Joanne Hichens chats to us about her memoir, and on writing.
Joanne Hichens lost first her mother, then in quick succession, her husband, her father, and her mother-in-law – two deaths anticipated, two coming as the worst kind of shock. In this memoir of grief and recovery, she writes with honesty and humour of death – our ‘constant companion’, and the stumbling journey through the country of grief. By turns searing and sparkling, her account gives compelling insight into the losses that stalk us all, while also celebrating the mainstays of life – friendship, family, and the memories of those we love and lose.
Your poignant and heart-rending memoir, Death and the After Parties, revolves around the sudden death of your husband. What motivated you to include the deaths of your mother, your father, and your mother-in-law?
After my husband died, I started to keep a ‘death’ diary. It became more and more apparent that I was working on a memoir. Although I wrote primarily about my husband’s death by fatal heart attack, I wanted to explore the other deaths in the family, and what the losses meant to me, of each of these loved people.
You write also about your childhood. How does this fit in with a grief memoir?
The memoir writer recreates ‘scenes’ that come into clear focus as the writer pieces together the past. Many of these ‘scenes’ bring childhood experiences to the fore. As a child, I feared all the time that my mother would be cruelly snatched away, that I’d have to face my life as a sort of orphan, living without her. In simple terms, how you deal with death in adulthood, is very much linked to how you deal with loss in childhood. I always feared loss, and change, and it seemed right to show the part of my childhood that influenced my later behaviour, and the way we as a family, dealt with the fall out after death.
You are blatantly honest about family issues. How will your family feel about this?
Just as one person sees a view of a room depending on where they might be situated, so it is too, with life story. My view is certain to contrast with the view of my siblings. There might possibly be many memories we agree on, but generally, it stands to reason that we’ll interpret the past differently. One of the most difficult aspects of writing memoir is probably that writers do not want to upset their family members, but if you’re going down this path, best to be open to what you discover about yourself and others. It really is an interrogation of the truth, in a sense, it’s about looking back, recreating memory, gaining insight, telling a story in your own voice, and trying to be as authentic about it as you can.
Was the writing cathartic?
In a way, but memoir writing is not therapy. Through the writing I gained clarity, and acceptance of my story, but the intention of memoir is not to support mental health (although this can be a by product). I suffered through the many rewrites, rehashing the details again and again, of my husband’s death and in particular the guilt I felt. We’d had a fight the night before he died and still hadn’t made up. As a writer, one is always looking to life to provide material. Any writing happens because the writer is deeply interested in exploring one position or another.
Is memoir then about the human condition?
What else can it be? Memoir is about our very own personal condition, and about our motivation, and behaviour. I worked as a counsellor and expressive arts practitioner at a psychiatric clinic for a number of years, and this is my driving curiosity, in real life, and as a writer of fiction and in non-fiction – what makes people, and characters, tick? And also, what makes me tick? What have I learned? We can’t escape memory. Memories jog us every day, sometimes right out of our comfort zone. Still, if I smell Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew, I think of my mother with immediate and mixed emotions. I think of my husband every time I see my children.
So what have you learned?
That writing always surprises. The ‘cascade of story’ applies equally to memoir as it does to fiction writing. Once you start, it’s surprising to see how the memories come back. It was important for me to show who I truly am, but also to take that material, to think of the reader, and to create a piece of work that can be read by others, and hopefully have some resonance.
And one piece of advice for those who’d like to write memoir?
You need a starting point. What story are you burning to tell? Be open. Be brave. Bear in mind: a fiction writer starts off with a premise, and then creates a world around that, whereas a memoirist looks at real life events, and through writing them out, finds the meaning.
Author and editor, Joanne lives in Cape Town. She runs retreats, courses and workshops with All About Writing.
Joanne has edited numerous short story anthologies, including Bad Company, The Bed Book of Short Stories, Hair: Weaving and Unpicking Stories of Identity, Bloody Satisfied, the award-winning Adults Only, Incredible Journey, Die Laughing and Trade Secrets. Her crime novels are Out to Score (co-written), Divine Justice (soon to be published in the United States), and Sweet Paradise. Her YA novels, Stained and Riding the Wave, were both shortlisted for the Sanlam Literature Award.
“In Death and the After Parties I write about the passing of my mother, husband, father and mother-in-law, and examine everything that happened after their deaths – the emotional frenzy, the funerals, the family strife, the fighting, the loving. I describe first-hand the shock, the grief, the mourning, the betrayals, ultimately focusing on recovering from loss.”
“If you have loved, lost or grieved this memoir will resonate deeply. As Joanne searches for a new place in her changed world, she reminds us that especially in our darkest moments we need to embrace our vulnerability in order to find strength and courage.”
– Tracy Going, best-selling author of Brutal Legacy
“This compelling, gritty, surprisingly funny memoir, is exactly what we need to read in these grim times.”
– Helen Moffett, best-selling author of Charlotte