A companion novel to the award-winning Empire Settings, Ivory from Paradise is a powerful story of betrayal, family legends, and the fickle nature of history.
Helga Divin, the matriarch of a prominent white family from Durban in Kwa Zulu-Natal, South Africa, lies dying in the splendid London mansion of her second husband, the unscrupulous industrialist Arnold Miro.
Her children Danny and Bridget, both well established in Boston, rush to her side where they quickly realize that Arnold, in addition to mistreating their mother, has begun to claim as his own a priceless collection of African artifacts that their dead father spent a lifetime assembling and chronicling.
The collection's most important pieces are a pair of majestic ivory tusks that were once owned by King Shaka, founder of the Zulu nation and a major symbolic figure in modern South Africa. Their father's account of the origins and provenance of the tusks – how, after a long and complicated journey, they had finally come into his possession – was a story often told and long accepted.
As Danny and Bridget move to thwart what they see as an unforgivable theft of their family heirlooms, they find themselves having to face instead the truth about their father's stories, the true ownership of this unique collection of Africana, and long held beliefs about their own past and their country's history.
After many years away, the two return home to Durban to finish what they started in London. Amid the turbulence of the "new" South Africa, and against the backdrop of dramatic changes in the lives of old family friends' and former domestic servants, Danny and Bridget come face-to-face with the reality that much of what they always thought to be true is instead as fragile and as suspect as the story of King Shaka and his ivory tusks.
Sure to spark discussion, IVORY FROM PARADISE vividly evokes white culture in South Africa, past and present, and the myths it has engendered.
[A] beautifully realized exposition of family, myth, the stories we tell ourselves about our lives, and of apartheid itself…. poignant and unforgettable.
What distinguishes [Schmahmann's] take on the subject is an insistent focus on aspects of race-relations far more complicated than egregious discrimination by whites against blacks…a probing and ruminative novel about the legacy of apartheid in South Africa.
[A] rich and arresting tale of human need and national rebirth.
Haunting … a sad, revisionist book about the moment we realize that our paradise was in reality far from an idyll and what we prized as authentic was actually worthless.
Ivory from Paradise asks us to consider the true value of not only the objects from the past, but that history itself. In short, direct chapters and soaring prose, Schmahmann paints a brilliantly complex family, whose relationships are as flawed as they are believable.
Q: You’ve called IVORY FROM PARADISE a “companion novel” to Empire Settings. What do you mean?
A: I wrote Empire Settings ten years ago. South Africa had just completed a seemingly miraculous transformation from its brutal and degenerate apartheid experiment to become a true democracy with a real hero, Nelson Mandela, as its President. I wanted to write a novel that captured the experience of growing up white in South Africa in those bad years, and in Empire Settings I wrote a story about a privileged family faced with what its members considered a terrible dilemma: a teenage son who falls in love with the daughter of an African domestic servant. The event creates such a crisis, and leaves so much residue for so long, that the story of Danny Divin and his years of pining for his lost Santi stands in for the ambiguity of the times, and the lost opportunities, and the senseless heartache.
Ivory from Paradise is different, though many of the characters are the same. Several years have passed, and Danny and his family have tried to move on. So has South Africa: much of the early idealism has given way to something harsher and more ambiguous. In Ivory the Divin family fight for possession of what they consider the priceless artifacts of their South African youth, but just as South Africa has changed, become more violent, just as street names are being changed and history rewritten, the Divins find that they must revisit their own assumptions about the past, their place in it, and things they have always considered to be written in stone.
The two novels relate because they are book ends to a period, quite symmetrical in many ways though reflecting very different perspectives. Danny’s guilt about his illicit love affair and his abandonment of Santi – about his apartheid life, in short – is more distant now. What matters more to him, and to his family and their friends and former servants, is what is left of them when all is said and done, what parts of their own lives and personal architecture so deeply rooted in apartheid are worthy of the loving memories they carry.
Q: Has South Africa really changed so much?
A: I think it has. In Durban, my home town, there is much that looks the same, but the resemblance is superficial. It is now undeniably an African city, not a European, and to someone like me who grew up there with the constant affront of apartheid, it is joyful to see so many Africans in their element, elegant, successful, at ease. The arts are strong, there is much greater openness in all things, and the heavy handedness of the past – the signs and behaviors of an oppressive racist culture – are all in retreat.
But as Ivory from Paradise makes clear, there is an element in all this that is more ambiguous. I return to Durban periodically and so get snapshots in time, and I do see changes that are not for the better. Things like corruption, intolerance, incompetence in many civic fields, and an implicit threat of violence in some political discourse, have become unsettling. Physically the crusty old formerly all-white suburbs are basically unchanged, though now the houses are ringed by electrified fences and carefully watched by private armed response units. Downtown Durban is chillingly unsafe, and in fact most businesses have moved to more sheltered communities away from the city.
Apartheid made us strangers in our own country, but in the new South Africa the challenges can be overwhelming too and the sad result is that many whites are leaving. In Ivory from Paradise I try and deal with this all fairly and honestly, the different perspectives that different people have on these changes, and on the past. In the end, as I think the novel makes clear, what you think of it all, how you size it up, depends on how you see your own past. And in South Africa, the past is a work in progress.
Q: Your characters are filled with nostalgia, even for bad times. Why do you think that is?
A: It embarrasses Bridget, the character in the novel who has it hardest in South Africa – she goes to jail for violating the apartheid security laws – how wistful she is about the past. But in truth I think everyone’s childhood memories are in some sense magical, and that’s true even if they relate to times of ambiguity. In Ivory from Paradise everyone, to some extent or another, idealizes the past. I mean, the “paradise” of the title is the past. And that’s rather the point: idealizing the past to some extent is just a function of growing older, but allowing it to distort how you see the present can be very dangerous.
Personally, I remember Durban warmly. My parents were young and strong and kept all bad things at bay. I had wonderful friends. The weather was better and more predictable than it ever is in Boston. I had adventures, and learned new things, every moment. When I contrast that with what was going on out of sight – Africans suffering as they were shoved about by the government, Mandela languishing in jail, even small things like people being kicked off elevators because they were the wrong color - I feel some of Bridget’s embarrassment too. But that doesn’t change the glow of my memories.
And finally, of course, if the opportunity is missed – if South Africa sinks into dysfunction and the kind of chaos that more than one character in my novel predicts for it - then I think my own feelings will change too. In a sense Africans own the country now, and the past, and the future. If they don’t do a whole lot better than the wretched apartheid lot – and some indications are, for instance, that despite the spectacular wealth of the new black ruling elite many blacks, maybe a half the population, are worse off economically than they were under apartheid - then any sense of triumph or vindication has to be – it just has to be – muted and ambiguous.