I interviewed Jani Allan on the Good Books Appreciation Society (GBAS)* about her new book, Jani Confidential. It was an asynchronous interview: I posted some questions and she answered a few days later.
Me: Your memoir opens with a paragraph about your mother. ‘My moon is in Capricorn. Astrologers will tell you that this signifies a plate-glass cold maternal figure, distant and given to withholding praise and affection.
So it was with Janet Sophia.’
She is clearly at the centre of your identity. You say later that she never adored you in the way you ‘wanted to be adored’. This taught you how to survive – but if she had adored you more, might you have desired adoration less?
JA: OK. Firstly I apologise for not making the live chat. I am going to answer Lisa’s thoughtful questions now – late Thursday afternoon on the East Coast (or the right coast as Bill Maher calls it.) Question 1. My mother never adored me….I think when one is young one wishes to be adored. In the teenage years one continues to want to be adored. When one is more grown-up one is keen on validation, respect and reassurance. At least that is my view. I don’t want to be adored. I would, however, deeply – indeed it is my fervent wish – that people would not turn me into a cartoon character. Before I started answering this I happened upon a post which said my memoir was ‘an act of desperation.’ That kind of slut-shaming/sexist/deeply spiteful/lacking in any kind of compassion comment is not helpful to women. If a man wrote a memoir would it be called ‘an act of desperation?”
Me: Like any life, yours has been filled with glorious peaks and terrifying troughs, but your peaks and troughs seem greater than most. What’s worse – the peak or the trough? Give it a moment’s thought, because I don’t think it’s self-evidently true that peaks are better than troughs. I detect in you a fighting spirit that would make you better able to deal with a trough, and a mistrust of people that would make peaks feel unstable. Am I right? (No one word answers please.)
JA: Peaks or troughs – which are more difficult? You are very intuitive Lisa. Yes, the peaks are unnerving. Having just returned from a grueling author tour in which I was so very amazed by the wonderful, warm reception from most, I returned to my little apartment in Lambertville and I don’t know if I am Arthur or Boksburg. I don’t know who I am or where I am. I have grown accustomed to a life that is largely without raisins in the rice-pudding, so that during the ten days that I was doing book-signings, television, fund-raisers and speeches I felt as though it were an extravagant dream from which I would rudely awake. It still feels like a dream. Only the gorgeous pottery bowl given to me by my publisher Bridget Impey serves as some tangible evidence that I was even in South Africa.
Me: The image on the front cover of a heavily made-up woman with her lips slightly parted, teeth showing, is both mesmerising and a little scary. Do you think that is how people have experienced you, particularly during the height of your fame in the mid-eighties?
JA: The image on the cover of the book. This image has been both a blessing and a curse. It was chosen by Lesley Sellers, who designed the once-glorious Sunday Times, as my ‘brand.’ In a way, its a kind of meme. It is intimidating – Goth – as someone pointed out – and has a kind of Andy Warhol feel to it. (Apparently a press kit with this image is in the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh – or so I read on Facebook) I think people were intimidated by me. But I was never that image….that was the carapace, the shield. Marianne Thamm wrote a very insightful piece in the Daily Maverick in which she spoke about me being the brittle ‘fall girl.’ The image was part of the package that the Sunday Times ‘sold.’ That the package contained a real, live, thinking, feeling human being got lost along the way. Jacana used the image because to certain sections of the populace, it was instantly recognizable.
Me: At the beginning of the chapter which tells the reader about your first meeting with Eugène Terre’Blanche, you say: ‘Yes, I am wry and sassy, but also not so much. In my heart I am still searching.’ What are you still searching for?
JA: What am I still searching for? I came back from SA to find that my best friend had cleaned my apartment and tidied it and I am still searching for my contact lens cleaner! (True. He did. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry so I did a bit of both.) More seriously, the older I get the more important authenticity is. Serenity.I read somewhere that the worst thing for a writer is to have a book published, that having a published book will leave holes in your heart….I can’t remember the quote exactly but the gist was that being published won’t heal your existential angst. Neither will being thinner (I know!) or being in a relationship. I am not searching for something outside of myself – although a set of new tyres on my little yellow VW would be nice. Rather I am trying to find an inner peace in which I know that I am good enough for God, so I should be good enough for me. I want to be myself but with better press. LOL.
Me: ET is a compelling character, you have to admit. You’re very funny about him. He cooks meat on the radiator of his pick-up truck. ‘Am I now a man?’ he growls when his truck breaks down and he one-handedly lifts it from the mud. It’s funny, but he’s also a manly guy. You’ve got a bit of a father fixation, as you say in your book. Surely then ET must have had some kind of sex appeal for you? (We don’t necessarily like the people we desire.)
JA: ET’s desirability. Another incisive observation – we don’t necessarily like the people we desire. I am a Virgo and therefore my tastes are rather more fastidious. Back in the day I would break up with a man because he wore the wrong tie. If you knew me even remotely….LOL. In America the girls say ”I can’t even….” which is, I suppose a variation of ‘I could care less.’ The telegram version of the saga is that I was sent on assignment. Got the story. Interesting that not many people have brought up the gay aspect….Mariechen Waldner (Rapport) wrote extensivesly about ET being gay. Just saying…I was vaultingly ambitious. C’est tout. My marvellous editor Alison Lowry paid me the greatest compliment – or perhaps she even said it at the book launch. It was something to the effect that the story wasn’t even why you would read the book….Thank you Aquila Lowry. That will rank as a validating statement.
Me: Linda Shaw. You’ve had rough experiences with friends: terrible betrayals. Do you think you’re better at reading people now? Can you tell the jerks from the non-jerks?
JA: Reading people. I wasn’t any good at reading people. When I heard that Linda Shaw was going to testify that she had seen such and such – please, please don’t repeat this again and again – it is so painful and so very, very boring some 27 years later – when she claimed to have seen what she claims she did – I was gobsmacked. I had no idea that she hated me that much. The entire courtcase hinged on her evidence. What an irony, that I would be forever – or the last time I looked for 27 years – associated – tainted, damned, even, with that image when she knew that I disliked sex? Yes, p***poor judge of character in the past. These days I have my Poms to guide me. If they don’t like someone red flags go up.
Me: Let’s talk a bit about writing a memoir. There are two obvious difficulties with memoir: backlash from others, and memory. Let’s start with the first problem. You mention a lot of people and what you say about them isn’t always positive – for example: Tertius Myburgh (‘Smiling Death’, ex-editor of the Sunday Times), Marlene Burger (ex deputy editor of ST), Linda Shaw (‘Yoo ho. Come in!’ she calls happily. ‘I’ve got a Yid in my bed.’ I put my head around the door. Linda is wrapped about the Israeli like a damp rag around a pot-bellied stove.’), some ex boyfriends, George Carmen (barrister), Tony Factor etc. Have you had any kind of backlash?
JA: Memoir writing backlash. I am compelled to say that I am somewhat bemused by this question. Tertius’s nickname WAS Smiling Death….If one self-censors oneself not a word would find its way to a page. I leave it to Webber Wentzel to decide whether the descriptions are actionable.
Me: Memory is notoriously unreliable. How reliable is your memoir?
JA: How reliable is this memoir? As reliable as any other memoir. Surely even the act of selecting a memory about which one wishes to write is not reliable or impartial? The court records were bought for me by Taki Theodoracopoulos. Those are not in dispute, I trust. I am not sure what the subtext of this question is. Very happy to engage with anyone. Back in the States now and you can contact me at will. (The name of the first Zulu to be killed at Rourke’s Drift. Remember Michael Caine saying ‘Fire at will.” Sorry. Couldn’t resist! Thanks for asking me and showing interest.
Me: Thanks for answering the questions honestly Jani Allan. As you say Fiona, there wasn’t a subtext to question 8. Any memoir is about the author’s perceptions of various events. And I think we read them, partly, to prevent a cartoon-like impression of a person. Memoirs colour in the spaces between the outlines. They create nuance, ambiguity, complexity: all the things that make people real. Certainly, Jani, your memoir did that for me.
* To join the GBAS, a fascinating online reading group that includes frequent interviews with authors, you can email email@example.com.