Through three disparate characters, Bianca Marais‘ If You Want to Make God Laugh explores the agency of women (or lack thereof) in post-apartheid South Africa — a tumultuous political climate full of deception and racism, spurred on by a neo-Nazi separatist group and the onset of the AIDS epidemic. In alternating chapters spanning a period of four years (and styles — shifting between first- and third-person narration), Marais weaves violence with love through the power of motherhood when an HIV positive child changes the trajectory of relationships on a failed avocado farm in Magaliesburg, South Africa.
Haunted by memories of the past, Delilah, Ruth, and Zodwa find common ground in violence — a harrowing concept to be sure — but one that offers an unexpected connection and hope in Mandla, the beacon that inspires, unites and paves the way for reconciliation and change. Tackling the issue of what it means to be a mother, all three women battle with hidden scars, each stripped of their choice to become mothers. Zodwa and Delilah suffer at the hands of social injustice, wherein Marais tackles issues of corruption in the church and homophobia through corrective rape, while Ruth suffers from another issue entirely — multiple unexplained miscarriages, resulting in an addiction to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.
Troubled by love, Zodwa, Ruth, and Delilah cross paths when Zodwa is torn from her child. Though desperate to rid herself of her unborn child after facing violence for her sexuality, Zodwa’s decision to raise her son is ripped away from her when her ailing mother takes matters into her own hands and delivers a baby boy to a Magaliesburg farm in the middle of the night. The boy, later named Mandla, becomes a beacon of hope that unites the three women after they cross paths in the most unexpected of reunions. Through Mandla, Marais breaks down the walls of family, trust, love, and racism — rebuilding them through unexpected connections, unforeseen conflicts, and violence that unite the unlikely trio in a family of their own.
Mandla is the planet around which they all orbit. They are his satellites. They couldn’t wrench themselves free of the gravity he exerts even if they wanted to.
– excerpt from Bianca Marais’ If You Want to Make God Laugh
As each woman comes to terms with her past as a result of Mandla’s influence, shocking revelations come to the forefront, but hope prevails even in the darkest of times as each moves to better the lives they have. Moving past the pain of violence, Ruth, Delilah, and Zodwa find hope in the future as Mandla thrives despite the danger of his illness (and the threats of neo-Nazi supremacists). Familial bonds and romantic relationships are reconciled, values are reshaped, and hope prevails as each woman embraces her own sense of agency to improve her circumstance, be it through overcoming fears or breaking down society’s patriarchal expectations. In the end, in the words of Marais: “Sometimes all we need is to be seen in order to blossom.”