Facing life on the street

2008-11-17 00:00

“The message this novel conveys is that we are all the same at the level of the soul,” says author of Whiplash, Tracey Farren.

“The only difference lies in belief. If people believe that they are dirty and bad, they tend to do harm to themselves or others. If they believe that they are gorgeous and pure, they tend to care well for themselves and for others.”

Farren’s first novel examines the world of Tess, a prostitute earning her daily Syndols by doing as many “jumps” as she can face in a day. Farren believes that people should recognise that we are all the same at the level of the soul, especially in this country.

“This is critical in effecting a change in behaviour, especially in a country as violent as ours.”

For many years, Farren worked as a freelance journalist. With an honours degree in psychology, she was drawn to social and governance issues, such as child justice and prison conditions.

“I was especially interested in the decriminalisation of prostitution debate,” she says. “It was easy to research the issue as I lived in the pretty suburb of Marina da Gama near Muizenberg. A few years ago, the road that borders the Marina was lined with beautiful young girls selling their bodies. I became friendly with them and once they realised that I was not there to judge them, they spoke openly about their working lives. The women’s stories weighed on my heart. I needed to find a way to release them.”

When Farren did a creative writing workshop with Anne Shuster in Kalk Bay, she started writing Whiplash. Sheer terror at the edginess of the subject matter made her stop writing the novel. Then one of the women she had come to know was picked up by a client and sliced to pieces.

“He left her half buried in Clovelly,” Farren explains. “The police did not even bother to question her pimp. Her life was not even worth an inquiry.”

The tragedy gave Farren the will to continue with Whiplash. Aspects of the murdered woman seeped into the character, Tess, who she was creating. Farren decided to tell the story through Tess’s voice so that the reader would not be able to distance him- or herself from the brutal realities faced by women on the street.

“I wanted the reader to identify with Tess on an emotional level,” she says. “Tess’s daily job is alienating and crass, and a third person narrator would have had to focus more on her external behaviour. Tess needed a chance to explain herself. I thought that if readers lived in her mind for a while, if they witnessed her thoughts and her fears, they were more likely to love her.

“I chose her rough street language for the same reason. I hoped that Tess would come across as authentic. If people could believe her, they could feel for her too.”

Farren has had people from all walks of life approach her after reading the book. Waitresses at a beach-front restaurant who used to laugh at the prostitutes passing them all day have now stopped. Other readers, too, from hardened journalists to affluent business people, now look at sex workers in a different light after reading the book. It even speaks to the women themselves who are portrayed in the novel.

“The sex workers who read Whiplash respond to it as a portrait in which they recognise themselves,” Farren explains.

“It seems to acknowledge their fight for survival, their cynicism and the good reasons for it. One prostitute wrote to me saying, ‘Thank you for showing that we are ordinary people who have just made some mistakes along the way.’ I think they like that Tess is kind and intelligent. I am guessing, but perhaps Tess’s shame touches a nerve in them.”

• Whiplash is published by Modjaji Books, a newly formed publishing company run by Colleen Higgs who foregrounds women’s writing. For more information about Whiplash, contact Modjaji Books at http://modjaji.book.co.za/

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