Friday Night Book Club: Read an excerpt from Jo-Ann Richards’s South African classic The Innocence of Roast Chicken – painful, evocative, beautifully drawn and utterly absorbing
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend!
Staying in this evening? Get comfortable with a cup of hot chocolate and this exclusive extract from The Innocence of Roast Chicken by Jo-Anne Richards.
First published back in 1996, The Innocence of Roast Chicken became an instant classic at home, and went on to be published internationally.
‘The Innocence of Roast Chicken was a groundbreaking novel. To say it still has relevance to our worldly existence and sense of identity today is an understatement.’ – Ronnie Kasrils
The novel was recently rereleased as part of the Picador Africa Heritage Classics collection – books that deserve to find a new audience and be read again.
When it first appeared, The Innocence of Roast Chicken was nominated for the Impac International Dublin Literary Award and chosen as an ‘outstanding debut novel’ by a British book chain.
Author Jo-Anne Richards says of the book:
‘The Innocence of Roast Chicken was a story that just wouldn’t go away. I denied it for a good three years, but it stubbornly refused to budge. It became all I could focus on. Fearful of waking my young family, I spent my nights huddled on the bathroom floor with a torch, scribbling into a notebook. On that cold floor, my debut novel took shape. A farm materialised. A child was born, who loved it and believed that ‘everyone should have a farm like that in their childhood’. But I could also see the brutal nature of her coming of age, and the adult she would become.’
About the book
The Innocence of Roast Chicken focuses on an Afrikaans/English family in the Eastern Cape and their idyllic life on their grandparents’ farm, seen through the eyes of the little girl, Kate, and the subtle web of relationships that is shattered by a horrifying incident in the mid-1960s.
Scenes from Kate’s early life are juxtaposed with Johannesburg in 1989 when Kate, now married to Joe, a human rights lawyer, stands aside from the general euphoria that is gripping the nation.
Her despair, both with her marriage and with the national situation, resolutely returns to a brutal incident one Christmas day when Kate was thrust into an awareness of what lay beneath her blissful childhood.
Read the excerpt:
Everyone should have a farm like that in their childhood – too idyllic to be real outside the tangible world of a child’s imagining. And it really was like that, the perfect background for a charmed and untouched childhood. The farm itself was untouched: by ugliness, unpleasantness, poverty, politics, or so it seemed to me. Until that particular year when it was spoiled. Everything was spoiled.
As an intense teenager, years later, filled with angst and misplaced sensitivity, I wrote a poem about my childhood, I wrote of a white sheet hanging on the line on a summer’s day, rippling and flapping in a gentle breeze, warmed and dried by the cloudless heat of the day. Then I showed it fallen, a graceless heap on the grassless ground, soiled by filthy footprints which could have been mud, but which looked a bit like blood.
Don’t think badly of me. Everyone is filled with self-pity at fourteen. And for many years I carried the full guilt of that year. I lugged the intense, silent burden of having caused everything that happened by doing something very bad, or not standing in the way of the bad things – to field and divert them from us, from my farm. I had too much faith in the way things would continue, in the beauty of before.
When I was older, I realised that, after all, I had been just a child, powerless to deflect the horror, not strong enough to be chosen as the cosmic goalie. Then I felt sorry for myself, until I was older still, and the guilt – more collective this time – settled again. That was when I locked myself away from all the perplexing ugliness of life, from any taint of hurt or violence.
But I didn’t set out to tell about 1966. I don’t want to talk about it. I want to describe how it really was, how it was before – before the ugliness. I want to tell you about the soft, lilting nature of my holidays there.
This is how it really was. Each morning at five we awoke, my two brothers and I, to the same sounds. The drowsy sounds of hundreds of chickens, interspersed with the sharp crow of awakened roosters. Lying very still in my bed I could hear the grating beat of the belt-driven generator. From the bedroom next door, the early news on the Afrikaans service, then my grandmother’s soft-intoned, Afrikaans-accented reading from the English Bible, before my grandfather’s deep English voice joined hers in the Lord’s Prayer.
The skree-bang of the fly-screen door into the kitchen and the cleaning noises in the lounge – invisible cleaning, for we never saw it being done. When the smells of bacon and Jungle Oats finally reached us, we catapulted noisily from our three beds, just in time to join my father heading for his unfailing early morning swim.
Before the full sun of the morning heated the dusty path through the orchard, I trotted barefoot alongside my father while my brothers raced for the pool. We joined them only after my father and I had stood to eat still-cool figs from the tree. And he invariably said: ‘The only way to eat figs, straight off the tree before the sun’s properly up.’
The swimming place was huge and old-fashioned, a reservoir built in the war years, now used only for swimming. Moving hand over hand along the sides in the morning, one could be sure of finding a bullfrog or two wallowing in the small square holes just above water level.
Shivering and chilled, we would make for the warmth of the kitchen, where we dried off before the huge coal stove, pinching cinnamon-flavoured soetkoekies from the china jar on the dresser. The admonishments this would draw from enormously fat Dora, who ruled the kitchen, never managed to outlast her chest-quivering, almost toothless laugh.
Breakfasts were huge, lunches merely a welcome interruption to an otherwise unfettered day, in which the grown-ups remained satisfyingly remote from our adventuring, but comfortingly near at hand for my little-girl needs. Ouma, solid and practical, had a face which brooked no nonsense and truly softened and sweetened only when she looked at us kids. To my kind, literary Oupa – so civilised and impractical – she spoke always in a hectoring tone, which he answered meekly but with a wink at me. Once, while I sat on his knee being read to – A Child’s Garden of Verses, I think it was, though I can’t be sure – he told me it was Ouma’s way of showing her love for us, the dreamy impractical ones, her way of chivvying us into coping with the harder side of life.
But it never worked. She always called me pieperig, and Oupa always sat reading or writing in his library, his soft, persistent cough and wisp of pipe smoke betraying his presence. Ouma, whom I never saw with a book other than the Bible, was out on the farm, supervising the feeding of the new chicks, the nailing of sacking over the chicken hoks before a threatened hailstorm and, of course, the killing – which I was never aware of and never went curiously in search of, as my brothers did. And when the crunch finally came, when the hardness of life finally came home to me, I wasn’t strong enough to deal with it. My grandmother’s attempts to toughen me were no defence against the events which caused the collapse of my life and the devastation of my childhood – or so it seemed to me at the time. Even if, in retrospect and with adult consciousness, you smile cynically and think me melodramatic, I can describe it in no other way. Anyway, I wasn’t going to talk about that time.
I was going to talk about Ouma’s boys – William, her right-hand man, Petrus, and the others – who smiled at us and loved us and carried me over the dusty ground when the sun heated it too much for my small feet to bear. They let me plunge my hands into the barrels of feathers and gently hold the tiny yellow chicks among the deafening chitter of the new arrivals. And each morning after breakfast I would sit with William and Petrus in the boys’ room, drinking forbidden coffee from a tin mug, poured from a large can boiling on a brazier and sweetened with their ration of condensed milk.
And I haven’t yet described the glory of the long lawn rolling from the front of the house, the wonder of Ouma’s pride: the flowers that caused travellers to stop and ask if they could buy an armful. Ouma would generously fill their arms for free and when she had done so, the plentiful garden looked no different, no emptier. The enormous spreading wild fig tree at the bottom of the garden provided the shade for the long summer evenings, when my father would carve up a watermelon and we would gorge ourselves, the sweet, sticky flesh causing rivulets of juice to run from our chins and down our arms to our elbows.
This is where I should stop, leaving the impressions of long, adventure filled, dusty days of swimming, exploring, climbing trees. Of lying full length on the library floor with a fluttery, exciting feeling of reading some never before- discovered book. Of the wildness of the veld and the magic of the people there. I shouldn’t go on to tell you about that holiday, the one I have clutched silently to myself for all these years. What good will it do to bring it out now?
It was 1966. I was eight years old, in Standard One in Port Elizabeth. In this small coastal city of the Eastern Cape, where everyone knew my family, I grew up believing I was something of a princess. The youngest child and only daughter, I attended a girls-only school where we wore panama hats and regulation bloomers. There they stressed the importance of turning out ‘young ladies’; of deportment; of climbing the stairs one at a time.
The cataclysmic political events of the 1960s had, for the most part, passed me by. But I did know that blacks, or ‘Africans’ as I was instructed to call them by my enlightened, English-speaking parents, were badly treated and poor. ‘Don’t call them natives, dear, they don’t like it.’
But I knew that we were on the side of right, as my parents treated Africans with kindness. They were early ‘Progs’ and weren’t scared of arguing with their friends, not all of whom were so sure that Africans were capable of exercising the vote – qualified of course. ‘But don’t you see,’ my father would argue, ‘your argument doesn’t stand up. According to the Progs’ policy, old Joseph, your garden boy, wouldn’t have the vote, but the educated African would and he’s probably more capable than some of the poor whites who have it now.’
I knew that if we had our way and got those damned Afrikaners out of power, everything would be OK. And maybe the Progs would win one day. I had a fantasy of taking a ragged child from the street and dressing her in nice clothes and giving her books and money for school. In those days, the days when the fanatical Dr Hendrik Verwoerd was prime minister, we felt bad that we received a good, free education, while blacks had to pay for theirs. But of the inferiority of Bantu Education I knew little. I remember only that my mother would lecture me when I complained about going to school. ‘Education means so little to you because you have it so easy,’ she would say. ‘Some African child would die to be able to go to school as you do.’ So I thought of giving this chance to some child, who would weep with gratitude and her parents would clutch my hands with tears in their eyes. I felt so warm and good.
Of course, like everyone else we knew, we had a maid. She loved us as her own, hugged us, read to us, dressed us each morning and carried all three of us on her back until we were too big to fit. Margaret cooked for us and cared for us and I couldn’t imagine life without her warm presence and love. She was the first person we three scampered to greet the moment we heard her comforting clatter each morning. But I can also, still with a smarting clarity, remember how I hurt her that year. And for no explicable reason other than the ease with which I could do so.
This is an unpleasant story and it puts me in a bad light. But I’ve decided that if I am to speak of that year and that life, if it has to come out now, I have to tell it all no matter how badly you might think of me. And somehow, I think that if I speak of everything that happened that year, all that I did, it might help me to understand what happened later.
I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me to use the word ‘native’ when addressing black people. It wasn’t used in my home or at school. But when I was warned against using it, I can remember that quite suddenly it became a ‘forbidden’ word, unbearably enticing in its wickedness. ‘Native,’ I taunted Margaret, running guiltily through the kitchen. ‘Oh no,’ she said, dropping her head while her face became, it seemed to me, frightening in its desolation. Of course she forgave me, never mentioning it again. But for ages it would come to me, that cringy sweaty feeling of regret, of wondering if she could still love me.
And then, of course, I hurt her again. But this time it was worse, because it was a rejection of her. Dawdling and dreaming, I would fairly regularly miss the number eight bus, which carried us Mill Park girls home from school. I relished the stomach trembling adventure this gave me, of having to walk to my father’s office across the Donkin Reserve. I loved the imaginings aroused by the gracious buildings lining this humpbacked commonage. A slight detour took me past the delicate metal lacework of an old gate, which had once swung open romantically to admit butterfly ladies in horsedrawn carriages. Gazing through the gates into the sash-windowed hotel, tracing the filigree with my fingers, I could so easily believe that I lived in that grandeur outside of my allotted time. A zigzagged wander took me to my second lingering ritual, which was to run across the grass to touch the red-tipped lighthouse and gaze over the top of ‘downtown’. Beyond town, which squatted comfortably at the foot of the hill’s steep bump, were the wind-whitened tips of the waves – a startling blue in sunshine, muddying to dirty green under clouds. And the ships moving inexorably past me to the harbour wall.
Just beyond the terraced houses which snaked their way down the swelling bulge of the hill, was my father’s office. Here, I could play with rubber stamps and be spoilt by beehived office workers who looked so similar I would confuse them. ‘Will you take me up and down in the lift again?’ I asked one, only to find it was another dark beehive with fluttering false eyelashes who had taken me on the trip in the metal-caged lift.