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 beautifully complicated book, and it’s laid out skillfully.

Distance and intimacy

Baker uses two things in particular to full advantage, the first being her own powers of language. On occasion, the memoir includes moments that might seem less than consequential. But in the larger form of the book, Baker’s phrasing can carry prophetic weight.

One such passage occurs as she describes riding horses with her father through their vast sheep farm: “On horseback, I am this farmer’s daughter and the light wind with its slight fragrance of manure seems to sing my name back to me.” The prophetic element lies in the coupling of fragrance and manure. Fragrant is a beautiful word, hardly meant to describe something as base as sheep dung. South Africa, in this sense, is a lovely country that smells of centuries of downright evil.

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Baker also employs the language of South Africa itself, conveying both the distance of unfamiliarity as well as a certain intimacy. She writes lovingly of her father’s speech oscillating back and forth between languages and dialects, and her prose sometimes incorporates Afrikaans, isiXhosa, and isiZulu (with English meanings included). For me, this had the effect of exclamation points, startling me with what sounded to my English ears like odd double vowels and excessive x’s, v’s, k’s, and y’s.

As the memoir’s subtitle makes clear, it is filled with language both literal and metaphorical. In a particularly sweet paragraph, Baker writes of the pleasure she feels when hearing her father speak:

We are a country of twelve national languages. On his tongue I catch the British English of his ancestors and the guttural Dutch Afrikaans of his childhood on the farm. My father speaks three or four languages, depending on how strictly you define “speaks,” and he can enunciate the elusive clicks of isiXhosa, but isiZulu is what he shrugs on when he is going for quick connection because it’s where he’s most comfortable. He speaks in the language he happens to be thinking in, and it still fascinates me to listen to him switch back and forth without pausing to reorient his tongue.

She goes on to say that his voice sounds like the “deep timbre of a Zulu choir, the harsh bark of the hyena, the ululation of joy, of grief, the cry of a beloved country.”

In light of the marked beauty that Baker captures, it could almost seem justifiable to soften the edges of South Africa, essentially to write Yes, apartheid existed, but and marginalize the cruelty. This would still make for an interesting and engaging book. However, Baker wisely chooses the opposite: Yes, South Africa is lovely, but.

There are plenty of opportunities for the narrative to drift toward the former, contenting itself with the notion that South Africa is a beautiful country that had some unfortunate problems. Yet even as Baker describes the jacaranda trees and the Karoo with its saltbush and Stradbroke, the family farm with its acres of land and Dutch Colonial farmhouse, and her physician father with his buffed-to-a-shine shoes, she never gives in to that reflex.

She includes a horrific scene when, a generation earlier, two staff members on the family farm were cruelly beaten for taking horses from the property. She also recalls a time when her father unleashed his anger toward her over a broken teacup. Whether her stories are uplifting or sorrowful, retelling them from a distance has the effect of giving the events more solemnity.

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No opting out

While Baker might have inherited her father’s unpredictable anger, we fast understand that she inherited his fierce hatred for apartheid as well. Injustice is a strong thread throughout the memoir, and Baker vulnerably shares her struggles—through childhood and then into adulthood—to understand the ramifications of apartheid as well as her father’s irrational outbursts.

She appears determined to process at a deeper level the truth of the South Africa she grew up in, ultimately realizing there’s “no way to opt out of the parts of our history that put us on the wrong side of the equation.” Her story is weighty and well worth telling.

In one poignant passage, Baker describes attending summer camp as a grade schooler:

I was eleven and all fifth graders were sent to Veldskool (literally translated “bush school” in Afrikaans)—like summer camp, if summer camp took place during the public school term in the winter and was run by ex-military types who were raising up the next generation to be able to recognize land mines, build a shelter, and stand guard against the swart gevaar, or “Black danger,” they told us was creeping toward the White suburbs.

We were none of us quite ready for a training bra, and yet we spent seven days at a school-sanctioned wilderness camp being taught military discipline and the state religion of apartheid.

In reading It Wasn’t Roaring, It Was Weeping, I engaged South Africa as I never could have in college. In my youth and ignorance, I had assumed the unjust awfulness of it, but like a plane missing an airport, I had no experience within the country and nothing to connect it to my heart. My feelings about what was happening in South Africa prompted me only to half-heartedly commiserate from a window and ally myself with students on a quad in tents with angry, spray-painted sheets.

Baker’s memoir is a soulful book that’s rife with tension and, like most fine books, shot through with mercy received. From page 1, we observe her love for her father as well as her country and anticipate redemption, however it might come about. Repentance and forgiveness are the balm of Jesus, and reunification is its effect. It is a privilege to see the pin dot of both widen into something with the power to usher in a whole new era.

Katherine James is the author of the novel Can You See Anything Now? as well as a memoir, A Prayer for Orion: A Son’s Addiction and a Mother’s Love. She is working on a novel about a mute girl growing up in the Vietnam era.

It Wasn't Roaring, It Was Weeping: Interpreting the Language of Our Fathers Without Repeating Their Stories
Our Rating
5 Stars - Masterpiece
Book Title
It Wasn't Roaring, It Was Weeping: Interpreting the Language of Our Fathers Without Repeating Their Stories
Convergent Books
Release Date
May 7, 2024
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