The hidden secrets of writing with Jo-Anne Richards

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

This is an extract from Jo-Anne’s first book, The Innocence of Roast Chicken.  Much of the coming-of-age novel is devoted to the narrator’s life on her grandparents’ chicken farm in the East Cape. and today we dig into the hidden secrets of writing.

This is a pivotal scene in which the narrator’s innocence is forever shattered. On Christmas day, her grandmother serves her the chicken, roasted and stuffed, that earlier she’d chosen as a pet. For Ouma, the chicken is fungible – one of thousands that the farm rears each year for sale and slaughter. For Kate, the chicken was an individual, one she’d chosen, one she’d invested emotions in.

The book, published in the late 1990s, shifts between life on the farm, and Kate’s life in Johannesburg during the turbulence as the country prepares for a democratic future. Innocence captured the spirit of the times – and became a best seller.

Here’s the extract Jo-Anne herself has chosen, with my comments below it:

We scrambled and scraped down the tree to join the family on the lawn. As they did every year, William and Petrus had brought their younger children round to the front lawn before lunch. Looking clean and uncomfortably proud in their starched new outfits, they posed with us for Christmas photographs. I have such a clear picture of us, as we must have looked.

Six young children from the Eastern Cape, from the same farm, who hardly knew each other – two of us white, four black. All of us barefoot. Against the swaying splash of Ouma’s bright flowers we stood smiling together, the black children stiff in their Christmas clothes. One small black girl clutched a Christmas toy, an unbending trading-store doll, its hair and clothing painted, its skin white. We, Michael and I, held a shiny silver bicycle bell and a huge, beautiful doll with ‘real’ hair and closing eyes and baby clothes.

We were happy then, when the photographs were taken and the children trailed after their fathers back to the huts. How could we have been so happy? How could I not have seen how God had used me? How He’d tantalized and taunted me with Christmas as it should be, as it had always been?

It was time for lunch. Time for pulling crackers and wearing silly hats – which Michael and I wore around our skinny necks and my dad had to tear slightly to fit over his wide forehead. Time to swap cracker rings for small clown games, and for me to beg for dolls’ rattles.

For Michael to argue over who would pull the wishbone. ‘Ta-ra,’ called my dad, making a big thing of Dora’s giggling entrance with the two enormous chickens.

And then Ouma appeared, smiling from the kitchen, with a plate.

‘This is specially for you, Kati,’ she said, pride in her surprise leaking from her every gesture.

‘What, Ouma?’

I could see though. My mouth had turned bitter. But it couldn’t be! Surely she couldn’t have done that. I think that’s when I realized that the day was going to go wrong. From here, from this moment, when things weren’t as they should be, till . . . till the things that happened later.

‘It’s your little chicken, your very own Christmas chicken.’ She placed the small-boned meat in front of me, hunched and brown now with cooking. There was no sign of the lively feathered creature who’d strutted its white body through the hok the day before.

‘It’s the chicken, my lief. The one you chose, remember?’

‘I can’t . . . I can’t eat it.’

I choked on the saliva which was filling my mouth, and the table blurred.

My magtig, now what’s wrong? It’s just a chicken.’

‘Her name is Sheba. She’s not just a chicken. Stop calling her a chicken.’

Darkness took me from behind then, sliding in on both sides of my head. I could hear Ouma’s voice somewhere far away.

O my magtig. But this is a pieperige child. She gave the chicken a name. On a chicken farm, where we eat chickens every day. It’s just lucky she wasn’t born on a farm. All right, take it away, Michael . . .’

‘I’ll eat it, Ouma . . .’

‘No you will not, Michael. Don’t cause more trouble than you can help. Give it to Dora. Tell her she can eat it.’

The helpless darkness receded as I stared at my empty Christmas place, littered with cracker debris. All that was left was that burning – the burning which couldn’t be blinked or swallowed away.


What strikes me at once about the scene is the adroit way in which Jo-Anne has structured it, in order to make the most of what is, after all, a shocking revelation.

She begins with reflections by the adult narrator about her younger self, within the context of a group of children gathered on the lawn on that Christmas morning, clutching their Christmas presents. Interestingly, by contrasting the specific presents she and her brother hold, with the present at least one of the African children holds, we’re at least given a glimpse of the disparities and inequities of the time.

And yet the children are happy… Or are they? In the paragraph beginning, “We were happy then…” the narrator laments the fact that she’d been fooled. So we know at once that something awful lies in wait.

But Jo-Anne ratchets up the suspense by keeping us waiting.  She returns to the Christmas table, to the pulling of crackers, the wearing of silly hats, and an argument over who was going to pull the wishbone. Two large roast chickens are brought to the table.

And then Ouma delivers her chicken to Kate who instantly recognizes it, by its size. This is not just a chicken, it is “Sheba”. The contrast between Ouma’s cheerful “This is specially for you, Kati,” and Kate’s response could not be more marked.

Jo-Anne allows her character’s brother to make a mischievousness remark: “I’ll eat it Ouma…” which is, in context, quite funny.

To an adult – and indeed, to Kate’s brother – the chicken is just a chicken. But Jo-Anne succeeds, through her close attachment to her character, in persuading the reader that the death of Sheba signals precisely that loss of innocence that lies at the heart of the book.

Writing Tips

  1. It’s possible to alternate between the adult narrator’s voice, and the child’s – as long as, when you’re immersed in the consciousness of the child, you record events and feelings from the child’s perspective alone.
  2. By subtly foreshadowing events, you can raise the stakes and the sense of anticipation and suspense. Give away too much, however, and you bleed the climax of its impact.
  3. Humour is never very far from tragedy. You can increase the sense of tragedy by contrasting it with an edge of humour.


Just before lockdown, The Innocence of Roast Chicken was chosen to be republished as part of Pan Macmillan’s prestigious Picador Africa Heritage Collection – with a new essay gracing the beginning. Her debut novel sold 27 000 copies when it was first published in London, some twenty years ago. It was nominated for prestigious international awards and chosen as an “outstanding debut” by a UK chain of bookstores.. 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.


Read our previous Hidden Secrets of Writing blogs

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