In The Hormone Factory, originally published in Dutch, writer Saskia Goldsmith revisits the horrors of World War II by focusing on a pharmaceutical factory in the war. The writer’s debut novel is about entrepreneur Mordecai de Paauw, his brother and a scientist – the people with whom he co-founded Farmacon, the pharmaceutical factory that was at the forefront of the contraceptive pill trade.
This is Africa interviewed Goldsmith in Balié café, a hangout spot in Amsterdam. Goldschmidt will be visiting South Africa for the Open Book Festival. She is cosmopolitan, widely read, and familiar with the literature of the continent she is about to visit. In the interview she references writers like Okey Ndibe and Booker wining novelist Ben Okri. The biggest power of literature, she explained in the café, is that it helps empathy to grow. However different our circumstances may be, the writer says, on a deep level we share the same universal human base.
Her book gives a glimpse of the business world in which there’s an unstoppable drive to win, no matter the price. In The Hormone Factory, you can read a critique of commerce and capitalism. Goldschmidt shows that the only way a multinational company can succeed is by being utterly focused on profit and pushing everything else – environmental and ethical questions – aside. If you look to companies today, Goldschmidt observes, not much has changed since then as abuse of power remains a global problem.
When we ask Goldschmidt about the root of exploitation, she talks about structure: “I think structures make people do horrible things. I believe more in humans than in systems. The only hope we have is that there are enough strong minded humans who will stand up against systems and change them from within.”
After our coffee and our heated discussions, we talk about how systems can be changed. Goldschmidt is of Jewish stock and her parents experienced the horrors of the second world war. Sadly, while the Nuremberg trials after World War II and the conventions and declarations that followed have resulted in the arrests of perpetrators of crimes against humanity, these tools have not lived up to the hope that they would create a world in which genocide or apartheid would never happen again. Several genocides have since taken place over the past sixty years. Just like the Holocaust in the Netherlands, apartheid in South Africa was also deeply rooted in racial ideology and used race to justify victims’ inferior status.
Most discussions about the triumph of the human will inevitably invoke Nelson Mandela. “The biggest example of striving for justice and equality is Nelson Mandela. A black man in racist South Africa who was deprived of his freedom and [yet] still he refused to see himself as a victim. Even while he was kept in prison for such a long time, he kept to his own moral standards. Normally, as a victim, you want revenge. Mandela overgrew his ego and aimed to change the unequal system in South Africa. A wise man that rose above the ego and aimed for collective change. We need more Nelson Mandelas.”
Touching on the personal, Goldschmidt adds: “I think that giving words to trauma and recognition of it are two important conditions to overcome trauma. In my case, a Jewish father who experienced the second world war and was traumatized. He could not talk about his experiences in the concentration camp nor about his murdered Jewish family. All of this unprocessed emotions made that his traumas have been passed on to my generation: to my siblings and me. Emotions are seen and felt by children.”
Goldschmidt has ideas on how to achieve change: “The indoctrination that people are raised with, both in apartheid or with anti-Semitism, should get out of society. For years they had learned that blacks are less than whites or Jews are less than Aryans. These indoctrinations are not gone from one day to the other. We need the courage to talk about it. It takes education, time and a lot of attention to change attitudes.”
She further explains, “for instance, I was a theatre teacher and worked a lot in schools with migrant children. Traditionally in the Youth Theatre, stories rooted in the white European families were played. In my projects I worked with stories originating from different cultural backgrounds. Consciousness that we need the input from all the different angles from a society has to be achieved through education. Culture is never static and always changes. To change ideas, we need time and creativity and a lot of people who want to play with their own self-images.”
As someone with a theatrical background, Goldschmidt sees salvation in the younger generations, “Grown-ups are more difficult to change; my hope lies in the children and young kids. Making theatre with them gives the opportunity to give different perspectives. When I worked as a theatre teacher, we had an improvisation assignment. Teachers used to say to the children: you play a family, and you’re eating at a table. I started the assignment otherwise. I said: You play a family and you are eating. By not mentioning how and where they were eating, they were invited to create their own space, their own image of how a family can eat: at a table, at the couch, standing in the kitchen, in the garden, whatever. That’s the way I’ve been working.”
In conclusion, Goldschmidt points out that the challenge is to try “to stop Eurocentric thinking and make room for diversity. Not because it is politically correct, but because life becomes much more interesting.”
Saskia Goldschmidt will join Okey Ndibe, Yvonne Owuor and Nakhane Touré at the Meet & Read on 11 September. Proudly presented by This Is Africa, Open Book and #cocreateSA.