The Hum of the Sun, by Kirsten Miller (Kwela, 2018)
Writing about tragedy is easy enough. Include disability in that narrative and there is no prize for guessing the outcome of that book. Aids, tragedy, poor African children are themes that are no longer explored – they have been flogged dead and the storyteller is certain to win the most unimaginative prize for this kind of writing that is lapped up by the West without any questioning. Thankfully, Kirsten Miller is cut from a far finer cloth of narrative beauty, complexity, grace and no pretension. And that is the real win of Miller’s writing – she lacks pretense.
She handles various themes that could easily go pear-shaped in the hands of poorer writers with such delicate care, compromising nothing. She is not condescending to her suffering characters. She is not a female white Messiah to save African children from depravity and poor fictional portrayal. Instead she has created full-rounded characters with agency, aspiration, but most importantly mental faculties to do anything in the story.
Miller has extensive experience and knowledge working with autistic children and their families. The Hum of the Sun is a coming of age of the author more than that of her characters. In her book, Miller becomes a total writer – who handles tragedy and the difficult narrative of mental disorder – without fanatic exaggerations, poor storyline, insensitivity to the human suffering and stereotypical portrayal of African characters and personalities of fiction typical to authors who belong to certain classes and levels of education. I suppose one cannot write glowingly about poverty or without stereotypical representation that suggests that Africans enjoy their poverty. But Miller approaches Yonela’s family and its ordeals with respect and she gives them agency to direct and redirect their own narrative fate. This is a tale of tragic but poetic death, break up, forbidden romance, absentee fathering, poverty and a journey of discovery.
Despite what we (men) do to women, The Hum of the Sun shows that women are the founding stones of any society. Miller’s feminism is not loud in this book, but her Yonela character is the epitome of strength, resilience and most importantly the love that mothers proffer on their children and how this makes or breaks us. Here poverty is so abject even dying seems to be too expensive.
Kirsten Miller has written a love letter to a child suffering from any “deficiency”. It is a note of strength and utmost lesson in patience and perseverance in the journey and struggles of our children. With her vast autism experience, Miller could have easily written a prescriptive text about what to do with children living with autism, but instead she has offered these lessons in prose. This is a love letter to parents whose children live with autism and other so-called “deficiencies”. The Hum of the Sun is a poignant, necessary and aperture to a whole new world of small people who are just as able as everyone, but in ways that we cannot even fathom.