Interview with Kate Motaung
A discussion about displacement, surrender, and landing in the center of God’s will
Kate Motaung is the author of A Place to Land: A Story of Longing and Belonging, a memoir that offers a fresh perspective on love and loss, divorce, and finding welcome in a place far from home.
Motaung is the host of the delightful online community for Christian writers called Five Minute Friday where bloggers from all over the world join each week to write for five minutes on a one-word prompt. She blogs at Heading Home where she writes on a wide range of topics like parenting, grief, diversity, and book reviews. I was part of her memoir’s launch team and our conversation took place over email.
Home is supposed to be synonymous with love and comfort and safety. How did growing up under your circumstances alter your perception of home?
Even though my parents divorced when I was seven years old, I never felt unloved or unsafe. Sure, it was an inconvenience to get shuffled back and forth from mom’s house to dad’s house, but my sister and I were loved and cared for in both environments.
I suppose the words I would use to describe what may have been lacking are stability and security. Getting moved around often, not really knowing what to expect next or where we would live or for how long.
Heaven promises to fulfill both of those desires—stability and security. We won’t have to guess how long we’ll be able to stay or where we’re headed next. We will just be able to rest in His presence.
You said that in between your mother’s tears during her battle with cancer, you saw Jesus. Can you explain?
In the final weeks of my mom’s life, after four consecutive years of nonstop chemotherapy, she made the decision to stop treatment. On that morning when she made the decision, her submission to God’s will in spite of her emotional anguish reminded me of Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives on the night he was betrayed: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
Jesus knew the agony that lay before Him and His prayer makes it seem like if it were at all possible, He would have welcomed a different path. Yet He chose to submit to God’s will above all.
My mom didn’t want cancer. She didn’t want to die at age 59. But she accepted God’s will for her life and continued to rest in the promise of eternal salvation that He had gifted to her by grace.
“Suddenly the possessions I had held dear for so long seemed trivial and empty. What did these things matter without Mom’s presence?” This is one of the lines that, to me, marks the beginning of your own surrender to displacement. What pushes someone towards abandoning what they know?
I think sometimes we experience certain defining moments in life that shift our perspective, either slightly or dramatically. For years I had been very sentimental about material possessions. I still value some things I own more highly than others, but after my mom passed away it became very clear to me that all of the stuff she had accumulated over the years meant nothing anymore. She couldn’t take any of it with her, and I won’t be able to take anything when I die, either—and yet we’ll have more than we could ever need as believers in Christ.
You write that you “lived in spoiled ignorance of the world at large, protected by a gorgeous, three-thousand-square-foot home on Lake Michigan.” What is the first thing that pops into your mind when you think of how your life has changed since your parents’ divorce?
Well, I was only seven years old when my dad left and stopped making house payments, so three decades have passed since then. But if I had spent my entire childhood living in that original house, I fear that I would have kept my spoiled, ignorant mindset.
Yes, I’m still spoiled and ignorant in many ways, but moving from a 3,000-square-foot home to a 500-square-foot home is humbling and shifts one’s perspective. As I share in the book, for a long time I (wrongly) thought I deserved better. Over time, God helped me to realize that I need to be grateful for whatever we have because all good gifts come from above. And if “all” we had was a 500-square-foot cottage, that is still more than a lot of people in the world, and I had much to be grateful for—I was safe, warm, dry, loved, and well fed, among many other blessings.
You write about your mom’s experience through hospice care: “I wondered what it felt like sitting with feet dangling over the edge of eternity.” What has your own near-death experience while rafting as a child shown you about your own mortality?
I realized that death can come at any moment, to anyone. No one is immune. No one is exempt. There is one thing that every single one of us has in common unless the Lord returns first—that is, we will all die, and we don’t know when or how.
When we become aware of this truth, we would do well to make sure we’re ready to die—that we are prepared to face our Maker.
When you ventured out of the US to visit Honduras, you say that you “started to feel as though my upbringing had cheated me.” Can you explain?
I grew up in a very white, middle to upper class, safe, comfortable community. I was not exposed to many cultural or economic differences. While I knew they existed, I hadn’t come face to face with their reality, or with the beauty that comes with diversity. I was sad, in a way, that the first 18 years of my life were void of the richness that diversity provides.
You felt spiritual oppression while in India. Do you witness that in the US?
I can think of a few isolated incidents where I have experienced it in the States, yes—but in the community in which I currently live it has not been as prominent or evident. I’m sure it exists here, I just haven’t been as exposed to it.
You met some girls who were hit with discrimination while searching for a flat. Their resilience and perseverance surprised you. What could we learn from that here in the US?
In the section you’re referring to, I wrote, “The girls in search of a flat simply drew an X over that box in the classifieds and moved on to the next one. Stoic and undaunted. Calloused by a lifetime of ill-treatment, yet determined to move on. My blood boiled at the injustice. Their resilience and perseverance reflected the strength of most black South African women I met. Theirs was not a superficial strength—it was anchored deep within, rooted in something far beyond themselves.”
More than anything, I noticed that in general, South African women do not complain. They don’t “play the victim,” for lack of a better phrase. They had every right to be furious, to file a formal complaint, to fight back after experiencing such blatant racism. But instead, they just put their heads down and carried on with the task at hand.
It deeply saddened me that this kind of experience was the norm for them. And yet I was so blown away by their undaunted tenacity to just keep going, keep doing whatever they could. I would have absolutely supported my friends if they had chosen to stand up for their rights. I’m embarrassed and ashamed now that I didn’t stand up for them to fight against the system. But I’m also proud of them for not spending their entire lives complaining or whining about how bad things are. Instead, they are fighting racism and injustice in their own way, by showing love and grace and kindness to those who have treated them unfairly. They are daily turning the other cheek.
You say: “I’d love to say that I had some deep, spiritual encounter that confirmed my calling to become a missionary, but it was actually quite the opposite.” I have to say that I winced a little when I read that you heard Toto’s song, Africa, and that confirmed it for you. How do you distinguish between God’s calling and reading tea leaves?
I would have winced if I were you, too! Or at least rolled my eyes. I will say that the Lord had been chipping away at my heart for some time and had used experiences like my first mission trip to Toronto and my second mission trip to Honduras to water the seed of desire for longer-term mission work. I just didn’t really know where He would want me to serve in the longer term. So while it was a secular song that really flicked on the light bulb so to speak, it wasn’t as if there was no pre-existing groundwork or a framework into which that sense of calling fit in.
In the book, I say, “that was what God used to spark my desire and open my heart to the possibility…It took a secular song to make me aware, but the conviction had been present for a while. A latent seed buried deep in the soil, waiting to be watered. In the span of a song, it broke through the surface and reached for the sun. Like the unhurried growth of a new plant, God slowly but progressively revealed the path set before me. Following meant a series of small steps. Saying yes to Him during my confirmation in front of my church. Yes to Toronto. Yes to Hope College. He didn’t ask me to plunge headfirst into the unknown. He waited to reveal the next brick in the pavement, then stepped out in front of me to show that it was a safe place to land. His presence already waited ahead.
If someone came to me out of the blue and said, “I heard a song on the radio and now I know that God is calling me to a lifetime in Africa,” I would encourage them to wait and pray and see how the Lord worked. I would encourage them to seek counsel from mature believers who knew them well, then pray some more. If God saw fit to open doors in that direction, then so be it.
Do you notice slight differences in your personality when you’re in one country or another? If there are different Kates, what are they like?
Yes. Because of the higher crime rate in South Africa compared to where we are currently living in Michigan, I tend to be much more “on edge” in Cape Town. My husband has noticed the difference now that we live in the U.S. He says I seem more laid back and comfortable here. I’m sure much of it also has to do with the fact that I grew up in this town and spent the first 21 years of my life here, so it’s all very familiar to me and second nature. I don’t have to labor to think about where I’m going while I’m driving or expend mental energy trying to remember to stay on the left side of the road like I do in Cape Town, or perform gymnastics in my mind trying to convert South African rands to dollars, kilograms to pounds, Celsius to Fahrenheit, etc.
What is the dearest memory you have of that first year in South Africa?
Oh goodness, so much happened that first year. I would say the dearest memory was sitting in the car in Kagiso’s driveway (the man who is now my husband) one evening after Bible study having “the conversation” that marked the beginning of our relationship.
After signing your book contract, you started your home business by providing writing, editing, and digital marketing services. Writing a memoir and offering support to writers with their goals are two very different positions, I think: memoir brings you out from behind the curtain. What do you love the most, in helping others with their writing?
I love encouraging Christian writers in particular to use their God-given gifts. We have a high calling as Christian writers. It’s our job to hold out the life jackets to a dark and drowning world. Seeing others thrive and grow as writers who proclaim truth and build each other up is a great joy.
When did you know for certain that you wanted to become a writer, and why?
Writing always came easily for me in school, but I never set out to “be a writer.” It was only when my mom was quite sick with cancer that a friend encouraged me to start a blog. That first blog was more like an online journal—I only told three people that it existed. I wrote for myself, to process all of the emotions involved with seeing my mom waste away. Through that experience, I realized how therapeutic and cathartic the act of writing was for me.
After my mom died, I started writing more and more for various online publications and started to notice that the theme of the home continued to surface across a large portion of my work. I then decided to compile my writing about home into a book format, but originally it took the shape of a straight non-fiction book—not a memoir.
Then in April 2014, I read Lisa-Jo Baker’s memoir, Surprised by Motherhood. I was captivated by the beauty she was able to create with her words. The power of story became evident to me, and I decided that my own writing about home would be much stronger if I changed it into a memoir format. So I did. I re-wrote the whole thing.
But I was never one of those people whose life goal was to have their name on the cover of a book. For me, it has been more of an act of obedience to the Lord. A Place to Land is an outpouring of myself, for His glory. It’s my offering up to Him, for Him to use as He sees fit.
Click the links below for more information about Kate Motaung:
Read the first chapter of A Place to Land for free
Purchase Kate’s book at either of these four retailers
Visit Kate’s Facebook page (where the Facebook party will take place)