Interview with Joanne Hitchens author of Stained

Stained

1. Before it was developed for the Cutting Edge series, Stained was shortlisted for the Sanlam Youth Literature Award in 2005. Is there much difference between the Cutting Edge version and the original text? How did you rework the book to fit into this series?

Actually, I had worked on Stained since the short-listing. I wanted it to be a longer novel, but the word count for Cutting Edge was limited so I went back to the original text and worked with that. I was happy to do this, as the Cutting Edge project sounded exciting and I wanted to be part of it. I was very pleased that Cutting Edge, and specifically editor Peter Lancett, more or less liked Stained the way it was. I did, however, rewrite the sections now titled ‘from the diary of Crystal September’ from third person into first person, as the Cutting Edge brief was to publish stories written from the first person perspective. As a writer too, I’ve learned not to be too precious about the work – Stained is one of the first full-length pieces I wrote and I tried not be too concerned about making changes and letting it go.

2. Coming from Cape Town yourself, did you draw on any of your own experiences of growing up there when you were writing Stained?

Cape Town is an interesting City to live in. Parts of Cape Town are extremely affluent and luxurious. Suburbs exist with large mansions, complete with housekeepers and gardeners, while a stones throw across the railway line lie the Cape Flats. This is, for the most, a sprawling and very poor area where many families live in cramped council housing, or wooden shacks. Living in Cape Town, I’ve always been aware of this ‘shadow’ side of the city, and I think this influences all of my writing. I am interested in writing about characters who live on the edges of life, the people who are often dismissed or forgotten, people who’ve suffered, and I’m interested in the reasons for their suffering.
My own childhood was relatively privileged, although I did go through the turmoil that affects most teenagers. I was rather boy crazy, so can understand the hormones that influence the behaviour of teens, and I understand too, the need for acceptance that alot of teens feel, and want, from the opposite sex – especially if they are confused themselves about their own identity.

3. Obviously the South African setting is quite important to your book, but how well do you think teenagers from other countries will be able to relate to your story and characters?

The setting is unique to the Western Cape in South Africa, but there is council-type housing in many parts of the world, especially developing countries, where poverty is rife. In my opinion, poverty, linked to the frustration that many people feel as they try to eke out a living and do the best for their families, is a recipe for anger which can result in abuse. And abuse is something that many young people may have to endure – which brings me to the question, how do young people protect themselves in a modern world?
The confusion and angst that my characters feel – Grace the more stable teenager, and Crystal and Shardonnay, the wild sisters who live next door – is universal. As is the need for acceptance, as is the risk of absue that they face, either from older men or their peers who are themselves experimenting sexually. There are risks too, of sexually transmitted diseases, including the very real risk of contracting HIV. I hope that young women might relate to the characters in some way, and learn that they can make good choices for themsleves – although it can be difficult. And I hope too that this book will be read by young men, and that they might learn something from it – to take responisbility for their part in a sexual relationship, which also means to understand the consequences: teenage pregnancy is a problem worldwide, and Britain especially has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy.
And then of course I have made reference to televison and programmes like Pop idols, and materialism and wanting more, showing, I hope, that there is more to life. So I hope teens will respond to this book on many levels.

4. You also spent some time working in a psychiatric clinic, how much of your story is influenced by cases that you saw whilst you were working there?

I worked with adolescents for a number of years, and realised how vulnerable they are – how easily influenced, how needy, and how easy it is to get into (and addicted to) drugs and alcohol, which, if abused, lead to very risky behaviour. I learned too that the media is a great influence on young people and they often want a lifestyle, or a body, which is ‘advertised’ in the pages of magazines, or on TV. I’d like to encourage young people to celebrate their individuality and uniqueness – of body and mind – instead of looking to external factors to make themselves feel better. In many cases this is sex, or even pregnancy. I always like to consider the underlying needs of my characters, which in the case of the young people in Stained, is the need for acceptance, a need to ‘fit in with a crowd’ – which leads to Grace, for instance, making compromises about who she is instead of accepting who she is.

5. Would you agree that teenage pregnancy is the central theme in your book, and were there any other issues you wanted to draw attention to?

Yes, I would completely agree. The reason some teens fall pregnant is that they want to fill a ‘gap’ or a ‘void’ in their lives. They feel an emptiness in their lives and try to fill that ‘space’ with boys, sex or drugs – anything to create the illusion that life is bearable. If young women and girls tiurn ot sex to distract themselves from the ‘emptiness’ , this can so easily extend to pregnancy. In many case preganancy is accidental, but in some cases girls want to become preganant. They feel a baby will be someone to love, and that the baby will love them back! Then the reality sets in, after birth, that raising a child is a full-time job which takes comitment and patience – a baby, unlike a cell phone, can’t be switched off! Dealing with a young baby can be very frustrating.
I wanted also to adress the issue of abuse. In South Africa we have extremely high levels of violence against children, including rape and murder, which is sadly often perpetrated by an acquantance or a family member. In order to face this, we have to expose this sort of abuse, and what better way than to engage readers with the issues? We can’t shield our children from the realities out there.
Another issue I wanted to address was parenting . Sometimes as teens we think our parents are too strict and stifling and that they don’t give us enough freedom. Good parenting is about creating boundaries, even for teens who believe the world belongs to them. Sometime teenagers only understand the value of proper parenting when they are older and can appreciate the effort it takes a parent to ‘hang in there’ through the difficulties – to be a support as well as to provide an example.

6. Stained is one of the few fiction books that I have read that deals with postnatal depression. It is a condition that affects a lot people but it is rarely discussed in the public sphere. Were you aware of this, and do you think it is an important issue for teenagers to be educated about?

I think that most teenagers have a skewed view of pregnancy. Most women, in fact, are brought up to expect pregnancy to be this wholesome time where you glow with health. In fact, pregnancy and birth are probably one of the most life-changing experiences a girl or woman can go though, and the reality of it is that a new mother may well suffer from depression after the birth, or have feelings of loneliness or isolation. It’s difficult for women to admit this, as most people consider the arrival of a new baby to be a time of great joy. The reality is, that the first few days and weeks of taking care of a new baby can be overwhelming – not only do you have to adjust to the new life, but your body goes through various changes too. And the baby makes demands if you are breast-feeding! If feelings of anxiety and helplessness take a new mom by surprise, it can have devastating effects.
I feel there should be much more education on the consequences of pregnancy – which is a child for life! And a child who may have colic, who doesn’t sleep, grows up to be willful and stubborn as he or she turns into a toddler – this is all taxing on a new mom. Although wanting a child is instinctual, and with menstruation, many girls may feel the urge to have a baby, there are so many responsibilities that go with parenthood. Pregnancy is not something that should happen without a good deal of preparation and understanding of what it is like to look after a child.

7. A lot of teenage fiction attempts to discuss these kinds of issues but often skirts around them or doesn’t fully engage with them. When you were writing Stained were you consciously trying to avoid this and remain honest and realistic about and the issues you were writing about?

Yes. Absolutely. A publisher here, interested in publishing Stained, wanted me to cut back on the sex and the violence, but I felt what would the point be if I toned it down? In my experience, and even just from reading the daily newpapers, this is the kind of tragedy that is happening in real life (I have just read a report about the abuse of a nine-year-old girl who is now pregnant!) so I wanted to be truthful and reflect a certain reality. There is no point denying that many young women, and girls, are not only sexually active, but are pushing prams about! Unfortunately, abuse of young women and girls is a major problem in South Africa, and I didn’t want to skirt about the issue. I wanted to be truthful and honest, and in this way initiate exactly this sort of discussion!

8. One of the things I found most striking whilst reading Stained was the narrative voice of Grace. It is overwhelmingly genuine, how did you manage to find and capture this voice of confusion and teenage angst that so many of your readers will connect with?

I placed myself in Grace’s character when writing the story. I tried to wite as if I was myself a rebellious teenager, in that position of wanting a more exciting life. Grace wants more ‘kicks’, but at the same time is afraid of the sort of chaos she sees unfolding next door. She is very much an observer, and I think this comes through in the tone of the writing. Grace is a well-brought up girl, her adoptive mother has tried her best to love Grace, albeit in her own way, but Grace has issues with her adoption and issues with what she believes is her ‘boring’ life. I have teenage daughters too, so I can see how difficult this stage of life is. Girls want to explore, they want to experiemnt, but it is such a dangerous world out there, young people have to be educated about the pitfalls. Part of a parents ‘job’ is to try to potect teenagers. But how does a parent do this without going overboard? A diificult job indeed! And as I said earlier, I can still remember the angst of being a teenager. I did some stupid things, but came through it alive! There is actually less opportunity to experiment these days than there was when I was a teenager – with AIDS, abuse, and murder as part of our wolrd, young girls and women have to really learn to respect themselves and to keep the bigger picture in mind – of a healthy life.

9. Finally, the tragedy that unfolds in your book is a stark wake-up call to readers. Were you always working towards this outcome, or was there any point where you considered taking the story along a different route?

The first scene I had in mind as I started writing was the killing of a baby by his teenage mother. I wanted this mother to be so damaged that this was the only course of action to her. I had thought of writing Stained as a crime novel, so I’m sure this influenced my choices as i went along. I did however, manage to save the baby in the end. In retrospect, maybe the suicide is too much, but I think I wanted the novella to be stark. Not too many happy endings. Especially for the September family. I wanted to show the utter devestation that absue can cause. Yet Grace learns something, doesn’t she? She learns she wants to look after herself, and that her mother loves her.

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  1. Pingback: teen librarian » Blog Archive » Interview with Joanne Hichens … | centralafrican

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