The hidden secrets of writing with Jo-Anne Richards

 In The secrets behind the practice of good writing, Tips for Writers

Today we’re celebrating the reprinting of  My Brother’s Book (Picador Africa) which has just gone into a new print run, fifteen years after it first appeared in 2008.

My Brother’s Book  is Jo-Anne Richards’ fourth novel. It begins memorably:

‘I was born on page 23 of my brother’s book. On page 52, before the whole world, I betrayed him.

Here’s an extract she’s chosen from early in the story, narrated here by Lily.

Willem was at the workshop when we got there. It was packed again. I squeezed between the ladies, who were all fanning themselves or patting their cheeks with tissues.

I found Rodney somewhere in the middle. I never knew what to say to Rodney, so I jabbed him in the side with my elbow. He lammied me back so hard I nearly died.  I’d have a bruise on that arm for a week.

Pop was going on about them being like Job. The suffering of the coloured and African people, especially now with this drought, was like the trials of Job. And as he spoke of Job’s pustular boils and other disgusting tribulations, the ladies moaned and swayed in time to his words.

Veronica gave directions from her chair, flapping her arms till a young girl found a stool for Pop to stand on. Pop shook his head, but Veronica frowned so strictly and pointed so fiercely that Pop chuckled a bit over Job’s troubles, and stepped up.

When Pop got to the part where God feels a bit sorry and gives poor old Job twice as much as before, the ladies yelled out amens and hallelujahs. Heaving through the crowd at the door, a bosomy lady pushed right in between Rodney and me. A curler peeked from under her doek.

“Hallelujah.” Lifting her arms, she filled our space with sweat and baby powder. “God will reward us for our suffering. Amen.”

“After this lived Job an hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons’ even four generations,” Pop chanted. The lady next to us lifted her face and closed her eyes, as though she could just imagine being a hundred and forty and seeing her sons’ sons’ sons.

“So Job died, being old and full of days.”

All the ladies, and even some of the men broke into clapping. And then the pushing began. Everyone wanted to touch my Pop. Everyone wanted his hands on them. I wondered how he liked having his hands pulled down onto so many bosoms, each one quivering or heaving up and down.

The woman who had pushed in next to us fought her way to the front. She pulled Pop’s hand to her chest. I was so proud of my Pop, the way he listened to her troubles. He bent to hear her better, even though she ponged a bit.

I looked around for Tom and thought I caught sight of him pushing to the door with Vivian. I watched them because it made me feel a bit funny, the way he looked at her. Rodney didn’t like it either. He crossed his arms and flared his nose like a horse.

Tom and Vivian stopped at the entrance where the doubting Thomases hung around and muttered to themselves. Ha, that was a good one. I’d call Tom that next time, see how he liked that.

I looked back at Pop in time to see the woman’s back go stiff and before Pop could even try to grab her, she fell into the sawdust like a bulk bag of mealie-meal.

“Sweet Jesus,” he muttered, and dropped to his knees. Everyone pushed forward so I had to bend right over and squeeze between their legs. Pop didn’t seem to know what to do. He patted her cheek and lucky for him, her eyes fluttered open.

“Thank the Lord.” Pop mopped his face with his hankie.

“Hallelujah,” the woman shouted, in quite a strong voice for someone who’d just hit the floor. She struggled to her feet. “Hallelujah, I am healed. I am better. Praise the Lord. Preis die Here.

“Thank you Master Bert. Thank you.” She grabbed Pop’s face between her hands and smacked a kiss on his forehead. Pop looked completely nonplussed. “Thank you oh Lord for sending Master Bert among us.”

When things had calmed, the ladies shifted around a bit and made room for the men. There was a murmuring like the workshop was a hive full of bees – not angry bees exactly. But not drowsy bees either. Perhaps like a swarm setting off in search of honey.

I heard a lady tell her friend that the dominee had forbidden them to come to these meetings. “But magtig, now I think I’ll just come and not tell him.”


It’s the job of any scene to reveal aspects of the protagonist’s character, and to take the story forward.

In weighing this scene, I’ll show how Jo-Anne has, in a quite subtle way, achieved both those objectives.

Let’s consider first what the scene is about: It shows the protagonist’s father, Pop, holding a revivalist meeting of some sort. On the face of it, the scene simply shows his charismatic skills, his intimate knowledge of the Bible, and what appears to be his healing powers.

The scene is described by Lily, a girl of ten or twelve, who takes things at face value. Although elsewhere in the book, we’re aware of the adult Lily reflecting on her childhood experiences, in this particular scene the adult consciousness is nowhere in evidence. Lily, we realise, is not yet aware that Pop is a charlatan.

We become aware, however, that while Pop appears to be in charge of the meeting, he is, in fact, the captive of his congregation’s expectations. When the large “bosomy lady” collapses, Pop becomes alarmed. Her almost instant revival comes as a relief to him. It’s clear that he is in fact being played, in some sense, by the woman.  Significantly, Lily is not conscious of this power dynamic.

How does Jo-Anne communicate these layers of meaning? She presents us with the evidence as witnessed by Lily, but she very carefully avoids having Lily draw the obvious inferences; she leaves us to analyse the transaction and draw our own conclusions.

The revelations about the character of both Pop and Lily are important – but the scene also clearly lays the groundwork for Pop’s later flight from the increasing demands of his followers.

Writing Tips

  1. Accurate and specific details are the best possible way of creating a credible scene. This passage abounds with them, from “A curler peeked under her doek”, to all those quivering bosoms, the sawdust on the ground, the odour of “sweat and baby powder”. Note also the fact that Jo-Anne yokes more than one sense into service.
  2. If you’re writing from a child’s perspective, take great care to restrict yourself to the child’s vocabulary, using slang and idioms (“lammie”, “she ponged a bit”, etc) appropriate to a child.
  3. By avoiding drawing conclusions for the reader, you can encourage her active engagement with your story. Jo-Anne deliberately avoids telling us what Lily later learned about her father’s “ministry” – and so allows us to discern the clues she cunningly provides.

Jo-Anne Richards has written a poignant and evocative tale of the ways in which seemingly minute choices can destroy lives and relationships. ‘My Brother’s Book’ explores the most intimate aspects of betrayal and deception set against the backdrop of a nation striving to understand the consequences of its terrible and traumatic past. ‘My Brother’s Book’ is both tragic and intensely hopeful as it charts its characters’ paths from guilt and betrayal to atonement and redemption. Buy it here.

If you want to take some time for yourself to write and learn some writing skills from Jo-Anne herself, join us for our Venice Writing Retreat.


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