T?here doesn’t seem to be any casual just-passing-through the Anza Borrego Desert’s golden and slate-colored mountains of rock. The road in from L.A. is also the road out; it opens up hot, dry and vast on a winter afternoon. The asphalt sparkles with glass. Mountain ridges appear like serrated knives. The Salton Sea is like a vision of world’s end. And then you descend into the dry-lake bed of valley, the sleepy town of Borrego Springs.
“The colors here are much like South Africa,” says Lisa Fugard, sitting in the booth of a Borrego bar, away from the high-desert piercing light. “It’s hot, it’s dry, it’s rocky, it’s thorny. I recognize it.”
In 1980, Fugard left her birthplace, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, to pursue an acting career in New York. Her father is acclaimed playwright Athol Fugard, and she has performed in many of his plays. Her mother, Sheila Fugard, is a novelist. After 12 years in New York, Lisa entered the family business where she began writing short stories. With needed distance from her homeland and its apartheid, she started her novel, Skinner’s Drift, in upstate New York, and finished it in the quiet and stillness of Borrego Valley, where she moved in 2002. Here she felt freer to explore the story of Eva van Rensburg, who returns to 1997 South Africa and her dying Afrikaner father, a farmer and poacher with a secret that could bring him up in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“Growing up in South Africa was so extraordinary, and so beautiful, and so rough, and so complicated and sad and troubling, and I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up any place else. The novel is just my way of trying to understand.”
Fugard, 44, brings a keen ear for the violence of the bush hunt near the northern border area of the Limpopo Valley, the novel’s setting:
They heaved [the donkey] into the flatbed of the bakkie and reached the hide just before six, an hour later than Jannie would have liked. They gulped their coffee, wrapped a chain around the donkey’s hindquarters, and hoisted it into a tree. Martin slit its stomach, the steamy contents sloshing to the ground. A rank smell, guaranteed to attract predators, billowed into the cool air, whereupon Dolf promptly vomited .?.?. .
With the midday sun above them, the reed hide grew stifling and sweat slopped off the men’s faces. They sipped lukewarm water from their canteens and pissed into empty cool drink bottles that they capped to keep their scent to a minimum.
“In reading South African novels, I often couldn’t really smell my country, really see it, really taste it, and the bush. I just wanted to write about that. The politics kind of crept in; I didn’t want to write about the politics. But I certainly was. I mean, you’re writing this novel about South Africa, so of course it’s all going to be in there. But it came in very gradually.”
The black characters who work the van Rensburg farm carry the burden of generational representation of apartheid: Lefu, the oldest, is meek, deferential, submissive; Nkele, Lefu’s daughter, is half-broken, half-hopeful; Mpho, Nkele’s son, is angry and rebellious. Fugard concedes that this layering was intended to serve the story, but in asking these characters to work for the novel in the way they work for the farm, she denies them their full humanity. A more honest portrayal of racial politics is found in her account of Eva’s encounter with a flirtatious black bartender in her post-apartheid country, when she is rattled by his assertion of equality. And though far more well-traveled and cosmopolitan than her protagonist, Fugard says she has felt disappointed and ashamed by her own past responses to sexual tension with black men.
“How can I put it, I felt infected by the fear, the distrust that the government fostered with its policy of apartheid. I still curse them for that.”
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Nevertheless, the novel’s white farming and hunting community of the Limpopo Valley is thoroughly alive: Blue-eyed, stuttering, violent Martin is richly complex in his weakness; his English wife, Lorraine, who longs for a life away from the war-torn border, is touching; and Eva, their daughter, is as maddeningly non-self-aware as she is dangerous. The land, in all of its complicated beauty, feels like a bruised psyche, poised to rise up against them.
“When I left in 1980, I wanted out of South Africa, very much. .?.?. My dad’s presence was so big in that country that it was such a long shadow, and I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. His love for South Africa was so intense, so big, his passion was so huge — his care and his commitment — that I couldn’t even begin to find my own. I felt like my love was secondhand, or second best. It was only with this long absence and in the writing of the novel that really allowed me to claim my South Africanness.”
SKINNER’S DRIFT | By LISA FUGARD | Scribner | 304 pages | $25 hardcover
Lisa Teasley is the author of the story collection Glow in the Dark?, the novel Dive and the forthcoming novel Heat Signature?.