Africa Scene: Michéle Rowe by Michael Sears
Finding the Psychological Truths
Michéle Rowe is an author, script writer and story originator for film and television with a big reputation and a string of prizes to her name, as well as nominations for an Oscar for Best Documentary and an International Emmy award. When she turned her hand to writing crime fiction, she was equally successful. In 2011 she won the UK Crime Writers Association’s Debut Dagger, and in 2013 her debut novel, What Hidden Lies, was published in South Africa to critical acclaim (and later in North America and Germany). It’s the first book in a trilogy featuring the continuing main characters. The second novel, HOUR OF DARKNESS, was recently released by Penguin Random House South Africa.
HOUR OF DARKNESS has an intriguing premise: while we’re all doing the right thing by switching off our lights for Earth Hour, that darkness gives criminals the opportunity to strike. Annette Petroussis, mother of three young children, is attacked in her home in Cape Town by two armed robbers. They are obviously amateurs, but that only heightens our fear for Annette’s life. The outcome is quite unexpected. Was this always part of the plan for the book or did it develop with the story?
I don’t plan much before I begin writing, rather everything flows from my characters’ inner worlds. Their responses and choices are largely determined by past experiences. I am as much interested in the power dynamic between the characters, their backgrounds, the motive, and the circumstances that lead up to the crime, as in the incident itself.
In HOUR OF DARKNESS Annette has to override the biological imperative to protect her young and try to rationally weigh up the best chance of survival for her family. I wanted to write about a crime that was chaotic and poorly executed, where the perpetrators were as fearful and reactive as the victim. These violent incidents have a kind of inner logic, if you can follow it, and I think the outcome of the home invasion in HOUR OF DARKNESS has a kind of psychological truth. Another subject that interests me is the unintended intimacy that can spring up between a perpetrator and victim, the way hidden power structures underlying human interaction are laid bare in these extreme situations.
There are a lot of big themes in HOUR OF DARKNESS: religion, township violence, corruption, internal strife in the police. How did you pull all these together?
I don’t consciously think they are separable but as the warp and weft of the fabric of the society my characters inhabit. The themes you mention are the preoccupations of our time, the way the state exerts power through structures like the police force, violence as a form of protest and control, corruption as an inevitable outcome of an unequal society.
One of the tragedies of South Africa in the 21st century is the (still growing) chasm between rich and poor. You use the township hoodlums and homeless “bergies” on the one hand and the rich residents of Dieu Donné behind their walls and security on the other to illustrate this. Would you say that everything in the story really flows from this juxtaposition?
The juxtaposition you mention informs every aspect of life in South Africa. Guilt, anger and bitterness will plague us until we truly address these pernicious inequalities. But I think it goes deeper, that we have psychological and spiritual damage from the past that continues to haunt us, and corrode our relationships. HOUR OF DARKNESS is also about broken families, another inheritance of a dysfunctional past. I think rich or poor, if your familial relationships are damaged, the knock on effects are devastating.
You have two strong and complex female characters: Persephone (Persy) Jonas, a police detective, and retired criminal psychologist Dr. Marge Labuschagne. The two women work together, but are often at loggerheads. Persy seems to drive this book, Marge is more prominent in What Hidden Lies. Has Persy taken over the series?
The first book focused on the relationship between these two women, and I tried to give equal weight to each of their narratives. I think of them both as main characters, but in HOUR OF DARKNESS, I would say Persy is the protagonist, because she drives more of the action. It’s a function of her job as much as anything. Persy and Marge are complementary, I think. I like the tension between them, the tension of race and class and age, yet there is this female simpatico in their relationship, a deeper acknowledgement that they share a common bond.
Persy, in the midst of a disastrous affair with her boss’s husband, is pushed around, unsure of the reasons or her future, while still searching for her mother. How does she survive all this psychological trauma?
I think of Persy as a bantam-weight boxer, small, light, fast, and always punching above her weight, emotionally as much as physically. Her biography, shocking though it is, is not unusually traumatic in the community she comes from. Ocean View has enormous social challenges of drugs, crime and violence, most of it brought on by the trauma of being removed. It’s a community grappling with issues of identity, and the future of colored people and their rightful place in the country. These problems have been exacerbated by the opportunistic race based political discourse in the Western Cape. This has lowered the morale of the community of Ocean View. They feel they are outsiders, largely forgotten. But Persy is a survivor, and although she lives with the trauma of her family history, she has courage, and a certain doggedness, a determination to rise above her past.
A subplot revolves around the activities of Fred Splinters, a township hit man. Fred is totally believable and scary, yet even slightly sympathetic with his weird relationship with Natasha. He saves her from the street, then tortures her emotionally, but is furious that her gratitude doesn’t develop into love. Where did he come from?
My father-in-law had a rather strange encounter with a man called Splinters many years ago, after knocking him off his bike. The name stuck in my head and the character just appeared when I began writing. Occasionally, a character like Fred pops out of nowhere, and sort of takes over the narrative. He turned out to be this antagonist who is so confused about his race and heritage and identity, that he is almost free floating, a kind of non man, filled with rage. His only release for this internalized self-disgust is to become an efficient killing machine.
I love Houdini and how he has his part to play at the end. (Of course, I’m naturally sympathetic to hippos.) What made you bring him into the story?
For some reason I have always found the idea of a missing hippo very poignant. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Huberta the hippo? She traveled nearly a thousand miles from KwaZulu Natal to the Eastern Cape in the 1920’s. She was finally taxidermied and put in a diorama at a museum. I’ve had a rather weird postcard of that diorama pinned above my desk for years. Houdini is based on a real hippo cast out of the pod at Rondevlei. The local papers covered the story, he was spotted here and there and people followed the search with keen interest. Of course, hippos are terribly dangerous. I once worked on a script for a National Geographic documentary, and got to learn a lot more about them. They are responsible for more deaths in Africa than any other animal.
Finally, what can you tell us about the final book in the trilogy?
The book is called Before His Time, and is set in the Ocean View, Kommetjie, Masiphumelele area. The story unfolds against a backdrop of the forces building up in a community that lead to riotous assembly. It’s a dark tale of vigilante justice, the darkest in the trilogy, but I hope it has an equally strong redemptive message. I find that most people in this country muddle along together, despite the awful divisive cacophony coming from politicians and so called commentators. On a personal level, Persy comes home to face her past, and find answers to some of the mysteries of her family’s dislocation.
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