Removing the blinkers: Beverley Naidoo on discovering Cinderella of the Nile

Published on: 14 June 2018 Author: Beverley Naidoo

Beverley Naidoo's new book Cinderella of the Nile retells the earliest version of the Cinderella story, which she was thrilled to discover...

Beverley Naidoo and Cinderella of the Nile

Like many children growing up after the Second World War, I learned of the world's great fairy tales, including Cinderella, through the retellings of Andrew Lang. I still treasure my childhood copy of his Blue Fairy Book in a Longmans, Green & Co first edition from 1949. It has a little orange label: People's Bookshop, 45 Kerk Street, Johannesburg.

The directors of this little bookshop were deeply opposed to the apartheid government that came to power in 1948 with ideas aligned to Nazism. They included Bram Fischer QC, from an eminent Afrikaner family, who defended Nelson Mandela and who, two years later, was himself sentenced to life imprisonment. My Blue Fairy Book must have been shipped from England along with much weightier matter intended to stir debate and political resistance.

While the foreword in my book says that Andrew Lang and his helpers collected stories 'from the four corners of the earth', their world was essentially confined to the northern hemisphere. They ranged widely across Europe, occasionally straying eastwards to the Middle East and beyond.

The pen and ink illustrations in my edition were by Ben Kutcher, born in Kiev around 1895 but whose family emigrated to the USA in 1902. My mother's grandparents had also emigrated from the Russian Empire but came to England. From there her parents made the colonial journey to Johannesburg where she was born... and where I would be born during the Second World War.

Widening my vision

Cinderella of the Nile

6000 miles away from Europe, the word 'Race' appears on my birth certificate, next to which someone wrote 'European'. Growing up in that colonial South African society, it was as if a direct link whitewashed out the rest of the continent of Africa and its indigenous peoples.

Like children in the 'mother country' Britain, I grew up with books in which the roles of black Africans were generally limited to being savages, comic buffoons or faithful servants.

But when I was at university, I was fortunate to have my colonial ways of seeing challenged. I began the life-long process of questioning 'truths', whether presented by governments, political parties or individuals. I began to understand how our perceptions, feelings and indeed fears are shaped.

Removing blinkers and widening vision is an ongoing journey for me and one in which literature has played an important role.

In Cinderella of the Nile, I retell our earliest known version of the tale, recorded by ancient Greek historians. A girl called Rhodopis, in 6th century BC, is captured in northern Greece and sold into slavery. Herodotus writes about her friendship with a fellow slave Aesop in Samos.

I feel sure this great African storyteller's wisdom would have helped develop her resilience for when she is sold again in Egypt... before her rose-red slipper leads her to the Pharaoh.

Cinderella of the Nile is stunningly illustrated by Marjan Vafaeian, an artist working in Iran. How fascinating, I think, that the illustrator who first introduced me to Cinderella was born on one side of the Caucasus Mountains and now Marjan has worked her magic on the other!

Take a look at some of the stunning pages from Cinderella of the Nile in our gallery below.

Discover Cinderella of the Nile

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Pages from Cinderella of the Nile
Pages from Cinderella of the Nile
Pages from Cinderella of the Nile
Pages from Cinderella of the Nile
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