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I Shape My Protagonist, and She Shapes Me
We create our fictional characters, but what writers don’t always tell you is that our characters start to shape us. And I’m not just talking about the weight I put on testing Maria’s recipes.
My protagonist in the Tannie (‘Auntie’) Maria mystery series is a fifty-something, plump, Afrikaans agony-aunt for the Klein Karoo Gazette. She lives in the small town of Ladismith, South Africa, was abused by her late husband and is obsessed with food (she gives recipes as a main ingredient of her agony-aunt response, and uses food to entice clues from suspects). Along with her co-worker, Jessie the kick-ass investigative journalist, she gets drawn into a murder mystery.
I also live in the Klein Karoo, but that’s where the parallel ends. Okay, I’m not far from fifty, but it will take me a few years to catch up with Tannie Maria. My book is written in the first person. I have to get inside Tannie Maria’s mind and voice, and she thinks and speaks quite differently from me. “Isn’t life funny?” Maria says in Recipes for Love and Murder. “You know, the way one thing leads to another in a way you don’t expect.”
She is a grounded, intelligent woman, although she is not highly “educated” in the academic sense. She has completed high school. Her English-speaking father (a journalist) was often absent. Although she has taken in many of his values, she is more comfortable with her mother’s Afrikaans (a language which descends from Dutch). My books are written in English, but sprinkled with Afrikaans for flavor. As one reader put it, “Tannie Maria is speaking Afrikaans, but in a way that English people can understand.”
My background is in adult education and social activism, and I have worked with, and written for, workers who speak English as a second language. This trained me to communicate complex ideas in an accessible way. (It also developed my Xhosa and Afrikaans speaking skills). This was very useful to me in finding Tannie Maria’s voice. After a while she developed a life force of her own (yes I know it’s corny, but it’s true). She is unpretentious and will not use the flowery words with which I might want to decorate the page. She often talks and thinks poetically, but the metaphors she uses are related to real things, mostly those that can be found in the kitchen or the dry Karoo veld. In The Satanic Mechanic she says, “I was maybe too hungry for love and ended up with murder on my plate.”
Tannie Maria is a small-town white Afrikaner. Stereotypically she would be portrayed as conservative. It was the white Afrikaners who engineered apartheid after all, and small-towns can produce small-mindedness. But Tannie Maria is open-minded, and open-hearted too. She is grounded and wise and funny. She has taught me how to laugh and to love – and, of course, how to cook. Until the Tannie Maria series, I’d never read a recipe book. Dinner time is when I peek in the fridge and throw something together quickly – it’s not time for reading, for heaven’s sake. But now I have waded through dozens of traditional South African recipe-books and tested and tasted hundreds of recipes.
But as well as teaching me how to laugh, love and cook, Tannie Maria’s has forced me to address political and social issues in a different way. I was an activist in the height of the anti-apartheid struggle. Comrades and friends were killed, tortured and arrested daily. There were taps on our phones and spies in our organisations. I was threatened and angry and fighting. We were at war, and I had no patience for ‘the enemy’: racism, sexism, apartheid, capitalism, and anyone who was tainted by them. There was little softness in my fists, or in my heart.
Tannie Maria is very clear about justice, and does not shy away from difficult issues, but she addresses things in a down-to-earth way, and with a big heart. The high-horse judgment that might characterize my own political perspective is very differently expressed by her. In The Satanic Mechanic, Maria joins a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) group, to unravel issues from her past that are interfering with her relationship with Detective Henk Kannemeyer. The therapy group contains a cast of characters who’ve experienced a range of South African traumas (armed robbery, violent xenophobia, scarring experiences in the apartheid army, torture by the police, homophobia, child-abuse, wife-battery and rape). Maria hears them all. After listening to the story of Dirk, who had abused his wife, she states, “In my mind, it was difficult to forgive him, but somehow my heart did it so easily.”
Members of the group are encouraged by the counselor (known as The Satanic Mechanic) to forgive themselves. This is the path to healing.
Maria has opened a space in my own heart to face up to my dark past, personal and political. She shows me that Yes, we must seek justice, and act, and fight, but we can do so in a way that heals ourselves and others. As Slimkat (a land-rights activist in The Satanic Mechanic) says, “Fighting can make you bitter. But sometimes it must be done. If you have to fight, then you must do so with soft hands and a heart full of forgiveness.”
Cocoanut Brownies: Retro Ad & Recipe - *I love Retro Chocolate Ads with Recipes. This one for Cocoanut Golden Brownies is from the 1950s.* Unfortunately are no longer made. The recipe says you ...
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