Before the Knife: Memories of an African Childhood

Overview

What happened to me affected all of us—my mother, my father, my sisters, and me: we all fell apart under the horror of it, and we all tried to pretend that there was no horror.

Before the Knife is an unforgettable story—a transcendent memoir—of the beauty and brutality in a young girl’s African childhood and of the ways she found to survive it.

When Carolyn Slaughter was nearly four, she and her family moved from England to a remote outpost in ...

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Overview

What happened to me affected all of us—my mother, my father, my sisters, and me: we all fell apart under the horror of it, and we all tried to pretend that there was no horror.

Before the Knife is an unforgettable story—a transcendent memoir—of the beauty and brutality in a young girl’s African childhood and of the ways she found to survive it.

When Carolyn Slaughter was nearly four, she and her family moved from England to a remote outpost in the Kalahari Desert. There she was surrounded by a landscape of incomparable splendor and violence. Majestic rivers formed overnight; flocks of flamingos and herds of game gathered with equal speed to partake of the sudden waters. Termite mounds grew to the height of trees. A crocodile could drag a child from the riverbank in a second. And the author herself became the victim of an unspeakable crime.

Slaughter takes us deep into her experience of Africa and of herself at a time of anguish, but also of recovery. As she has said, “I couldn’t take my eyes off Africa. And what I saw was so beautiful that it enabled me not merely to survive, but also to find a way to save my soul.” Before the Knife is the deeply moving story of a girl who endured and transcended her family’s violence to emerge an impassioned observer and explicator of her world.

"Carolyn Slaughter's astonishing memoir is seductive and exquisitely rendered. She draws us into a world full of beauty and terror, the corrosive power of family secrets, and her stubborn and inspiring will to survive. An extraordinary achievement." --Esmeralda Santiago

"Two rivers of memory form the parallel universes of this beautiful memoir of childhood: growing up in Africa as the child of a minor colonial administrator during the unraveling of the British Empire; and growing up unmothered in a family of daughters governed by a savage father. It is eerily the world of Sylvia Plath’s disturbing poem “Daddy,” brought to life with an astounding lack of self-pity and a writerly gift for endowing the personal story with gripping social realism." --Diane Middlebrook

"In Before the Knife,Carolyn Slaughter has beautifully -- and daringly -- conjured up her African childhood. Hers is a story of the familial secrets that can build around one horrendous act and the terribly misunderstandings, regrets and recriminations that result. The memoir is also a lyrical recreation of the land, which -- like those who dwell upon it -- cannot be tamed, suppressed or possessed. The utter brutality of the landscape is matched only by that of the Slaughter family." --Lisa See

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Carolyn Slaughter was born in New Delhi, India, and spent most of her childhood in the Kalahari Desert of what is now Botswana. Soon after leaving Africa in 1961, she wrote what would later become her highly acclaimed novel Dreams of the Kalahari. She followed this with eight more novels. After living for many years in London, she moved to the United States with her family in 1986.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A father's rape of his six-year-old daughter, "forgotten but not forgotten, known but not known," casts its shadow over this memoir of growing up during the 1950s in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana. Her father, a civil servant with a penchant for family and community violence, gives the young Slaughter "the creeps," and mother is "a bag of nerves and a basket case." Nightmares, a tendency toward accidents and an attempted suicide are Slaughter's share in this dysfunctional family, which includes two sisters. Sustenance or perhaps sanity? comes from her love affair with the "beautiful beyond words" landscape: the desert and its accompanying river. Novelist and psychotherapist Slaughter (Dreams of the Kalahari) builds her memoir around places (ships, houses, schools) delineated as visually as a photograph and objects rendered tangible, e.g., the Chevy's "voluptuous shapes and wide rumps" and the "meat knife with a beautiful, chiseled end" (which, incidentally, was the instrument of a failed attempt to kill her father). Two lives merge here, one of incredible beauty and one of incredible pain. Although the subject suggests comparison with Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Slaughter's memoir is closer, thematically, to Conrad's Heart of Darkness. "You were always willing to go down into the dark without a candle," Slaughter's older sister says when they are reconciled adults, "but I'm not." Slaughter has succeeded in penning a chilling and compelling exorcism. Agent, Betsy Lerner. (May 16) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This is the painful story of an anguished child and a dysfunctional family set against the social backdrop of an unraveling colonial structure. Slaughter (Dreams of the Kalahari) returns to the writing scene after years of absence to tell the story of a tortured childhood spent in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana, where her family moved from England when she was four. In plain yet piercing language, she recounts how the callous and incestuous acts of an authoritarian father, the resignation of a delusional mother, and the pretentiousness of a colonial lifestyle viciously shattered a young white girl's innocence and happiness. There are moments of beauty and redemption most notably when Slaughter writes of her infatuation with Africa's natural beauty ("I couldn't take my eyes off Africa") but it is her anger that permeates the narrative. Slaughter's intense hatred for her father and horror at her childhood are present in every recollection, constantly reverberating with a bitterness that inadvertently threatens the credibility of her story. Still, this is a candid memoir that takes the reader into the inner world of colonial functionaries, exposing their prejudices and vices and detailing their trials and fears. Recommended for public libraries. Edward K. Owusu-Ansah, CUNY Coll. of Staten Island Lib. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-As a child, Slaughter was raped repeatedly by her father, beginning when she was six years old. Born in India about the time of independence, she and her family soon traveled back to England along with the rest of the British colonialists, where her father determined he could not live without the incipient power held by minor bureaucrats in colonial service to the Queen. In short order, Slaughter, her older sister, and her mother were following him to Africa, to the Kalahari Desert and the British protectorate known today as Botswana. Her mother's recurring depressions, worsened by the birth of a third daughter, and her father's frustration and anger with the approaching end of British colonialism and his own mental illness, led to the incest and eventual violence between him and his daughter. Slaughter's style is lyrical and haunting. In beautifully painted prose, she conveys her great love for the magnificence of Africa. Readers are shown how she sought solace from her environment in an effort to blot out the pain of her father's betrayal and her mother's refusal to acknowledge the abuse. As if piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, readers come to understand the author's actions. Handled with dignity, the story tells of survival and strength in the 1950s but it is relevant today.-Carol DeAngelo, Kings Park Library, Burke, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A novelist (Dreams of the Kalahari, 1981, not reviewed) recalls the difficulties of her African girlhood, including a series of brutal rapes by her father, beginning when she was six. Slaughter offers a stark account of her life in Africa with a dour, brutal father and manic mother. Her father, a British foreign-service officer who was around for the fall of the Raj in India, moves thereafter to Africa, where he accepts one dreary posting after another at the time that many countries on the continent were emerging from generations of colonial control. Slaughter begins with her early childhood on the journey from England to Africa and ends with her return a dozen or so years later. In between, she documents all sorts of unpleasantness(from having to drink her own urine (a punishment for wetting herself at school), to seeing her father's testicles dangle outside his shorts, to hearing of children eaten by crocodiles, to plotting (and very nearly executing) the murder of her father. "I should have known that he'd be unkillable," she sighs. She eventually goes off to boarding school, where she shocks the nuns with her intransigence and ignorance, falls in love with a fellow student named Virginia (they become fast friends and do not, Slaughter declares, become physically intimate), and eventually(with the older Virginia as her mentor(begins to gain some control of her life. What Slaughter does not take control of here is her language. At even the most poignant moments, she cannot resist the fatal allure of cliche (people go ballistic, have steady streams of conversation, and wash their hands of each other) and at other times she cannot manage more than the banal: "Only in poetry," she writes,"could I find a mirror for the innermost life of the mind." She asserts that she did not remember the rapes until ten years ago, when shards of memories began to slice at her. Undeniable horror, unremarkable writing.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375413971
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/7/2002
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.68 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Meet the Author

Carolyn Slaughter was born in New Delhi, India, and spent most of her childhood in the Kalahari Desert of what is now Botswana. Soon after leaving Africa in 1961, she wrote what would later become her highly acclaimed novel Dreams of the Kalahari. She followed this with eight more novels. After living for many years in London, she moved to the United States with her family in 1986.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

~I was going to say that my first memory of our life in Africa was at Riley's Hotel in Maun, at the top of Botswana, on the edge of the Okavango Delta. But that isn't so. It's just that I tend to skip over the first place we lived in, as if I'm still trying to forget it the way I did then. That way, for a short while, it can seem, just like the first time, somehow not to have happened at all. Old defenses rush to the rescue so that even now, whenever I think of our life in Africa, I go directly to the Kalahari. I blot out the years from three to six, when my mother and I were like the first finger and thumb of a glove that held me safely in place in the world, and gave her a measure of safety that was taken from her just as suddenly and shockingly as it was from me.

Our life in Africa actually began in Swaziland-a tiny African kingdom held in the fist of the Republic of South Africa. At that time, the British government's district commissioners oversaw the colony, and my father was sent out from England to be one of those men who strode around wearing the hard hats, khaki uniforms, and knee-length socks of the Empire. We'd come out on the boat, and since I was only about three and a half at the time, I'm not sure how much I remember of that first sea voyage out. I seem to see the boat pulling out of the dock at Southampton and the paper streamers connecting, for those sad, fleeting moments, those on the boat to those on the shore. I seem to see my grandmother and my aunt far, far below, standing on the quay, stout women wearing dark clothes. My grandmother was bitter and silent when we said good-bye; she would barely kiss us and her face was stiff with anger.She'd been through all this before: my father had run off to India when he was twenty, leaving her and Ireland behind, vowing never to return to the miserable, rain-soaked poverty. Now he was at it again, taking us into another exile-this time into the dark, godforsaken hell of Africa.

My sister and I were born in India around the time of Partition and Independence, which came in 1947, and at the time of our births, my grandmother had reached her determined hand across the ocean, and insisted we be baptized as Catholics. My father-deep hater of priests and the Holy Roman Church-handed us over like lambs. Now he was trying to get away from his mother again, only this time he was escaping to Africa, and this time he wasn't going alone-he was taking my mother, my sister, and me with him.

After the British had pulled up stakes from India and headed home to England, my father hadn't been able to settle along with the rest of them. At that time, England's overseas colonies, apart from India, were held firmly under imperial domination. You had only to glance at an atlas to see how much of the world was painted red, the scarlet mark of British conquest and possession, the boot on the neck of the dispossessed. And all of this vast empire was somehow, quaintly, thought of simply as England, a frontier that stretched as far as destiny was wont to go.

India, in getting rid of the Empire, and splitting off Pakistan, had covered herself with a different kind of red. My parents, who had met and married in India, had to get out with the rest of the British and make way for independence and freedom. For England and her empire, it was the death knell, the beginning of the end, worse even than the uppityness of the wretched Boers in South Africa who'd tried the same thing some fifty years before. In India the dream died hard. English emotions were wrung at the death of the Raj. With India gone, the Empire began to sink down into the sea. In a dozen or so years, as red faded to pink, the imperial shade would be no more than a sign of decadence and corruption. Sharp new colors and brave flags now began to flutter over colonies where once the British had played polo and instilled a certain kind of order and gentility that was better suited to Oxfordshire or Surrey.

This giddy last fling of India under the Raj had got into my father's blood. As a young man, he'd found himself with complete dominion over more than a thousand Indians, and he'd liked it. The son of a policeman, born into poverty in Ireland in 1914, he'd found in this remote but exquisite satellite of the British Empire a place to exercise a deep need for power. It was a heady time in India, with insurrections and sectarian uprisings stirring the hot winds of independence. In Europe the war was raging, but my father was out of it. In India he'd joined the British Police, and later the Intelligence Bureau in New Delhi, where he and my mother were married and my sister and I were born. On his watch, a mighty nation was torn into two bleeding halves, and with independence, the British were thrown out, and he with them. Before you knew it, British India was no more.

When India blew up, the explosion sent the English home in ships. They left in droves-all the bureaucracy, the government officials, the businesses, hospitals, and churches, the British Army and the British Police-the whole bang shoot-out. They left behind them a massive barracks of soldiers who had valiantly gone wherever they were told to serve: in the Crimea, the Americas, and all the military skirmishes in Africa and Asia, as well as on the bleak battlefields of both world wars. What England expected of her officers and subjects was courage, and what she got in exchange was conquest on the cheap. What a sad business it was: left behind was a mighty structure, law and order forged out of anarchy and barbarism. Left behind them also were their lovely houses drenched in bougainvillea and frangipani, and their cool verandaed cottages high in the hills. All the English furniture they'd carted with them over the Indian Ocean was shipped home, along with the silver, crystal, and china, and the traces of Indian life, the accumulated diamonds and emeralds, the carved mahogany tables and chairs, the tiger skins, the beautiful hand-sewn clothes that we all wore. They took with them their whole way of life, and they left in an orderly manner. When the flag came down for the last time, there was no lack of dignity. The British were departing, leaving behind them a job well done, a service carried out for King and Country. They left India without remorse, leaving their atrocities mingled with the ethnic slaughters, but they knew all the same that they were being thrown out, and they couldn't quite muster up the usual resounding hoorah.

As a small girl, I remember seeing pictures of Queen Victoria's Jubilees as they were celebrated in India-elephants hung with jewels, carriages carrying the viceroy, British dignitaries, and Indian maharajas and princes, tigers in cages drawn through flower-decked, cheering crowds-monarchy run amok. Now it was over and it would never be seen again, not the way it was in India, through all those long years of Victoria's reign, where her jubilees, with their glorious excess, were celebrated in Calcutta and Delhi as splendidly as they were in Westminster. The British understood pomp and ceremony-still do. Nobody does it better.

My father and mother left the opulence and beauty of India for a blitzed and shattered postwar England of rationing and meager opportunity; they returned to the bombed cities and crippled economy of a nation still reeling from the war, shell-shocked and impoverished. It was another way of life gone to hell, and one my father couldn't take. Too depressing. What could he, in England, do with his talents for beating the natives into submission, for instilling order and respect in the barbaric hordes? He ended up in a department store in London. He stuck it out for about a year and then we were packing up again: he'd booked passage on a ship to Africa. My mother, who had been born in India and had spent her entire life there (a fact, along with many others, she didn't tell us for a long time), would have liked to stay in England, but that didn't count. My father had joined the Colonial Service; he was on the run again and we went with him, my mother, my older sister, Angela, and I.

The sea voyages have merged into a collective memory. The Colonial Service sent its subjects home every few years and so we sailed back and forth on majestic Union-Castle liners that bore the names of the king's houses. The elegant blue-white ships, with crimson and black funnels, were called Windsor, Dover, or Balmoral Castle, and they were floating palaces, beautiful in every way. In the early days, they were part of the opening up of Africa, bringing in the mail and delivering the cargo: the cotton, the iron and steel, and the shiny new machines that were to keep the Empire running smoothly. In the holds were plants to help the emerging fruit industry in the Cape Colony, or vines to root in the fertile new land and produce brandy and wine reminiscent of Bordeaux. Boats like the ones we traveled in were part of the empire-building of a continent, bringing prospectors out to the Witwatersrand or the diamond mines of Kimberley.

The Union-Castle mail ships sailed for Africa promptly at four p.m. on Thursdays, and on their return, they docked at Southampton loaded with cargo, mail, and passengers just after sunrise on Fridays. So efficient was the service that people in Cape Town set their clocks by the arrival time of the mail ships. What I remember of these sea voyages is the cloudy seawater we bathed in, with soap that wouldn't lather, and scratchy white towels with a thin blue line at each end. My mother scrubbed us in a tub of salty water, and poured a bucket of clear water over our heads, and then we would race down the narrow corridors in our pajamas and back to our cabin and bed. We ate separately from the grown-ups and much earlier. We were offered hand-painted menus that announced the Children's Evening Meal. There was cereal or soup, white fish or lamb and vegetables, and always eggs to order. The main course was followed by milk pudding, jelly and cream, or ice cream. There was always plenty of brown and white bread and butter, thinly sliced, with the crusts on. Afternoon tea was a sumptuous affair, with wafer-thin sandwiches and petit fours with smooth, thick, white icing and a cherry or a sugared violet adorning each perfect tiny white square. Everything was served on solid silver salvers and tea was poured from pots of the same distinction.

At night the ship was lit up and the band played from the cocktail hour onward. The grown-ups would dress up for dinner, linger over drinks served on deck, and eat at tables set with delicate china, good silver, and linens folded into crowns. The dining-room tables had sides that you flipped up quickly to stop the soup landing on your lap when the waves were high. A band would play and there would be dancing afterward on a polished floor. My sister and I would sneak up and spy on the swirling couples, trying to locate our parents. My mother was the woman with the high, almost hysterical laugh. My father was the one not drinking.

During the day we raced up and down the decks, getting splinters in the soles of our feet. We would visit the engine rooms and the captain's deck, swim in the pool set like a sapphire in the dark wood deck, and play organized games the way our parents did. Everyone was kept busily engaged in ship life: there were smoking rooms, billiard and card rooms, and bars and sitting rooms galore. Third class was a different world and one we entered surreptitiously, to slum it a bit before racing back to our posh quarters. Third class, or steerage as it was also called, was there all right, but it wasn't mentioned. Angela and I shared a cabin with two slim berths, one on top of the other. Every moment the portholes filled and emptied of blue and the water in the foldaway basin below the porthole splashed over the sides. The waves rocked us to sleep; the little cabin was a sealed world with the wind and water kept at bay. Sometimes I wondered what would happen if the hard glass of the porthole crashed and the sea came flooding in-how could we stop it? How quickly would we drown? But it would never happen: the boat was as unsinkable as our life was then. Angela slept in the top bunk and I in the one below. Sometimes her face would appear over the edge and I'd look at her upside down and laugh.

We were back in the lap of luxury. India all over again: waited on hand and foot, our every need anticipated and met. Maids, stewards, and pursers replaced the ayahs, butlers, and servants who'd once attended us day and night. The food was quite unlike the dreary English grub we'd left behind. The mail boats had brought with them the bounty of the southern climate, and we were eating mangoes again, and grapefruit that back then were very sour, oranges and tangerines, fat black shiny grapes, avocados and scarlet tomatoes-things unheard-of in England at the beginning of the fifties. Best of all there were no shortages: you could eat as much meat as you liked, and meals came as frequently as they do in a sanatorium.

My mother was happy on that first voyage out. She was the dress-up queen. I can see her long gowns hanging on the back of the cabin door on padded satin hangers. On the dressing table were her creams and cosmetics, neatly lined up, ready for war. I would test the slippery fabric of the skirt with the end of my tongue and look up at the bodice as it hung suspended, fastened by ribbons: black lace and taffeta, strapless and glamorous, tiny-waisted with full, netted underskirts that reached to the floor. Cinderella dancing shoes as transparent as glass, with small diamanté stars hanging in the icicle high heels. Mostly, when I remember her this way, I see her dancing not so much in the ship's ballroom, but on the red, polished stoop of some low-slung, ugly house in the middle of the bush, a million miles from civilization.

Copyright 2002 by Carolyn Slaughter
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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Carolyn Slaughter, author of Before the Knife

Q: After publishing several highly acclaimed works of fiction, you stopped writing for over a decade. What were your reasons for this period of silence? What finally inspired you to write Before the Knife?

A: I stopped writing twelve years ago in a deliberate attempt to uncover memories I knew I'd half-remembered and half-forgotten. I had also become convinced that writing itself—working and reworking images and themes in fiction—was actually keeping my real story out of consciousness. So I stopped writing altogether. This tipped me into a disturbing year when I was flooded by childhood images and memories. But the process turned out to be redemptive as well as traumatic. It brought clarity to my life for the first time. While I was not writing, I trained as a psychotherapist and began to work with trauma and abuse survivors, which I still do. And when I felt I had enough distance from the traumatic material, I tried to find the right voice and form to tell my real story. I wanted to create an intimate and close connection with the reader, and I had an image of two people being in the room as I was writing. Before the Knife is the result.
Q: In the second paragraph of the prologue, you wrote that your father raped you when you were six years old. Why did you choose to reveal this at the very beginning of the book?

A: I make it plain in the book that the first rape took place when I was six and that it did not happen just once. I put it right there at the beginning because I did not want to sensationalize the material byleading up to it in a fictional way. I wanted to state what had happened in a plain and exact way to protect the child—myself in this case—from voyeurism. I also wanted to spare the reader any more horror than was necessary. The way the book is written, with the reader knowing the truth in the prologue, also reflects my own experience: I knew it, "forgot" it, and then it returned in full force. I suspect that readers will have a similar experience as they seem to "forget'' and then are hit with the epilogue, which describes how the memories resurfaced.
Q: Due to your father's position with the British Protectorate, you and your sisters grew up in several different places in Africa. When you recall your childhood, is there a particular part of Africa that springs most vividly to mind?

A: The book is an elegy for Africa and for the part that I love best: a small place called Maun at the northern edge of the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
Q: Even though you lived with your two sisters, you spent a lot of time on your own as a child, exploring the African landscape. At what point did you start to turn some of your solitary observations into writing? Did you ever dream, as a child, about becoming an author?

A: I've wanted to be a writer since I was eight or nine years old, when I first tried to find words for what I was seeing and feeling. I was communicating with myself and with the landscape, and the urgency of needing to write probably came from the fact that what was happening to me was unspeakable.
When I was sent, in my early teen years, to St. Mary's boarding school in Johannesburg, I wondered if I was unteachable, but the religious life and the nuns and their extreme devotions fascinated me, and I learned how to become very self-disciplined. That discipline has been an important force throughout my writing career.
Q: British colonialism was waning while you were a child in Africa in the late fifties. How did you address these changes as you wrote about yourself and your family?

A: While writing this memoir, I hoped to describe my observations of Africa in a way that would make the book more than just a personal document. In Before the Knife, Africa's wrenching out of British imperialism through violence to independence is mirrored by a child's frantic freeing of herself from a particularly virulent form of domestic imperialism.
Q: Have you returned to Africa recently? What did you find?

A: I often go back to Africa and the way I see it is that Africa always returns to what it is: the white man comes and takes what he wants and leaves. But Africa is eternal.
Q: How did this memoir change your perspective on writing? Have certain writers influenced you? Are you ready to begin writing fiction again?

A: My first novel, Relations, was published in l976 and did extremely well. In the next eleven years I wrote eight more (including Dreams of the Kalahari), so I was a bit of a junky. I wouldn't want to write that way again, but I do always write at great speed, by hand, several drafts, and have closets full of manuscript books.
Writing the memoir didn't change my perspective on writing, but America did. Reading American fiction for the first time had an impact (I love Philip Roth, Alice Munro, Barbara Kingsolver and the great poets like Lowell and T.S. Eliot), but the language of the country—the way people speak, the way they turn formal language inside out and make something new and astonishing out of it—this was powerful for me. As an English novelist I wrote more formally but was perceived as a writer who wrote with a combination of violence and vulnerability. That quality is still present, but the language itself is now more fluid, conversational, intimate, and with this language I'm hoping to hit a vein.
I've started writing a novel about India at the time of the l9l9 Afghan War. It's based loosely on my grandmother's life. Four generations of my family lived in India and had connections to the Anglo-Indian Army. I like best to write in the first person so I'm trying to find the right voice and tone to keep the intimacy of Before the Knife.
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Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

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