Dystopian fiction begins quite simply with restrictions. A character is not allowed to do something because that would mean defying society, family and the law. Even though Arushi Raina’s When Morning Comes is based on the reality of life in apartheid-era South Africa, it has all the trappings of a good young adult dystopian novel. It has the three Rs of YA dystopia—restrictions, romance and revolt—all wrapped up in an intricate plot that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.
When Morning Comes is part of a series by Duckbill called ‘Not Our War’. In their own words, ‘The NOW series deals with children growing up in times of conflict—powerless, vulnerable, and yet, against all odds, brave and hopeful of a better future.’ This young adult novel is set in 1976, when the Soweto Uprising, against the South African government, was brutally suppressed. Raina’s novel begins with a historical note explaining the setting of the novel. The Afrikaans Medium Decree was passed in 1974, amending the Bantu Education Act. According to the decree, Black students would be forced to study in both Afrikaans and English after the fifth grade. Students of schools under the Bantu Education Act were not familiar with either of these languages. The preference was for English which was not the language of the oppressors. Students gathered and protested against the imposition. They were brutally killed by policemen. Many of the casualties were children and teenagers. The novel follows a group of teenagers who are inextricably involved in the political life of South Africa.
It begins with the voice of Zanele Mthembu, a 12th grade student, who is a part of groups plotting against the government. Her friend Thabo is a gangster who runs an informal nightclub called a shebeen where Zanele and her sister sing for a living. When Jack Craven and his white friends disguise themselves (badly) in blackface to visit the shebeen, he encounters Zanele and the story takes off from that point. We also meet Meena Pillay, who befriends Zanele and the other characters separately, at the convenience store run by her father. The police state, as represented in this novel, relies heavily on Black people acting against others of their own community. Raina does not employ chapter divisions in this novel. Instead, she switches from voice to voice, allowing the characters to develop with their own voices. The text is liberally peppered with South African lingo. Yet the use of lingo does not hinder the reader’s understanding of the novel.
The sad fact that this novel is based on reality enhances the atmosphere of sinister paranoia. The romance between Jack and Zanele is poignant because of another law enforced by the apartheid government. The Immorality Act prohibited interracial relationships between ‘Europeans’ and ‘natives’. This makes their relationship fraught with danger. In true dystopic fashion, neither Jack nor Zanele can open up to each other because of the danger associated with it. Another departure from the norm is the absence of a white male saviour trope. In the past, dystopian and YA fiction have repeated this trope heavily. In Raina’s story, Thabo becomes the saviour as part of his retribution.
In Born A Crime, Trevor Noah’s bestselling memoir about growing up in South Africa, he writes ‘In South Africa, the atrocities of apartheid have never been taught… It was as if the teachers, many of whom were white, had been given a mandate. “Whatever you do, don’t make the kids angry.”’ When Morning Comes is the story of the angry kids who contributed in the eventual dissolution of the apartheid state.
A reader since she was a child, Livia Antony is passionate about literature. She holds a Masters in English and lives in Bangalore with her cat and an odd assortment of books. She blogs on her Instagram page (@liviaantony), chronicling the books in her life.