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IF I WAS PRECIOUS, WHY DID SHE SEND ME AWAY?

 

Reviewed by Lisa J. Long

 

Saturday, January 22, 2010.

 

As a toddler, the British-born daughter of a Nigerian princess Precious Anita Williams, was advertised in Nursery World  in 1971: “Private foster parents required for a three-month-old baby.”  

 

These ‘temporary’ fostering arrangements were apparently common in the 1970s as well as the unregulated care of African children which followed. Precious or Anita (Neety) - her childhood name - was placed with a 57 year-old white woman ‘Nanny’,  who had a penchant for fostering black children after reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as a child.

 

The fostering arrangement lasted for the majority of her childhood and this memoir recalls how she existed between two worlds - the Sussex council estate where she grew up and the Nigerian heritage she learns of in sporadic exchanges with the largely absent mummy- Elizabeth.  Her biological mother is a glamorous yet feared woman who breezes in and out of her childhood, striking terror into both ‘Nanny’ and Neety, and bringing with her an assortment of relatives.  


Neety just wants to belong; she is aware of the love that Nanny and her daughter Wendy have for her, but desperately craves the acceptance of her mother, a volatile and often violent woman: “She petrifies me but my need to believe my mother loves me is even greater than my fear of her.” Her feelings of abandonment focus on her hair perhaps as a visual marker of her difference. Her white foster parents’ inability to keep it tidy, her mother’s disappointment with its condition, the Nigerian relatives who whip a comb out of their pocket at each visit, and the approval she sees in her mother’s eyes when she has it straightened. 

Neety’s appearance is a continuous theme in her own self-loathing: The author sees herself and most black women as ugly, with the exception of her mother who she thinks is beautiful. She is startled when Nanny describes some black women in a picture as pretty; but instead the child sees a flat nose and plump lips like hers and thinks these features are ugly.  When she finally reads Uncle Tom’s Cabin and discovers Nanny’s much loved Topsy character described as ‘grinning like an ugly black doll’ it confirms her fear that this is how she is seen by the outside world.

 

Neety imagines her mother’s country as a primitive place, her views shaped by her well intentioned foster parents, she is shocked when her mother takes her to Nigeria to discover that all of the women do not walk around bare breasted.  The absence of whiteness is immediately evident to her and she begins to enjoy not being the only black girl. She is torn between her fascination with her family history, culture of Nigeria and feeling a sense of belonging and her thoughts of Nanny and her British home and identity.  

 

Within the memoir Williams  recalls the harrowing details of the sexual abuse she suffered as the young child Neety, at the hands of one of her mother’s boyfriends and later recalls being raped as a 16 year-old by a soldier on the floor of a public toilet. The recollection is unflinching, vivid and painfully raw as Williams brings alive her own agonising experience. The rape in particular triggers her teenage descent into depression and she seeks solace in alcohol. Williams is soon thrown out of college and runs away to London to find her identity. It is in London that she has her first consensual sex, falling pregnant at seventeen, before returning to her foster mother who eventually look after her, allowing Williams to study and forge a career as a journalist.

 

In the final part of the memoir, Williams bravely explores her own reasons for leaving her child in the care of Nanny’s daughter and son in law, repeating what she sees as the pattern of abandonment.

 

Williams narrates her story through the eyes of the child in present tense.  This style gives the memoir a fictional feel in places, and some of the finer details of conversations from her early childhood may have been fictionalised in memory. Williams can be forgiven for this as what results is a vibrant and lively memoir brimming with real characters, which avoids the detached feeling present in some past tense writings.

 

As well as allowing Precious Williams to tell her story, this memoir has a lot to say about childhood, Britain in the 1970s, class, race, identity, culture and motherhood. In addition, the book examines the issue of black children fostered by white families and the emotional and identity based conflicts this causes.

 

Williams achieves a sensitive exploration of all of these issues and produces a provocative, warm, disturbing and at times hilarious memoir; I was pleasantly surprised and I read it in one sitting. When I put it down I was both enlightened and moved: I had laughed, cried, bristled and learnt. This is not the typical self-therapy memoir it is a lot more and deserves to be read.

 

Lisa J. Long lives in Harrogate, England.

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