Interview with South African novelist and playwright Jane Taylor

About a year ago, I sat down with South African novelist, playwright, and puppeteer Jane Taylor to talk with her about her works, the difference between South Africa and the U.S., what it means to write imaginatively, and the body of knowledge that connects us as human beings. While I realize that the content is “old,” I found it a fascinating interview to both conduct and subsequently re-discover months later. It’s quite lengthy, so I have broken it up into 3 parts. Check back tomorrow for installment #2.

LV = Literary Vittles

Jane = Jane Taylor

LV: I thought I’d start out by pointing out that you’ve achieved success through multiple avenues at this point in your career. You’re a playwright, a novelist, and you work with the Handspring Puppet Company. For undergraduates who are hoping to pursue a career in literature or the arts, it’s quite intimidating to look at your curriculum vitae and try to figure out where you got started. So if you might talk about your undergraduate days, or how you first got interested in literature and the arts.

Jane: I suspect that part of this is a kind of gift that is unfair for me to not acknowledge in this context. I think it’s largely because I come from a small country [South Africa]. Everyone expects to know everybody in the arts, so there are no big thresholds. People in literature are not remote and separate from the people in performance cultures. There’s something very distinctive about being in a community of a particular scale, where you have an anticipation that you will actually know everybody. If you’re working on a project, you just draw everyone in to collaborate with you. But I do think that a lot of it is from working in the spirit of collaboration and believing that in a crisis like South Africa was in, you have to draw on the best minds in the country and work together. So perhaps the fact that one is in a perpetual crisis now in late capitalism is not altogether a bad thing, because I think people have a higher degree of commitment to each other as artists and thinkers. I think everybody understands that there is so much at stake, and that we’re all in this together rather than competing with one another.

LV: You just mentioned the link between literature, the arts, and capitalism. How do you see that operating?

Jane: I think it’s enormously complex. I think it’s particularly difficult to imagine that one can change the way that money relates to the arts, but I’ve always been in the fortunate circumstance in that I’ve been able to generate something of an income through scholarship, and then I do my work in the arts in some ways on the side. It’s particularly useful if you can find a way of getting yourself a scholarly position in the arts (laughs). These days, in spite of the historical legacy that research was completely separate from and distinct from creativity, there’s been a great deal of creative activism and intellectual activism to try and compel the university to understand that artists inside the university need to have their creative work recognized as research, otherwise they just can’t carry the burden of the teaching and the research and the creative work. I think in some ways these are good times to be artists inside the academy, because the academy is recognizing creative work.

LV: That obviously plays into your career, where you’re working with various universities, and also promoting artistry as a part of that. It’s dual. But you spoke about the collaboration in the artistic field, and how in a small country, you felt as though everyone knew about the arts. Is that what sparked your interest from a young age, that you felt as though there was this artistic community that you were always a part of?

Jane: I grew up in a fairly small rural community. I grew up on a duck and flower farm; the arts wasn’t part of my upbringing. But at a certain stage I became aware of the fact that there were idioms and languages out there. I decided quite young, about 10 years of age, that I wanted to be a performer. I studied performance, and then the moment I got into the university context and discovered myself onstage, I just hated it! (laughs) Every time I used to perform I used to long for the theatre to burn down. I far prefer being myself onstage. I love lecturing. For some reason I have a resistance to surrendering myself. It’s probably just egotism.

LV: That’s funny because you’ve written plays at this point, so you want others to perform the work but you don’t want to! There’s a big difference.

Jane: Yes, there is a big difference. I so admire performers who can let themselves go and allow themselves to become a medium or a vehicle for someone else. But I surrender authority too uneasily. I love the collaborative play. I love being in the space where I’m watching gifted performers work with and try and interpret materials. I’d much rather watch them do it than try to be doing it myself.

LV: In terms of your work with Handspring Puppet Company, how did that come about?

Jane: I had seen one or two productions that they had done and admired the work enormously. In 1996 when South Africa was beginning its Truth and Reconciliation process, I set up a program called Fault Lines which was to draw the arts into exploring questions of memory, sadism and masochism, care, and narrative. I thought that artists had been doing that all along—that is the work of artists. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a legal and political process. It hadn’t really imagined the role that the arts would play. So I set up an initiative to draw on all of my friends in the arts to take on the question and to explore it in their own media. One of the things I did was approach William Kentridge, who was working very closely with Handspring. I suggested to him that we put together a play.

LV: And that was Ubu and the Truth Commission?

Jane: Yes, that was Ubu. Initially, it wasn’t my intention to write it. My intention was to put the project together. We found ourselves in a workshop situation with a whole group of people ready to run with it, and we didn’t have a writer resolved yet. In the end I ended up writing it sort of by default.

LV: Yes, I remember in your introduction to the play you talked about it being very much the result of a collaborative process, as opposed to a work that you wrote on your own and then applied it, if that makes sense.

JT: No, it absolutely does. One of the things that’s so uncanny about working with puppets is that it’s only really once a puppet has tried to do something that one becomes aware of what a puppet can do or can’t do or what it means to watch a puppet do something. It will have particular strange quirks that you can’t anticipate. It will be able to hold certain kinds of weight; it will be able to do things on one leg. There are all sorts of things that are in the body of the puppet. The puppet actually has to be there performing before you can script the event for the puppet. You can certainly script language for the puppet. But the event you can’t script for the puppet. And the puppet brings so much to the performance. I suspect that part of what you learn in that process is that we don’t trust actors enough. Actors are the very best puppets imaginable in that they are limitless! I think that we try too much to decide beforehand what’s going to happen in a scene or in an event. If we relaxed more and allowed the actor more interpretive space, you would find that a lot of the writing actually has to happen in a dialogue with the puppet, whether the puppet be made of wood or made of flesh. One of the things that I really got excited by was trying to understand what I was being given from the performance, and then learning to be slower about the writing, and let the writing be in some ways a kind of dialogue with the event rather than have the writing finished beforehand.

LV: How has that sort of process fit into your other work? For example, your novels. Did you go through any sort of similar process?

Jane: That’s so interesting! I suspect I love novel writing because I can do it on my own. (laughs) There’s something quite calming about not being responsible to anyone else. I love the fiction writing because I don’t have to do footnoting, and I don’t have to always be conscious of what is my responsibility to the truth or the fact here. Not that I’m necessarily wanting to lie, but that one just doesn’t have the same kind of obligation to always be attending to a tradition of scholarship and a tradition of ideas. One can think more independently. I also love the big scholarly work. I love doing the historical inquiry where they have been 45 scholars there before me and trying to understand what each of them is saying about an event. But something else can happen when I can just go into a space and think about, “What would I make with this material?” I think moving between those things liberates me in different directions.

LV: If I’m allowed to say, I would say that’s what The Transplant Men is. It’s very much a reflection of the scholarship that’s been done, and then you used that and created a fictional piece.

Jane: Well that’s so nice that it feels that way, because that was the bliss of the experience for me—exploring to see what the big strange events had meant. And also inventing some characters and putting them inside that event to see what they do when you take a wrecking ball to history. (laughs)

For more information about Jane Taylor, visit And don’t forget to check back tomorrow for part 2 of the interview!


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