After reading Shadow People, Book 1, and African Me & Satellite TV, I decided to contact author/blogger Jo Robinson, and see if she would consent to an interview by email. To my delight, she not only agreed, but candidly answered all my questions. (Two of the questions were quoted in an earlier post where I reviewed African Me & Satellite TV.) Here is our complete interview for you to enjoy.
Q: African Me and Satellite TV is quite a departure from your science fiction work, Shadow People. It’s quite an amazing story and, clearly, one that is deeply felt. Is there something in your personal past that made you write about this subject matter? Is there something of yourself in your main character, Suzette?
A: Definitely. I grew up in apartheid South Africa. I was born in Port Elizabeth but lived in Johannesburg from the age of six until I was nineteen when I moved to Cape Town. Growing up I spent a lot of time with the black people that worked for my mother. They were really good people, funny, generous with what little they had, and always kind to me. They shared their meals with me, as well as their stories. This was severely frowned on by the adults in my life, and I soon learned that I had to keep these friendships secret. If friendships is what they truly were. They had no rights then, and had been forced into an appalling situation where they were expected to treat any white person as their superior – their master. Even a small one like me. At that time they weren’t considered “real” people. They were mostly treated really, really badly. Beating them or killing them was fine back then. It was beyond appalling, even to my small self, and I hurt for them with every indignity or atrocity I saw inflicted on them. I saw many, many of these things.I was in Cape Town when Nelson Mandela was released – had the pleasure of shaking his hand once shortly afterwards. When the ANC was voted in I was amazed to hear most of the white people I knew suddenly come out with the “fact” that they had always been against apartheid, and had been staunch supporters of the idea of a truly democratic South Africa all along. I laughed and laughed. Apartheid held a whole nation of people hostage, made them work like dogs for pittance, with no rights to their own land at all, they were housed in small dingy rooms or given the “opportunity” to live in places considered unfit for whites. They were tortured mind, body, and soul for the betterment of their oppressors.
When I moved up to Zimbabwe in 1995 I fell in love with that place. It’s hard to describe. Everywhere you saw happy, smiling faces. People were happily employed, well fed, and received education on par with the best anywhere in the world. When Robert Mugabe came to power he promised to do something about the unequal ownership of land between black and white people. I believe that there was funding promised to help with this by the UK. I haven’t actually researched whether or not this was done. All that changed very suddenly. Land was forcefully taken from white owners by way of land invasions. “War Veterans” (most of whom must have fought as foetuses apparently) were given free reign by the government and stormed onto farms beating and killing. Farmers were lucky to escape with their lives, and lost everything. I’ve seen footage of eighty year old men and women so physically damaged from being beaten that I’ve been physically sick. People were beaten to death – both black and white people. Many, many good black men, women, and children have lost their lives purely for not following the “correct” political party. We lived out in the bush on farms, so I saw much of this first hand – lived it. Still, with all the evil going on there were always those black people who I loved – my friends, who were just people going about their lives.Racism is very much alive and well in Zimbabwe. Both from black people and from white people. The type that affected me the most was the kind where the victims couldn’t fight back, mainly due to the fact that they were poor. An incident in town once where I witnessed a white person screaming filth and abuse at a black person, who merely stood there, head bowed in shame, until the white person made a loud exit, tires squealing and engine roaring. In the embarrassed silence that followed, I realized that all of us bystanders should have stepped in. We should have said something in defence – we should have told that rotten sod to shut up. We never though. That, I think, more than anything was the inspiration for African Me & Satellite TV. I think that there’s a little bit of me in most of the characters in this book – sort of spread around, rather than only in Suzette.
A: I was never involved with politics of any sort in Zimbabwe – way too dangerous. We were simply told to get the hell out immediately or face the consequences by a very powerful black man. We all knew what the consequences would be. We chose to live rather than to fight for physical possessions, so we packed what we could fit into the car (including four birds), and drove straight out to South Africa – never looked back at the house that held all the things built up or inherited over the years.
Q: I read in one of your posts that you believe in a supreme being but are not a Christian nor do you follow any particular religion. I wondered if that has to do with having viewed so much extremism in the name of religion.
A: I have an absolute belief in God, or the Universe or whatever is that is all around – I feel it often, and things that have happened in my life have often proved His existence to me. The belief of so many strict religions that it’s their way or none gets up my nostril. My mother was brought up a Catholic, but turned away from the church when my father died when I was six. Theirs was a great love, and to have him taken from her almost destroyed her. She wore the wedding ring he put on her finger until the day she died. I wasn’t allowed to go to church, but I used to sneak into my friends – mostly for the free choccies. My mom was appalled when I got the prize for Religious Studies one year. This wasn’t because I was particularly religious though – it just fascinates me. I’ve read most of the great religious books, from the Bible to the Koran. I particularly enjoy the Hindu texts, and if I had to choose a denomination it would probably be Karma Yoga – excluding the bits that forbid onions, garlic, and a bit o’ naughty.
Q: Do you have any trepidation about the possibility that what you have written may make you a target for either cyber abuse or even physical retaliation by racial extremists?
A: Not now – I’m not afraid of those nasties, and I stand by my convictions. South Africa is a democracy so I could never get arrested for writing African Me & Satellite TV. Zimbabwe was different though – that’s a dictatorship now led by people who would be very happy to beat and imprison me for some of the things that I put in the book. I held off publishing it for fear of physical reprisal up there, and only hit the publish button the day before we left for good.
Q: You have written another book called Echoes of Narcissus in the Gardens of Delight which is in yet another genre. I believe I read that you’re planning a trilogy for your sci-fi book. Do you have plans to branch into any other genres as well? Which genre is your favourite to write?
A: I have more than seven pretty fat outlines for coming books in the Shadow People series – there’s a lot to come for those guys yet. I enjoy writing about real problems as fiction. I think that fiction is a powerful tool to make people understand what others are going through sometimes. I like writing all the genres I enjoy reading. Current WIP’s include sci-fi, fantasy, life, horror, humour, as well as my African legend twisty short stories, and planned illustrated children’s books. Love it all!
Q: The painting Suzette was working on — is there a painting you’ve seen that inspired it?
A: Actually I can see that painting only in my head, but very vividly, so at some point in the future I might have a bash at bringing it to life – although mine could never be as good as Suzette’s.
Huge “thank you” to Jo for answering what I felt were rather personal questions, and for being so generous with her time. Her work is available from Amazon and other fine book sellers.