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Chain Interview

Die Ketting

Jo-Anne RichardsJo-Anne Richards feels she can't compete with Tim Couzens in funny, self-deprecating bios, nor with Mike Nicol in brevity. (She could be briefer only by saying "Jo-Anne Richards is.") She has published three novels: The Innocence of Roast Chicken, Touching the Lighthouse and Sad at the Edges. She is a journalist who teaches the craft (and other skills she considers necessary to journalists) to impressionable students at Wits University.
Athol Fugard Athol Fugard (1932). Born in a remote village in South Africa, Fugard grew up in Port Elizabeth, the setting for most of his plays. He attended Cape Town University, spent two years as the only white seaman on a merchant ship in the Far East, then returned to South Africa. In 1958, he moved to Johannesburg where he worked as a court clerk, an experience that made him keenly aware of the injustices of apartheid, the theme of many of his plays. In that same year, he organized a multiracial theater for which he wrote, directed, and acted.
    Fugard's attacks on apartheid brought him into conflict with the South African government. After his play Blood Knot (1961) was produced in England, the government withdrew his passport for four years. His support in 1962 of an international boycott against the South African practice of segregating theater audiences led to further restrictions. The restrictions were relaxed somewhat in 1971, when he was allowed to travel to England to direct his play Boesman and Lena (1969).
    A Lesson from Aloes won the 1980 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. "Master Harold"... and the Boys (1982) premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre and then was taken to Broadway. He is also the author of Cousins: A Memoir (1997).

Photo courtesy of Rosemarie Breuer

Jo-Anne Richards in conversation with Athol Fugard

Ever since I was taken to see Boesman and Lena at the Opera House in Port Elizabeth as a child, Athol Fugard has been a major influence on me. I felt an affinity for what he wrote about, and the way he portrayed his characters. And as a PE person, born and bred, I felt a strong sense of kinship with him. So when I was asked to choose another sacrificial victim, he was my first choice.

  1. You project a strong sense of place in your work. Do you think that growing up in the Eastern Cape helped develop this in you? Is there something about the landscape or people that promotes an intensity or rootedness in the land? You return often to Port Elizabeth as a setting. How did Port Elizabeth feed you as a writer?

    In any number of interviews I have described myself as a regional writer and by that I mean that my writing is rooted in the specifics of one particular place ... the Eastern Cape. In my early years this meant specifically Port Elizabeth, but latterly I have also started telling Karoo stories - I have a home in Nieu Bethesda. But that is not to say that I have exhausted Port Elizabeth. There still are several PE stories that I must tell if I am to die with a clear conscience as regards my obligations as a story-teller. Although I was born in the Karoo, all my childhood and early years as a young man were spent in Port Elizabeth and it was inevitable that with that being the only world I knew, I should draw my inspiration from the people and places of my beloved "windy city".

  2. I believe you are spending some of your time in America at present. How do you cope, and write, in an environment so far removed from Port Elizabeth and Nieu Bethesda?

    There comes a time in any writer's life if he or she lives long enough, when his/her dependence on the externals of a place is replaced by the internal memories of a place and time. I believe I have reached that point in my life and would go on writing even if I was exiled to the moon. My memories of PE and the Karoo and the many extraordinary and beautiful people who entered my life are as vivid as, and certainly more meaningful than, anything around me here in Southern California.

  3. I have a novelist friend in London who likes to say that some people write from "love" and some from "hate". By that, I believe she means some writers are detached from their subjects and the places they write of and retain that distance while writing. Other writers are involved, and use empathy to place themselves inside people's lives, with all their frailties. I think you are this kind of writer. How did you develop this feeling for every person and manage to place yourself within the lives of people as diverse as Piet Bezuidenhout, Boesman, Milly and Helen Martins?

    If your friend in London specifically used the word hate I would disagree with her most strongly. Hate, the most negative and destructive of all human emotions, has created nothing of beauty in any art form. What you are asking me is, "Where does your gift come from?" I use the word gift without any arrogance but rather with a humble sense of having been given something which brought with it very heavy obligations. Witnessing truthfully - which is what I have tried to do - is very, very challenging. As for its source? I don't know. You tell me.

  4. Many of your characters are strong and singular women. Is it harder to write of the hopes and motivations of women? Do you think you have a strong female side that helps you to do this? Has your relationship with women influenced you?

    Yes, yes, yes to all three of your questions. Women - starting with my mountain of a mother, Elizabeth Magdalena Potgieter, have made me the writer I am. They have taught me how to laugh and how to love ... the two most important human activities. After those lessons the writing was inevitable.

  5. You have been labelled a political writer, yet your writing is pure people. Did you ever regard yourself or your writing as political?

    I hate the label "political playwright". I think it is almost impossible to tell a South African story truthfully without there being directly or indirectly some sort of political comment involved. Jane Austen is a political writer in my understanding of the word political.

  6. You have written of music and alcohol as strong forces in your life and that, when you gave up drink, you feared you might not write again. Looking back now, do you think you're a different writer without the alcohol? Has that struggle come through in your writing?

    It is impossible for me to answer that question except to acknowledge that there have been changes. But for better or for worse? You be the judge.

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LitNet: 10 October 2005

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