2021 Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature shortlist: an interview with Jaco Fouché

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Jaco Fouché (photo: provided)

Jaco Fouché talks to Naomi Meyer about The Kowie, shortlisted for the Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature 2021.

Congratulations on your shortlist nomination for the Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature 2021. Please tell me how your story was born: where did you get the idea for this story, and tell me about your characters?

Thank you. I’m very happy to be on the shortlist! Congratulations to all the other finalists. The story, which is set in Hermanus except for the last chapter, is basically about a matric learner who takes a holiday job at an off-sales, that is, a bottle store belonging to a hotel. He keeps the shelves stacked and does deliveries on an old bicycle. The idea has been with me since my own schooldays, when I worked at just such a bottle store and, of course, had some interesting experiences meeting various kinds of people. My character lives with his mom and older brother and has a dad somewhere, though he does not quite know exactly where. The family story forms the backbone of the book.

For which age group did you intend your story? Why did you specifically write a book for people of this age group? Which part of writing this story for these people did you enjoy most?

The age group consists of those who will soon leave school, maybe matric as well as grade 11. I didn’t set out writing for a particular audience; the fact is that I wanted to write about some of my own experiences as a boy in Hermanus. I loved recounting some of the things that happened, and my favourite bits are probably those having to do with the off-sales or the delivery bike, or maybe it’s the scene in the bay when two of the characters go kayaking. I also venture to say that I managed a humorous line here and there.

For the authors on the English shortlist: there is plenty of young adult fiction written in English. What distinguishes a South African English language book from the rest?

........

Why write? Because you (as a reader yourself) know all about the joy that a reader finds in a good book. You want to replicate that joy, be responsible for it. A book is a hand reaching out, sometimes to communicate, sometimes to offer comfort, sometimes to outrage.

..........

Yes, there are many books, in all genres. Every time I walk into a bookstore, I'm intimidated by the possibilities stacked all around me. Why write? Because you (as a reader yourself) know all about the joy that a reader finds in a good book. You want to replicate that joy, be responsible for it. A book is a hand reaching out, sometimes to communicate, sometimes to offer comfort, sometimes to outrage. Writing English is of course a slower process to a native Afrikaans-speaking person. I find I think more carefully before putting down sentences. Don't know if that's good or bad. As for young people - their company energises. They have so much potential, and their attitudes reflect this. Writing about a young person you feel some of that potential, those attitudes. Makes you feel young again!

How did the pandemic influence your writing and themes of writing, if at all?

The pandemic didn’t affect me as much as it did people who have to go out to work, as I’m usually at home anyway. But it did make me aware of the transitory nature of life. I mean, we all know life is brief, but all of a sudden you’re forced to confront that very notion head on. And it scares you. It sends you to your computer at night to write sentences down, hoping to rid yourself of that fear and make sense of what has become of life. But, having said that, I’m also aware of a suspicion that we’re exaggerating the situation. Sometimes when I watch these overseas news channels, I think they instil fear under the guise of performing some public service. Well, I realise many will disagree with me. So, yes, themes of various kinds presented themselves because of the pandemic.

Last year (2020) was an extraordinary writing year for me, especially in the winter. I wrote three novellas, two for the Groot Afrikaanse Romanwedstryd and this one for the Sanlam-Tafelberg competition. The words just kept coming, and it was a wonderful three months from about May to maybe somewhere in August. Of course, since then, I’ve barely been able to write emails, let alone books. The reservoir is empty and it is taking a long time refilling.

How did COVID-19 influence your own life personally?

The virus changed my wife’s life quite a bit, and so by extension my own. She’s a teacher and in 2020 worked from home. She has a huge network of people, much larger than my own, and it was through her that I saw with concern the impact on many lives. Sometimes it was just the idea of this dangerous thing in our midst – more a bad rumour than any immediate threat – that influenced people negatively. And yet, the virus is occasionally deadly; that is very true. One of her colleagues passed away because of it. Others were ill for some time. And then, there are all the news reports flooding in and the things you read on social media that affect your mental state, despite the fact that you tell yourself not to worry too much about them. The virus had such an impact, even if not all that directly. I really hope that we’re past the worst and that we can look forward to healthier times.

Also read:

Persverklaring | Press release: Sanlampryse vir Jeuglektuur, 2021-kortlyste | 2021 Sanlam prizes for youth literature, shortlists

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