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Harrowing, compelling, sobering and ultimately satisfying – Margaret von Klemperer reviews Thuli Nhlapo’s Colour Me Yellow

Published in the Witness, 22 November 2017

Colour Me YellowTHERE is an autobiographical genre often dismissed as “misery memoir” – books in which an author bangs on at length about how awful their life was, is, and ever shall be. And judging by the tale that Thuli Nhlapo recounts in Colour Me Yellow, she would have been well justified in adding to the misery pile.

But her story, while harrowing to read and obviously worse to live through is not merely a tale of woe. Her determination and intelligence shine through, and make her book compelling, sobering and ultimately satisfying.

Nhlapo, the oldest child in her family, grew up with feelings of rejection. Throughout her childhood, her mother reiterated how much she had hated being pregnant with Nhlapo: “I hated carrying you in my stomach” was her constant refrain. A light skinned child, at home and at school she was reviled for being “yellow” and despite being the oldest, found herself regularly at the bottom of the pecking order. She soon became convinced the man whose name she bore, who treated her appallingly, and who was married to her mother was not her real father, and her life became a long struggle to find out the truth. The only adult who offered her any kind of comfort or security was her maternal grandfather, but he was unable to answer her questions.

At one stage in the book, Nhlapo says her mother and father were not bad people, but they certainly sound as if they were. Family secrets, greed, shame and anger were rife, and their corrosive effects on the author and those around her are plain. But she hung on, succeeding against the odds to become a successful woman and a loving mother – no easy task with the role models she had been given.

When she does discover the truth, there is no fairy-tale ending, but one that will resonate with many people in a bitter, divided society. And above all, Nhlapo shows that courage and faith in the rightness of what one is doing can bring a kind of peace. – Margaret von Klemperer

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