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.”
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.