Ubuntu, the facts and the heart


scan0143 - Version 2August 26 is a bittersweet day.  My fifth book will publish (sweet) but 18 years ago to the day I lost my mother.  She was warm and wise, witty and fun, brave and beautiful.  And she’s the one who inspired me to pursue a writing career although she never knew it.  While she was proud that I became a lawyer and would always be able to take care of myself, I think she would’ve loved to read my books (whose mother doesn’t?) and been a proud supporter (like my sister, who has already ordered 30 copies of The Badger Knight for friends, whether they want it or not).

My mother was an excellent writer herself and I think dreamed of writing the Great American Novel but ran out of time.  Growing up, homework was our responsibility but she couldn’t help looking at papers we wrote with a critical eye.  Like a reporter, she wanted to see the facts supporting the argument but like the novelist and woman with heart that she was, she also wanted to know the “why” of everything.  I can still see her … “Yes, but why?”  “This is lovely but why is it important?”  Or simply, “Mmm-hmm”– the paper handed back — “and why?”  In fact, we heard “and why?” so often that my sister and I would tease her with, “AND why!” in all sorts of situations.  But she was right.  And it made me a better writer — both the facts and the heart.


She encouraged us to find what inspired us and do it the best we could.  Go after whatever you want, she said, work hard, study hard, do whatever it is to achieve your dream and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.  You can.  She got her pilot’s license at age 15, even before her driver’s license.  But — and this part was important because I can still see the seriousness in her face — pursuing your dream is never at the expense of others.  In fact, you should be helping others at all times. In her words, the world is our community and we are put on this earth to help each other; otherwise, really, what is the purpose?   It’s the African concept of ubuntu.  Maybe she learned it while we were living in South Africa but I suspect she was just born that way.  Of course she gave much money and even more time to charitable causes, but what I remember most is her sitting with an elderly or disabled person and just talking, smiling, laughing until they did, too, or stepping into a situation to diffuse the tension, or standing up for someone or something even when it wasn’t popular.  Everyone deserved equal treatment and kindness.

Here’s Nelson Mandela explaining ubuntu:

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When she finally had a chance to retire, she battled cancer and ran out of time, on this earth, at least.  It made me realize that writing, which I’d planned to do when I retired, couldn’t wait.  I had to start.  And I had to do it well as a tribute to her and to my community.  So I try always to get the facts right, check my sources, do the research.  And then I think about the why, which takes a lot longer because it’s at the heart of every story.  Why did something happen?  Why did someone act that way?  Why are we here?

And that’s why I write.  To bring meaning to my life and to try help young people make sense of this world.  Sure, people can laugh that I gave up a job as a lawyer to write for kids (“Can’t she even write for adults?”) but for me it’s the right choice.  It’s not hard when you boil it down to the essence, to the why.  It’s to try to bring something good into the world.

Thanks, Mom.  Thanks for teaching and embodying ubuntu.  Thanks for making me think of the why.

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26 responses to “Ubuntu, the facts and the heart

  1. Reblogged this on Book seed studio and commented:
    UBUTU “These are the important things in life.”

    From Kathy Erskine, author of MOCKINGBIRD & the forthcoming THE BADGER KNIGHT

  2. Kathy, it’s so easy now to see why you are the woman you are. This is such a lovely tribute to your mom. How lucky you were to have her, and how lucky we are to have the people she left behind. XO. Meg

  3. Thank you, Meg … as I told you before, there are people I meet and instantly feel my mother’s joy and hear her smiling voice saying, “That Meg! She’s a gem.” And she’s right. :o)

  4. absolutely lovely tribute to your mother and insight into you! “why?” i will remember that question as I write… “why does this story matter?” thanks.

  5. This is a beautiful tribute to your mom, Kathy, and offers wise advice for us all––”now is the time.” Very touching. Thanks so much for sharing. I wish that I could have known her personally, but through you, I do.

  6. How fortunate you were to have her in your life, and how proud she would be to see what you have done with her gifts!

  7. Ann

    This is beautiful…

    • Thank you, Ann. Have I told you how much I love SERAFINA’S PROMISE? I think I have, because I read it a while ago, but I reread it recently and I still love it. Thanks for writing it!

  8. This is a lovely tribute to your mother; thank you for sharing it, Kathy.

  9. Katy Duffield

    This is beautiful, Kathy!

  10. What an inspiration. Beautiful! Can’t wait to read your new book as well.

  11. Thanks, Beckie. She was quite a lady.

  12. Kristy Dempsey

    I was talking about you to a friend and co-worker today because of how much MOCKINGBIRD has helped specific kids we know make sense of their world. I told her that I love the book but that I also love you because you are always such an encourager. Looks like you got it honest, my friend. 🙂

  13. Carol Nelson

    What a touching tribute to your mother. I learned the same lesson from my parents. We need to seek our dreams in the present and not wait for the day when we have more time. I’m looking forward to reading your new book!

  14. A beautiful tribute! I enjoyed learning more about you and your mom.

    A driving force for me with writing a novel is my dad. He’s healthy but also in his seventies. This past summer, I let him read my second draft. I’ve promised him a revision this next year. And of course I would love for him to actually see my book get published, but that is a long process in itself.

    I’m looking forward to getting to read Badger Knight. It’s getting closer to the top of my reading list. 🙂

  15. Allison, it’s so great to have a real, tangible goal like that — I have no doubt your next draft will be ready for him by next summer! And I hope it’s published before long. :o)

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