The Lovely Country That Smells of Evil

A memoir of apartheid-era South Africa juggles affection, anger, and hope for redemption.

I was a student at Syracuse University during the years of South Africa’s apartheid regime. A few tents had been set up in protest on the quad outside the impossibly tall windows of my figure-drawing class—I believe the plan was to sleep outside until the school divested from companies doing business in South Africa. I felt guilty for not joining them. By the third day the tents had disappeared. Maybe a few signs were still there. I distinctly remember Stop Apartheid Now! spray-painted on a large white sheet.

Lisa-Jo Baker’s gorgeous memoir, It Wasn’t Roaring, It Was Weeping: Interpreting the Language of Our Fathers Without Repeating Their Stories, begins with an image of her physician father in his office in Pretoria, South Africa. She describes his dress shirt and tie, the smell of his cologne, the precise crease of his slacks—his lean physician’s hands and the time he pulled a six-inch-long pick-up-stick from her foot. She remembers one time holding the surgical thread as he “stitch[ed] up a jagged cut in his left hand with his right.” He’s a hero from the start, as is her beloved South Africa, the home of her birth.

It’s one thing to write a book about the hated or the loved, much harder to write one that includes the broken details of a father and a country without trespassing on the resonant love one has for them. Baker’s homeland is deeply flawed, and her father is deeply flawed. She introduces to us a beautiful South Africa scarred by apartheid and a father she greatly respects who passed on to her an inclination toward unpredictable anger. Neither of them is a caricature. They are real enough to love yet at times flawed enough to hate. It’s a …

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