Today’s interview, as part of diversity month, is with South African author Jo Rodrigues. Jo’s book, Six for Seven, has a broad cultural range in its characters which is what makes him of interest to this month’s events. Jo lives in Capetown and states that English is his second language, his first being Portuguese. You can find information about the author and his works, as well as his hobbies, on his site at http://jorodrigues.com/
Without further ado, let me get stuck into some questions!
1. What does the term “diverse books” mean to you?
To me it means breaking out of a typical format or mould. As authors, especially ones striving to make a name in the literary world, we often resort to writing novels that fit a particular market in order to sell more readily. We all need to pay the bills, after all. I may have written too many books that do not fit into accepted moulds, and with my latest romantic comedy, I am seeking to address this. The bill collectors are getting restless ….
Even if we do adapt, and write in genres that are more profitable, we do ourselves an injustice by writing only what is ‘safe’. We can still throw in some unexpected twists to a conventional genre. It is a calculated risk, and as scary as it is, it is also exhilarating. I just hope that our readers enjoy being taken on an unusual journey or two.
Diversity can mean exposing your readers to new people and their colourful cultures. As writers, we are given the task of showing our audience a world they have never experienced before. Some of the most fascinating books I have read take me to places, and introduce me to characters, that I would otherwise never meet. This is what a diverse book should achieve.
It is not just about picking ‘diverse’ people and cultures just for sake of being politically correct. I have written about characters about whom I have fair knowledge, and not just made it up as I go along, or merely relied on research. In my opinion, simply reading up on the Internet about a culture will not make your book particularly diverse.
2. What made you decide to write characters of such varying backgrounds? Was it a conscious decision to use Indian and Coloured cultures as the basis for your characters or did they just emerge that way?
In part, I wrote it as I went along. It was like a casting call for diversity. I had the overall idea for the novel in my head for years. I probably began the introduction six or seven years before I sat down to write the book. Once I got down to it, I did not want ‘cookie-cutter’ characters. However, I did want outrageous South Africans around the table. Who wants to read about droll, stuffed shirts pontificating all night?
I tried to fill each role with characters who would not only be out of the norm, but that would go on into future books. My second book, Aeonosphere runs parallel to Six For Seven precisely for this very fact. Each book touches briefly about the events in the other. I had fun intertwining them. I have decided to link most of my books in this fashion, no matter what genre they traverse.
Having had friends from different cultures and races over the years, I chose my characters based on personal knowledge in order to do them justice. I just made their characteristics more acute, and hopefully entertaining. I have been friends with Hindu’s, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Atheists. They have been Indian, White, Black, and some may have been a mix of all of the above. They also range from European born to African born — like me. I may be European, but I was born on the east coast of Africa. Who is ‘African’ is a debate for another time.
3. What research do you do to help you write authentic diverse characters?
For some characters, it is easy. They simply arrive as a result of my memories of interacting with friends and colleagues. Sometimes it requires additional research to verify facts, such as locations or dates. Largely, they are a product of my overactive imagination. I try to imagine how they would react and then allow that voice to respond accordingly. If I do not know about a particular race or culture, how can I possibly write authentically about them?
4. Your book is about the cultural make-up of South Africa, as well as the corrupt political climate there. How do you think living in such a society has influenced the way that you live and write?
Anyone who spends time in South Africa cannot help but be affected by the political climate and cultural diversity. It is everywhere you turn. We have eleven official languages, some of them on our boards and signposts. Literally, every nationality, race, or culture is represented in South Africa. This is why it is called the ‘The Rainbow Nation’.
Sadly, this very rainbow has been tarnished by political greed and intolerance. While the world is still celebrating our freedom, after twenty years we are in moral decay and political corruption. My book is a way of saying that this is not acceptable. The rational South Africans that I know want change. We have reached a point that our voices are our only means to ensuring change.
While I have mentioned no one by name in Six For Seven, I have created an obvious, and very controversial scapegoat who represents what is wrong in South Africa. The events spoken about are taken from news coverage, and are current according to the timeline of the book. The political happenings are not fiction and a matter of public record. The fictional characters speak with a non-fictional tongue.
No one who has read the book so far likes my corrupt reverend. I appear to have done my job well. In the novel, it appears that everyone present is unfairly picking on him, but the reality is that he represents our government, and the rest of the dinner guests are the various South Africans objecting to what has been allowed to happen. We are all to blame, but some more than others.
5. Please share with us some of your favourite diverse books and/or authors.
This is actually quite a daunting task. I tend to think of people — especially in novels — just as people. I do not pay too much attention to how diverse the characters are. I tend to notice if they are dull, or self-serving in a stereotypical fashion. I suspect that being exposed to a multicultural existence, I tend to accept diversity as commonplace.
Joanne Harris is one of my favourite authors and I find her quite diverse. Her characters cover quite a broad spectrum of cultures, mostly foreign to me. She portrays gypsies, religious zealots, and even French people. Except for the chocolate, this is all a world far from my own.
I think that some of our local authors are particularly brilliant. The one that always comes to mind is an all-around entertainer and author, Pieter-Dirk Uys. I do not believe there is anyone in South Africa as outspoken, compelling, or as accomplished as he is. I have several of his books on my shelf and he never fails to create rich, varied, and outrageous characters both on- and offstage.
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Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us, Jo!