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Menings | Opinion > Onderhoude | Interviews > English

Tracey Farren talks to Janet van Eeden about the voices in Snake and future novels

Janet van Eeden - 2011-10-13

Untitled Document

Title: Snake
Author: Tracey Farren
Publisher: Modjaji Books
ISBN: 9781920397388
Price: R162.95

Click here to buy your copy from Kalahari.net now!

Review by Janet van Eeden

is a story about love, loss, a magic flute and a chicken called Mugabe. Well, the flute isn’t exactly magic, but the man who brings the flute into the lives of a poverty-stricken family seems to enchant them all and turn them into different versions of themselves.

Tracey Farren’s second novel, Snake, is told from the point of view of a twelve-year-old girl as she recounts recent troubled events to a magazine journalist from Truth Magazine. The “Truth Lady”, as Stella calls her, gets her to talk about a trauma that happened on the farm in recent months. Through this narrative device of Stella’s being interviewed by a third party the reader becomes aware of the inevitable unfolding of a family tragedy.

Stella is growing up as the child of a disenfranchised coloured family living in a shack on a farm in the Cape. Her father, Frank, has a drinking problem and her mother does her best to survive the poor circumstances of their lives with her daughters, Stella and baby Grace.

The deceased farmer’s wife, Mevrou, lives nearby with her useless son, Gustav. When a white man called Jerry rolls in with Frank one day, drinking out of a Jesus cup and oozing charm, he brings hope to them all. Especially as he carries a silver flute, which he plays with enchanting silvery notes. All are captivated by him. Especially Stella’s mother, Nancy. With Jerry’s help Frank seems to pull himself together. He stops drinking. Then Jerry encourages Gustav to get back on the tractor and attempt to salvage the farm. Jerry also teaches Stella to play the flute and she uncovers a natural musical gift. It seems as if Jerry is bringing healing to the whole farm.

That is, until Stella’s friend Nita’s Pa, a policeman, starts asking Jerry uncomfortable questions. Suddenly Nita’s Pa disappears. Frank starts to drink again. And Nancy and Jerry become more than friends. Perhaps Jerry, the enchanter, is not all he seems.

The story is told through Stella’s eyes as she reconstructs events for the journalist which led to a tragedy on the farm. Stella absorbs life through creative sounds. She lives in technicolour and her speech is graphic and entertaining. Stella’s colourful turn of phrase, using metonymy and synecdoche, to recreate her experiences, makes Farren’s writing come alive with rich imagery. The Truth Lady’s salacious “headlines” of important events as she listens, shows how the world of the tabloid would sensationalise each dramatic detail.

Farren has followed the success of Whiplash with another idiosyncratic novel which, even though it deals with brutal subject matter, is a delight to read. This is largely due to the attractive nature of her protagonist, Stella. The reader can’t help warming to the quirky little girl with her bizarre take on life. This novel is well worth reading and it adds merit to Farren’s reputation as a writer of note in this country.

Q&A with Tracey Farren

Tracey, you have written an unusual book in that it is narrated by a twelve-year-old girl who is talking to a journalist from a tabloid magazine. This is an unusual format, as it is reportage in one way, but the story flows forward as the girl, Stella, relates the events that happened to her. What made you decide to tell the story in this way?

I am, strangely enough, not very attracted to stories told in a child’s voice. It is difficult to tell adult stories through a child’s eyes without losing the reader’s identification at some stage. The trick is to keep the adult mind engaged. Although the journalist in Snake doesn’t say much, her jaded, adult perspective provides a strong counterpoint to the child’s thinking. Ironically, the child turns the tables on the manipulative woman, innocently exposing the woman’s mercenary intentions and self-seeking strategies.

I “found” the journalist while I was looking for a way to satirise the melodrama. The book is about the madness of our world and the patient, sane truth that waits to be reclaimed. I wanted to offer the tabloid story as one of a myriad ways in which people express their delusions about who they are. I tried lots of options before settling on the despicable journalist as Stella’s narrative sidekick. The woman, of course, goes too far in her distance from Stella’s worried sincerity, but her presence reminds us that this story is indeed interchangeable with all the other crazy plays that we read about in the newspapers every day.

In practical terms, I also needed a way to relate the past scenes in which Stella was not present. Stella was too young to come up with all the possibilities. Although Stella mines a lot of information from her imagination and her spirit guides, the journalist adds her own cynical constructions to the missing scenarios. The woman’s appetite for dreadful detail seems to amplify Stella’s natural kindness and haunted innocence.

The audience is constantly reminded that Stella is talking to a journalist, as she bangs a tin whenever a new day begins. The journalist / “Truth Lady” interjects every few pages. This is a Brechtian device, referred to in plays as a way to make the audience realise they are watching play-acting and not real life. Is this the reason you decided to use the journalist this way?

Yes, the device was intended to create a remove between the reader and the story. It is justified by the sense that the child needs the remove in order to bear her own awful story. She has rehearsed the sequence and is reciting it compulsively, almost by rote. The reader “watches” her telling it to the Truth Lady, as if the two of them are on stage. I hoped to invoke the idea that life is indeed like a play in which people act out their “God part” or their “mad part”. The more preposterous the story, the brasher their “mad part” or ego. At one stage I considered creating a court room context for Stella’s telling, but this would have lost the illicit humour, the lurking sense of wanting to laugh but you can’t. I found that the Truth Lady’s interjections created a secondary drama that seemed to suit the theme of the book. While the child is baring her insides to this calloused woman, we know that the Truth Lady will exploit the material to her own ends. This injustice adds to the cruelty that Stella has already suffered. I hope that the Truth Lady’s inappropriate delight exaggerates the sense of madness, further establishing the little girl as the soulful, sane centre of this story.

Stella is a young coloured girl, watching her parents go through trying times in their lives. Her father is too fond of the bottle and her mother does her best to make a decent life for them on the meagre income they have. I don’t have a problem with your writing about a girl who isn’t the same racial group as you are, as I’ve done it before myself. Can you tell the readers of LitNet how you got inside Stella’s life circumstances to create such a realistic portrayal of a poor family living in a hut on the outskirts of a farm?

I lived out in the Overberg for a couple of years. As a white, middle-class South African, I had the rare experience of living very close to people living below the breadline. A small family lived over the rise in extremely impoverished conditions, very similar conditions to the fictional family in Snake. I was shocked to find that many of the farm families in the surrounding community also lived without basic amenities. This was not true of all the farms. Many of the farm owners were actively involved with farm workers’ associations and provided sound houses, plumbing, sanitation and electricity to their workers. These farmers seemed to want two things: to honour human rights principles and to maintain a stable work force – their aim was to protect the experience and skills that made their farms highly productive. At that time there were no inspection or prosecution processes for those farmers who didn’t bother. Needless to say, the context of Snake leans towards the more dismal, disempowering context. Stella’s family live in a situation of extreme insecurity and neglect, the kind of environment in which substance abuse flourishes.

The “Snake” of the title refers to a white man, Jerry, who comes to visit Stella’s small family and who decides to stay. He brings with him a flute and enchants them with his silver notes. You have the white “Mevrou” of the main farm playing the opera The Magic Flute for relaxation. What made you decide to underline the character of Jerry by using the opera as a chorus, as it were? Do you think it would matter if people didn’t know the opera at all?

My first thought was that the “soundtrack” of The Magic Flute would be too overstated. The Truth Lady’s scepticism allowed me to keep it, however. Her first incredulous remark, “No! You’re joking!” gave it permission to stay. The Magic Flute is indeed an ironic metaphor for Jerry’s vengeful mission. It also expresses the truth raging beneath Mevrou’s blind denial. Her unconscious mind seeps to the surface, gently tormenting her with her favourite opera. I don’t think it is at all necessary for the reader to be familiar with the opera. Stella tells enough of the operatic story for us to compare the fire and the floods to the trauma that Jerry brings. Jerry tears the truth from the deep, releasing the secrets that have poisoned the farm for so long. Although it is not easily evident, Jerry, like the magic flute in the opera, does indeed bring about healing, however painful.

Stella sees life very graphically and speaks with a very colourful turn of phrase. She uses the figures of speech known as synecdoche and metonymy. In the first, a part is used to describe the whole and in the second, a “thing or concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with it”, as Wikipedia describes it best. This makes for colourful writing. Did you make these stylistic choices consciously, or did you “hear” Stella speaking in this way?

Stella’s English is adequate but limited. Her lack of sophistication with English forces her to use these representative words. Her peculiar vocabulary, I hope, builds and supports the realness of her character. It also entices the reader to use Stella’s ears and eyes. The off-centre words create a slight shift in focus, nudging readers from their expected perspectives. While I was writing Snake, Stella began to dictate to me very soon. She often bypassed traditional names, employing what she thought to be literal, effective terms. I was at first frustrated by the rules of the child’s language, seeing them as constraining. But I soon learned that she needed to have her say. I learned to be patient and let the child speak.

Stella also describes the sounds of things, such as the scratching of a match as Jerry prepares to light his Lucky Strikes, and so on. What made you use onomatopoeia so much? Was that a conscious choice or was it also just part of Stella’s voice that came to you?

Stella is a musical, highly auditory child. When recounting the past, her first memories are always triggered by sounds. In her efforts to relate the string of recent events, she tries her best to express what her ears have witnessed. At one point I thought the sounds were too child-like, but I found that I couldn’t take them out. They were too integral to her neurological wiring. I grew to love the superimposed effect, as if they were sound effects in a theatrical play. They seemed to make one aware of the telling context, like the banging on the metal tub to mark a new day. I can only hope that the sounds give the reader the privileged sensation of being entertained, of being part of a finite, lucky audience.

In both Whiplash and Snake you use the main characters as first-person narrators to tell the story. Both of these characters have idiosyncratic voices and speak with very definite mannerisms. Is it easier to tell the story using the voice of someone so very different from you? Do you prefer to inhabit the lives of others outside of yourself and imagine their realities? What are the benefits of writing a character in this way?

I allow my characters to take over language and sensibility in a deliberate bid to avoid my own authorial voice. I’m quite opinionated and I know that if I’m allowed any space I could easily overtake with moralising and musings. I inhabit characters to allow the writing to remain alive. I trick myself to shut up by letting them take the stage completely, in an all-or-nothing way. I suppose it is the writer’s version of method acting. The process of writing is for me, then, truly surprising. I find it strangely fulfilling to feel the boundaries dissolve between myself and the fictional characters. It brings me a sense of peace, as if I can sense that we are all connected, all of one source.

Will you ever write a novel where your own voice and life will be more recognisable, or does that sort of writing not appeal to you?

An African man arrived in my imagination recently. He is utterly mute – he cannot speak – but his mind is extremely “talkative”. Ironically, he is the closest of all the characters to my own thinking rhythm and natural vocabulary. It is early days, however. He may decide to change.

Here is the awful question most authors dread as they publish their novel, but I have to ask it: What’s next on the cards for you, Tracey? Have you got another novel in the pipeline?

The third novel is in the pipeline. The mute man wants to tell a slightly futuristic tale that involves sinister business, forgiveness and stem-cell medicine! But the “pipeline”, I’m afraid, might be thin. I have to work on both the Whiplash and Snake film scripts. The third novel will have to cling on tenuously until my hands are free to write it properly.