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Shape-Shifter: A Writer Stumbles Towards Work/Life Balance

It was hot the day my child stood on the Cape Cobra. It is always hot in the Namibian summer but the rain the previous day had made it more so. It was clear-aired too so the distance between things became harder to judge. Or perhaps that's just how it seemed to me.

It was hot the day my child stood on the Cape Cobra. It is always hot in the Namibian summer but the rain the previous day had made it more so. It was clear-aired too so the distance between things became harder to judge. Or perhaps that's just how it seemed to me.

We had a strict rule on the film set that the attending children had to wear shoes at all times. My three-year-old daughter had strapped on her sturdy sandals that morning and so could run ahead on the path that led to the horses. Excited. Laughing.

The snake bit her twice on the ankle.

As I drove the twenty or so dirt kilometers to the clinic where she lay, I didn't know whether she was alive or dead. It felt like being burned in a fire. HOW I LIVED became visible to me on that road.

In South Africa in the 1980s and 90s if you'd asked the film-makers and journalists working to record and respond to the dark final days of apartheid about Work/Life Balance they would have wondered what language you were speaking. As far as we were concerned balance was what you did when you were trying to get a shot of the convicted political prisoners leaving courtroom 16 from the narrow ledge of the building next door.

We associated the idea of a personal life with a utopian future that may never come to pass. We were young enough not to be oppressed by that uncertainty. Of course our personal lives happened anyway, often intensified by the political pressures around us, fierce connections between busy people with a shared mission. We banished ordinary life, ordinary needs, ordinary loves, to some other time. We worked, and worked, and played occasionally as hard as we worked, and before we knew it the pathways of habit and practice were deeply engrained in our bodies and minds. The country and its history led us there and we followed, eager trainee workaholics.

It is true that some of us fell exhausted by the wayside. Maybe it was my version of burn that seeded my increasing impatience with political film-making. I knew that the deeper story eluded us at the barricades. That I had to get off the street and into the bedroom to tell that story because the bedroom would be more revealing of who we were and what we were doing to one another.

It required a shift from documentary to a fiction, first as a writer and then as a director. I had the great privilege of learning the necessary new skills as I completed a Masters Degree at the National Film and Television School in England. But I took my restlessness with me.

I made a film in Zimbabwe as my graduation film. It was called 'On The Wire' and it was about a South African Defense Force soldier and his wife. It went into the bedroom and it saw their emotional ruin. I wrote and directed a second film called 'Friends', which traced apartheid's endgame through the friendship between three young women.

Then my husband and I had a baby. I adored motherhood. Loved it. Our child was the most important thing in my life. Still, when she was very small, I prepared to take her to the desert with me to make a film. Because that is what I did. That is who I was.

I didn't know then that all desert creatures came out after the rain, all the hunters and all their prey.

Only when she had made it through the first night without acute respiratory failure did Heinz Modler, the film's brilliant, life-saving doctor, confirm that she would live. Her leg swelled to five times its size and she was badly affected by the anti-venom. But she was alive.

My producer (and friend) made it clear that the film's insurance did not cover eventualities such as seriously injured offspring and guilt-stricken working mothers, so I went to set every day but really I couldn't remember what scene I was doing or why I was doing it.

The film was not a success. The months of editing and post-production remain a blur of indecision and struggle. I realised I needed help.

Bad things happen. They do. To all of us. My child could just as likely have been knocked down by a passing scooter while we were shooting in London. Yes, of course. But she wasn't. The space, place and time in which she was hurt was characteristically extreme. It was the kind of place I was attracted to. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder but it was clear that it didn't belong to the cobra only, it belonged to my whole working life. Jacob, our son, was born soon after. We named him after his grandfather.

In the months that followed, the phrase Work/Life Balance began to sound a little more like English. The idea became at least recognizable to me, particularly when spoken by a friend, Rhona Rapoport (Dual Career Families, 1971), who was a pioneer in the field. But it continued to elude me in life. The idea of work, once absolutely defining, seemed to have disappeared. My husband now worked and I mothered (and wrote, of course I always wrote but now for others, to pay the rent). He travelled a lot.

I paid attention to our recovery. My daughter's scarred foot and associated terrors and my unbearable guilt took some getting over. Somewhere in that process I began to understand the pleasures of ordinary life. The falling asleep in the afternoon with a toddler and a baby squished up close. The simplicity of going to the park, the wonders of birthdays and trips to the Natural History Museum. These tender lessons accumulated a kind of density, laid down a new pattern of being, closer to nature maybe. Certainly closer to the modest passage of ordinary existence.

I so loved being a mother that there were times when I wondered if I would ever want to work again? I had been able to retreat, recover and nurture my family, I had even been able to think about balance without remembering the ledge above courtroom 16 in Johannesburg. It occurred to me, gently at first, and then with increasing shrillness, that most people did not have that privilege. What did they do when bad things happened? What about those mothers and their children who could not find peace? The question waited, raucous, in my life's calm pools.

In Tuscany, one bucolic summer's day, I was driving home to our rented villa after a day of swimming with my family, when we passed a lay-by hacked out of the scrub on the side of the road. In it stood an African woman, provocatively dressed. She held an umbrella over her head to protect her from the sun's rays. She was a prostitute.

It's difficult to describe the force with which the anachronistic sight of her standing in the Italian dust took occupation of me. I began my research and understood how many women there were like her, in Europe, and beyond.

People trafficking and the ensuing enslavement of its victims accounts for millions of ruined lives, destroyed families, extreme suffering. It is an urgent and important problem.

Preparing to imagine a story that could, in some small way, communicate the human cost of this phenomenon demanded a level of research that was new to me. For six months I read, watched and listened. Each day I spent amongst the Congolese immigrant community in the far reaches of London brought me closer, until, eventually and mysteriously, a story began to take shape in my imagination.

It was a story about a small Congolese boy looking for his missing mother in London. In the course of writing it, I shifted shape one more time from film writer to a writer of books. The resulting novel, RHUMBA, was published by Quercus Books in May. The truth is that I have my children to thank for it. It was they who required me to do it. To describe what happens when this crucial communion is interrupted, when it is snatched away.

I accept now that I will never work moderately, nor is it likely that my stories will ever be comfortable tales. I spent too much formative time on the dark side to be very interested in stories about certainty. I still work very hard. My new book is a compelling, tumultuous, sometimes dangerous companion. But I (mostly) remember to pick my children up from school. I'm there when they get knocked sideways. I'm always there.

There is a cobra in RHUMBA too, naja nigricollis, which occurs in the forests of the Congo where Flambeau, the ten-year-old hero of my book hails from. It's my way of saying, yes, I see now.

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