launch a campaign to lobby the Home Office to let the children of asylum seekers join their parents in Britain. While the links between Rachel and South Africa are not fully explored in spite of her return to her home country to visit a dying aunt, the relationship with South Africa is more significant for Jennie De Villiers, the protagonist of If You Can Walk, You Can Dance. Grown up in a wealthy conservative family in Bloemfontein, as a university student Jennie confronts the South African apartheid regime and has to emigrate first to Swaziland and then to London. In her journeys across borders and cultures in the 1970s, Jennie discovers the harmonizing power of music, a concept represented by the mbira, a traditional Swazi string instrument that Jennie is given as a parting gift. The novel explores what Paul Gilroy calls ‘versions of diaspora consciousness’ which ‘accentuate the possibility and desirability of return’ in spite of the difficulty of this gesture. The finale seems to point out a possible reconciliation between Jennie and her homeland.
Molteno’s latest novel, Somewhere More Simple (2007), is set within British borders, but its three main characters still experience displacement even within their own country. All of them - Cari, a teacher, Anna, a doctor, and Hugh, whose wife has just left him, see the remote Scilly Isles as the place to rebuild their lives away from past traumas. ‘The thing about an island’, is stated in the novel, ‘is it has edges, so you know exactly where you are’. Yet the three characters, whose existences become increasingly intertwined when Anna’s niece goes missing while on a school trip on the mainland, discover that the landscape of the island impacts on their identities in unexpected ways and causes them to reconsider their past choices.
Molteno has also written a number of books on education and language teaching, with a particular focus on disadvantaged children living in developing countries and refugee communities in Britain. These can function as a non-fictional counterpart to A Language in Common, as they appeal to educators to explore the cultures of the people they teach and to encourage them to keep their own cultural traditions.
Luca Prono, 2010