They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and the experience of writer Lisa Fugard seems to prove the adage. Fugard, daughter of the great South African playwright Athol Fugard, has just published a remarkably accomplished first novel about a deeply troubled white family living on a remote farm along the increasingly dangerous South African border with Botswana at the end of the apartheid era. In its unsparing but empathetic portrayal of its characters, both blacks and whites, and in its sensitivity to the complicated loyalties that divide and unite South African society, Skinner’s Drift is sure to be likened to some of the better-known works of Fugard’s father.
"My mother [novelist Sheilah Fugard] is also a writer," Fugard reminds us during a call to her home in southern California. Fugard and her husband have lived in California since early 2002. They and their two-year-old son now divide their time between the desert community of Borrego Springs and Encinitas, on the coast north of San Diego, not far from where her parents now live. "It had been a long time since I had lived near my parents," Fugard, an only child, says, "and I just found myself wanting to do that, particularly now that I have a child."
Fugard moved from South Africa to New York in 1980 to study acting. " I was a good actress," she says, "but I never thought I was a really fine actress. It didn’t feel like the most natural thing for me to be doing." She adds, "I was always terribly insecure because I felt when I was working in the theater that I had entered my father’s domain. But something happened when I started to write fiction. I just felt I had something to say and it had nothing to do with him, so his shadow didn’t dog me into my writing life. Maybe it was because I waited to start writing until I was in my 30s and was more secure within myself."
Fugard says witnessing her father’s extraordinary dedication to his craft and her mother’s persistence "even when there was no fuss about her work," made it clear to her that "writing was a good, important thing to do with one’s life if that’s what you felt compelled to do. Because I had parents who were writers, I never doubted the validity of life as a writer. And that was hugely beneficial to me."
According to Fugard, the seed for Skinner’s Drift was planted when she read an article in a local newspaper about white farmers poaching in the Limpopo Valley while she was back in South Africa on assignment for Outside magazine. "For some reason," she says, "the article seized me. They’d found all these hyena carcasses in the Limpopo riverbed, and it just seemed so brutal and savage that I asked myself if somebody shoots all these animals, what else do they shoot. And that just sent me off."
A visit to a whites-only community in the heartland of South Africa where she interviewed an ostrich farmer furthered her conception of the novel’s most haunting and haunted character, Martin van Rensberg. That ostrich farmer – his name was Freddy – had the most amazing blue eyes, and a terrible stutter. He spoke with such passion and with such love for his land, and seconds later the most awful racial slurs were coming from his mouth. It was just so shocking. I thought, how can somebody have such love, such intense passion and generosity of spirit for his land and yet feel exactly the opposite toward so many of the people of the land?"
If Martin van Rensberg is the novel’s dark propulsive inspiration, then Ezekial, van Rensberg’s African hired hand, is the moral center of Skinner’s Drift. Struggling to maintain balance, to protect both van Rensberg’s daughter Eva and his own family as van Rensberg spins out of control in one direction and young black farmworkers spin out of control in another, Ezekial (whose African name is Lefu) offers a portrait of dignity, reason and hope.
"Ezekial’s voice came first," Fugard says, "and his was the first chapter I wrote." Challenged at a writing workshop by a black writer who did not believe the character, however, Fugard went back and rethought her manuscript. "All the black characters have an African name and a white name. When I would sit down to work on this chapter, I always thought of my character as Ezekial. The turning point for me came when I started thinking about him as Lefu. I felt I had acknowledged the complexity and dignity of his life, and that opened a door for me."
The plot’s powerful central triangle is completed by Eva van Rensburg, Martin’s only child. Her reluctant return to South Africa to visit her dying father after 10 years in the U.S. launches a painful familial search for truth and forgiveness that mirrors the pain and tumult of the national Truth And Reconciliation effort South Africa underwent in the late 1990s.
"Eva was the hardest to write," Fugard says. "As a writer, I like to have a lot of distance from my characters. Because she is close to my age, curiously enough, she was the hardest. Particularly in the last chapter, where she has to face what she’s done and how complicit she is – it was so hard to write that at one point I had to change her name from Eva to Evan. I had to make her a male character, because I felt otherwise I was writing about myself. Then, with the computer, I just changed all the Evans back to Eva. And I found that I had reached something authentic, that I had reached some kind of truth that I just couldn’t have reached when her name was Eva."
Of course the struggles and changes Fugard went through in her manuscript won’t be visible to readers of the completed work. The authenticity and insight of Skinner’s Drift, however, will be obvious.
Alden Mudge is a juror for the California Book Awards.