Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

"Nothing like This Can Be Your Fault at Your Age" - Trauma-Narrative and the Politics of Self-Accusation in the Innocence of Roast Chicken1

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

"Nothing like This Can Be Your Fault at Your Age" - Trauma-Narrative and the Politics of Self-Accusation in the Innocence of Roast Chicken1

Article excerpt

As Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy suggests, "late twentiethcentury culture appears to have a fascination for traumatic memory."2 In the South African context, this 'fascination' can be traced (at least in part) to the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC),3 conducted from 1996 to 1998, which gave victims of human rights violation a forum to tell of their traumatic experiences - and perpetrators of politically motivated acts of violence a chance to seek amnesty in exchange for revealing 'the full truth' about their actions.4 In these hearings, only very few women were among those confessing human-rights violations; according to Jacqueline Rose, "of the 7,128 applications for amnesty received by the Commission only fifty-six were known to come from women," and as Georgina Horrell points out, none of them came from white English-speaking women.5 Despite this apparent lack of guilt (perceived or real), Horrell points to a proliferation of "guilty, confessional writing by white, English-speaking women" that use children as focalizers and which "narrate white southern African stories from a profoundly personal angle."6 The novel I want to focus on in this essay, Jo-Anne Richards' s The Innocence of Roast Chicken, is a case in point - published in 1996, hence written before the TRC hearings began, it is the earliest often such novels Horrell lists.7

The Innocence of Roast Chicken is a novel about growing up and the loss of innocence this implies, but, more importantly in our present context, it is about a traumatic childhood experience and the narrator's attempt to confront her 'demons' through narrative. Most of the novel is divided into two distinct story-lines, presented in alternating chapters set in 1966 and 1989 respectively,8 and all of it is narrated by the protagonist, Kate. These two narrative strands are framed by two untitled and undated chapters, the opening chapter giving a general introduction to the narrative strand set in 1966, the final chapter summarizing what happened after the traumatic events on Christmas Day 1966.

In 1989, Kate and her husband Joe are living in Johannesburg. Joe, a lawyer representing a trade union in a strike, is excited about the climate of political change: namely, the release of political prisoners and the beginning of negotiations between the white government and black leaders. Kate (who works as a librarian) is full of cynicism, taunting her husband for his naivety and idealism. She presents herself as "a damaged half-person" (248), and it transpires that the key to her problems lies in her traumatic Christmas holiday of 1966. Joe is growing increasingly frustrated with their relationship, but Kate ridicules all his attempts at helping her overcome her trauma. Between October and December 1989 their positions begin to change when Joe loses his optimism as the strike turns increasingly violent, and Kate finds that she needs Joe's idealism and hope. She finally agrees to tell Joe about her childhood, thereby initiating the narrative strand set in 1966.

In this story-line Kate remembers spending the Christmas vacation on her grandparents' farm in the Eastern Cape region in 1966, when she was eight years old. The child is anxious that these holidays should be as idyllic as previous visits to the farm, but changes and accidents threaten her routines of happiness. Kate feels responsible for a harmonious Christmas and is beset by guilt when things go wrong. Festivity turns to catastrophe when on the neighbouring farm one of the workers rapes the farmer's mother. Secretly watched by Kate and her brother, their father half-heartedly joins the commando pursuing the black man; on their return, he does not interfere when the farmers force the culprit to castrate himself before they hand him over to the police. The traumatic experience of witnessing both this violence and her father's complicity is presented as the central aspect of Kate's trauma.

The short synopsis has already made clear that Kate is neither victim nor perpetrator of an act of extreme cruelty and violence, rather, she is traumatized by witnessing such an event. …

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