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Hum If You Don’t Know the Words Reader’s Guide

By Bianca Marais

Hum If You Don't Know the Words by Bianca Marais


1.       Robin is a product of her environment and adopts the racist ideology of those around her. How do these prejudices and preconceived notions about black people inform the way she acts? And how does Robin’s behavior and thinking change throughout the book, particularly toward Beauty?
2.       Compare 1970s South Africa to today’s world. How have issues of racism and homophobia progressed since then? And in what ways have they remained the same? What can we do individually and in our communities to facilitate forward thinking and change?
3.       Robin and Beauty come together, against all odds, to create a family of their own. How does this book challenge norms of the conventional nuclear family? How does Beauty’s role as the mother of Nomsa differ from her role as Robin’s caretaker? What does Hum If You Don’t Know the Words tell us about human connection in the face of adversity?
4.       The pass laws and the Group Areas Act meant that Beauty and her children had to live in the Bantu homeland of the Transkei approximately 600 miles away from where her husband worked in the gold mines. How much of Beauty’s family life is affected by the laws of apartheid? Do you think this had an impact on Nomsa’s decision to become a freedom fighter? Once apartheid ended in 1994, how much do you think the state-legislated disintegration of families continued to impact South African society and black cultures?
5.       What purpose does Cat serve in Robin’s life, and what necessitated her appearance? How does Robin use Cat to navigate her home life with her parents, and then her life with Edith? Is Cat an effective coping mechanism? Are there any downsides to her presence?
6.       Compare Beauty and her daughter, Nomsa. As the plot unfolds and more of Nomsa’s character is illuminated, what similarities between the two come to light? How does your perception of Nomsa change throughout the book, and why?
7.       What is the significance of the book’s title, and why do you think it was chosen? How does it relate to the book’s central themes?
8.       How does the narrative change between Robin and Beauty’s alternating perspectives? What stylistic choices does the author employ to differentiate each voice from the other? Who is a more reliable narrator?
9.       How does the White Angel help Beauty in her search for Nomsa, and how much does she hinder it? Does her need to control the situation say anything about Maggie and her subconscious attitude toward black people? Does Robin really save the day at the end of the story? Do her actions really make everything right again, or are they more a child’s way of trying to fix what cannot be mended?
10.   What do you make of the ending, and why do you think the author chose to end the novel at this moment? If there were an epilogue, where do you think we’d find the characters?
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