Marita van der Vyver on motherhood - and the rebellious teen years

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SA author Marita has penned her memoir in the form of a long letter to her only daughter, Mia, who is 21. (Picture: Netwerk24)
SA author Marita has penned her memoir in the form of a long letter to her only daughter, Mia, who is 21. (Picture: Netwerk24)

They say you should write what you know. Based on this, writing a memoir should be a piece of cake because you're writing about what you know best - yourself.

And yet Marita van der Vyver was surprised to discover how difficult it actually is.

“There were all kinds of moral issues” the acclaimed South African author tells us as she chats to us by video call from her home in France about her new memoir, A Long Letter to My Daughter.

Because she was writing about real people it was important to her to do them justice. And then there was the problem of deciding on the tone of the book.

“I didn’t want it to be deadly serious, I wanted there to be humour.”

She knows this sounds strange, considering it’s a memoir, but most of all she didn’t want it all to be “me-me-me.”

But then she had a brainwave. As she was planning to focus mainly on her childhood, why not write it as a long letter to her daughter? That automatically allowed her to get the warm, informal tone she was wanting and as Mia is 21, it also provided the opportunity to explore the generational divide.

Marita with her daughter, Mia, during a trip to Pa
Marita with her daughter, Mia, during a trip to Paris during lockdown. The author lives in Provence in France.

The thing that surprised Marita (62) most about the writing process was how hard it was to remember.

“I realised as I was writing that there are some things that we suppress. I think we don’t want to remember them. But as I started to bring out memories, more and more came out and then I had to decide, okay, what am I going to put in the book? I tried to select things I hadn’t written about before. And also things I might have written about in fiction form because I thought that might be interesting for readers who know my books. I use my own life in my fiction but disguise it.”

While many writers have struggled to write in the time of a global pandemic, Marita found that being secluded in her big, rambling house in Provence, all alone with her French husband Alain Claisse (62) because their four kids have all flown the nest, actually made it easier.

“I was literally locked in my house,” she says. “I had nothing else to do.”

The book was released earlier this month in English and Afrikaans. So has her daughter read it?

Marita says Mia has decided to wait until the publisher sends a copy across to France in paper form.

“I said to her, ‘Look, you don't have to read it, while I'm alive. Maybe one day when your mother isn’t here and you're going to wonder about things, then you can read it.’”

During the editing process Marita sent Mia the proofs to look at – because she talks about her so much in the book it felt important that her daughter get the chance to read the book before anyone else.

“She kind of glanced through the first chapters and said yes, she trusts me.”

 She chatted to us about motherhood and the challenges of the teen years.

In your book it sounds as though you and Mia have an amazing bond. Do you always get along very well?

There were days when we did not get along, when she really tested my patience. I think it would be horrible for teenager daughter and mother to just love each other every day and never fight. Because if you're a strong willed woman, and you want to raise a strong willed daughter then she must learn that she doesn't always have to keep quiet and say yes to authority. So of course in a way, you're digging a hole for yourself because that means your daughter will confront you too. 

But I expected the teenage years to be far worse than they actually turned out to be. In the book I write about watching the movie Thirteen, which gave me such a horrible idea of what a young girl can turn into - she can become an absolute monster. So yes, we had our problems but it could have been far worse.

Mia and her elder brother, Daniel.
Mia and her elder brother, Daniel.

Did you daughter clash with you over certain things?

She has found other ways of testing me for instance she loves tattoos she has, I think about, like, five tattoos already at the age of 21. And I'm very old fashioned. I just don't like tattoos. 

Do you think it's easier for parents to talk to their kids now than it was when you were growing up?

I do think it's easier for a lot of us. Thankfully we've become much more open when we talk to our kids. But I don't know if that's universal. I think it's maybe certain people who have perhaps studied a bit. It depends on where you are and how open you are yourself. 

You strike me as a really cool mom. But what would your daughter say about you?

I heard her the other day say to someone, "My mom is my best friend" and I thought that's a wonderful compliment but it's also quite scary. I mistrust mothers who tell people their children are their best friends. You could easily fool yourself as a mother. "Oh, I'm so open and I'm so cool and my children tell me everything." But you don't know . . . If it comes from the child, take it as a huge compliment. And it doesn't mean that it will stay like that - it can come and go, especially if they're very young.

But I am very aware of the fact that I had a good relationship with Mia that it takes, I don't want to use the word "work" but it takes investment to, to keep the channels of communication open. So, yes, I'd be, I'd be glad that my daughter tells me I'm a mother that you can talk to, an accessible mother, but it could also change.

I have a few examples of people around whose children were exemplary teenagers, and then went through a kind of rebellious stage, much later in life where they should have been all together like in the 30. Huge fights with the parents and that, to me, is really bad because that is not when you want - that's when you want to be closer to your children and become friends. One of the biggest joys of being a parent to me is my children turning into adults that I would have chosen as friends if they weren't my children.

What do you know now that you wish that you'd known at Mia's age?

Don't sweat the small stuff. I wish I hadn't taken myself so seriously. It took me ages to learn this. I was a very serious little girl.

A Long Letter to My Daughter, Marita van der Vyver

A Long Letter To My Daughter

By Marita van der Vyver


Visit Marita van der Vyver's Facebook group where she'll be sharing more snapshots from her youth. 

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