The Scarsdale Inquirer, Friday, September 7, 2001, Pg. 3
AUTHOR GRAPPLES WITH THE LOSS OF HER HOMELAND
By Linda Leavitt and Julie Trechsel
Blonde, blue-eyed and Jewish, Gillian Katz doesn't look like most people's
idea of an African-American, but that's exactly what she is.
Katz, born in Johannesburg, is a third-generation South African whose
grandparents emigrated to that country during the Russian pogroms. Under
apartheid, middle class South African whites lived like movie stars, with
swimming pools, tennis courts and servants, Katz said. (The house she grew
up in is two streets away from the house where Nelson Mandela now lives.)
The government strictly controlled the country's resources and the
movements of blacks; Katz remembers her mother hiding a nanny who did
not have proper working papers in a cupboard during a police inspection.
But for all the disparities in their education and wealth, many whites were
close to their black servants, Katz said; servants who lived in their house
were "part of our family."
Life was pleasant for white South Africans. But in 1966 her father, Dr. Leo
Bagg, looked ahead and didn't like what he saw happening. So he moved
his family to America.
"We came here because he felt South Africa was not a place to raise
children," said Katz in a recent interview.
In South Africa, she had been accustomed to strict discipline, and school
uniforms in English schools where girls were taught "to repeat what we read
in books, and trained to be submissive little nothings with no thoughts of
But things were different in America -- especially in the late '60's, the heyday
of adolescent rebellion. The family settled first in Eastchester, where Katz
found the adjustment to an American school hard. "I was not happy at all. I
was leaving a wonderful place and coming to the unknown. I felt very
lonely," she said. Later they built a house on Rock Creek Lane in Scarsdale
and Katz went to Scarsdale High School in the 10th and 11th grades.Though
she was still lonely, she began to think and question everything in the
American way. "I started to get my own identity," she recalls. "Scarsdale
High School broadened and developed my mind and personality. I wanted to
write, but my parents didn't encourage it because they didn't think was a
good thing to do."
While Katz was struggling with the social and intellectual demands of high
school, her mother was feeling homesick for South Africa. So the family
returned to the old country. In school there, "We were not allowed to think --
if we did we were considered disobedient," Katz said. After her American
experience, she was thought too sophisticated and too independent-minded.
So once again, she felt out of place.
The family did come back to America, three years later. Katz worked as a
secretary for several years, married an American, Kenneth Katz, and went
back to school, eventually earning three degrees, a B.S. in Communications
from Iona College, a B.S. in Literature from SUNY, Purchase and an M.A. in
Writing from Manhattanville College. The Katz family now lives in New
Rochelle, near Scarsdale, with their two daughters, Melissa, 11, and Ashley, 6.
"I walk outside my door everyday of my life and say "Thank you, God, for my
safe neighborhood,'" said Katz. "My children walk to school and they play in
the streets with their friends. Today, doing the same things in South Africa,
one could be murdered and raped in broad daylight."
No, she said, when asked, that is not an exaggeration. When she was a
young girl in South Africa it was "a police-run state, but today the police
force is in a shambles. There's no influx control; all the poor people are
coming into the suburbs, they're starving, they don't have jobs, so they turn
to crime. And there's little the police can do -- or even try to do. A friend
wrote recently saying his house has been robbed three times and he's
stopped calling the police," Katz said.
Happy as she is here, Katz is haunted by the feeling that she is a displaced
person, a woman without a country.
"South Africa used to be a beautiful country and through bloodshed, poverty
and AIDS is changing into a Third World country," she said. "The country I
grew up in is no longer there. It's now a violent, turbulent place. I feel like I
have lost my country, my birthright and my heritage. I am not allowed to
have national pride anymore. People blame you for being there at the time,
for your skin color and for blacks being treated badly by whites," Katz said.
"You wouldn't be proud to say you're a white South African today -- it's
almost like saying you were living in Germany while Jews were being killed
but you're a good person."
Her chaotic teen years and memories of her own country, both fond and
painful, inspired Katz to become a writer. She has published her own book,
"Witness to the Birth and Death of my Country," a collection of
autobiographical poetry, fiction and essays on her exper iences in South
Africa both under apartheid and after it was abolished in 1994. The slim
volume describes aspects of life for both blacks and whites in both America
and South Africa.
Writing from both black and white perspectives, Katz said, "I wanted to give
the black South Africans a voice." She said she was surprised when first
moving to America, to see "that blacks were treated like one of us. Black
Anericans have the law behind them and are considered American citizens,
whereas black South Africans are still surpressed by the government."
But she also tackles the subject of segregation in the United States, one of
her stories, "Indelibly Black" is about a young South African black man who
moves to Los Angeles and grapples with this country's form of racism.
"Writing gives me the chance to express myself," said Katz. "It acts as a kind
of therapy, as well as a way to connect to others. I've never been able to
find a peer group after we left South Africa. People view you differently and,
in a sense, I have viewed myself differently as well.
"I'm so glad my husband is American," she added, "and has his feet firmly
planted in American soil. He really helped give me some grounding; he
helped me through my emotional crisis." He was supportive, she said, while
she was writing her book.