Women Authors of Southern Africa
What is the current state of fiction in South Africa and in particular the current state of fiction by women authors? 21 South African authors reply:
Alex Smith: There exists today an unprecedented verve in the South African publishing scene; it is one of the many great spin-offs of the advent of democracy. The essential goodness of our nation is restored; there is renewed, and vigorous, if not entirely unanimous belief in our tremendous potential as Africa’s flagship nation. From that confidence within has come a surge of accomplishments in all spheres including literature. Women writers in particular have found voice and opportunity to emerge from the shadows of second-class citizenship with shocking, brilliant and enticing tales spanning ages and all aspects of the whole from pigs and fish to pilgrims, psychopaths and fortune. Not only do we have Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer in our ranks, but in recent years, following on from pioneering South African writers like Oliver Schreiner, Miriam Tlali, Ingrid Jonker, Bessie Head, and Lauretta Ngcobo, has come a multitude of women writers, whose work has been internationally acclaimed, published, and acknowledged with awards. Their successes have given publishers and other writers of South Africa more confidence, more courage and this had lead to even greater opportunities and so to still more success. The shelves of local bookstores are filled as never before with books written by South African women. In a suburban branch of the country’s leading book retailer, I made a rough count in the fiction and poetry sections and found fifty-seven South African women writers represented on the shelves. We are a country made dynamic by our diversity and gradually this is being reflected in a publishing scene once dominated by white male academics. Perhaps it was the suburban nature of the bookshop, but those fifty-seven women writers in evidence, while sparkling and diverse indeed, were not fully representative of all of South Africa’s culture and language groups. (Author of Algeria's Way, Random House/Umuzi; and Drinking from the Dragon's Well, House/Umuzi)
Gabeba Baderoon: South African writing generally, so I’d go beyond fiction to include poetry, non-fiction and drama, is enjoying a state of heightened interest, originality and productivity right now. Women are writing some of the most fascinating, original and unsettling work right now, which is brilliant. I shivered when I read Nadia Davids’ At Her Feet. I also had this delicious sense of dangerously good writing on reading Mary Watson’s Moss. Yvette Christianse’s Unconfessed is the best thing that happened in SA fiction in years.
(A Hundred Silences, Kwela/Snailpress)
Sumayya Lee: One would have thought that post 1994 much of new writing would be dominated by stories of the pain inflicted by apartheid. On the contrary, the bulk of what has emerged is what I can only assess as a revolution against amnesia. Women writers in particular have dominated the literary space, recounting the inequities of the social environment, especially the tyranny of a male dominated society. Without singling out particular authors, the volume of work by female writers, specifically of Indian origin, outnumbers that by male writers by a ratio of 3:1. I don’t consider that remarkable, the stories were always there. What has changed is the female mindset. The will to challenge male domination has replaced subservience.
(The Story of Maha, Kwela)
: Exciting, more voices and depth in different genres.
(Holy Hill, Random House/Umuzi)
Pamela Jooste: Very healthy. There are a great many more publishers than there used to be and there is even a reputable literary agent which we never had before. Woman are playing their part and doing good work but I don’t really feel to the exclusion of the men. I see women winning prizes and being well reviewed, what I am not particularly seeing is them becoming the darlings of the book clubs - where a large part of the market lies - there they have to compete against overseas fiction which still retains its allure.
(Star of the Morning, Random House/Umuzi).
Praba Moodly: I believe we are coming into our own but there is still so much of preference given to international writers by booksellers. When a South African book is launched the bookstores will display the book prominently and then once the hula is over the book disappears from the bookshelves and when enquiries are made readers are told it is out of stock or has to be ordered. What is not visible will soon be forgotten and South African novels need more visibility. Readers are becoming experimental and reading more local work for it is so easily identifiable. Thankfully, libraries are seeing the value of South African writing and purchasing more books. I think women authors is truly an untapped market and for those budding female writers I say ” persevere”. There are lots of readers out there hungry for stories they can relate to.
(A Scent So Sweet, Kwela)
Azila Talit Reisenberger: If we in SA are serious about nurturing the cultural richness of our land, we must ensure that all citizens with inclination and talent to write are allowed to write in their own mother tongue. The collective ‘WE’ should endeavour to translate it to the benefit of all. If not, we are doomed to bring about cultural reductionism.
(Life in Translation, Modjaji)
Finuala Dowling: Flourishing, in the sense that new voices are emerging and there is a healthy diversity of genre — detective fiction, light fiction (don’t like the term “chicklit”), literary fiction. More local fiction than ever before is being published, which means competition for media coverage.
Maxine Case: It’s a wonderful time to be writing. I am also very impressed with the stories that are coming out of South Africa at the moment. I tend to prefer more literary books with a historical slant, but that is my personal preference. I have just read and enjoyed ‘Unconfessed’ by Yvette Christiansë and ‘No Man’s Land’ by Carel van der Merwe.”
(All We Have Left Unsaid, Kwela)
Margie Orford: I write in such a ‘masculine’ genre - so I am not sure about how I fit with women authors. Feminist, yes. But I get fatigued with endless stories about childbirth and the domestic. I think Celean Jacobson’s article about women writers, which appeared in the Sunday Times a couple of years ago was very apt. There was a long hard feminist fight to get women into the public domain and we need to take it up. That said, I consider myself a writer first, then a woman and I am never quite sure how those to interact. I am a feminist and I do take on things that are generally considered male - guns, cops, gangs and crime. But then I do write plenty of sex scenes - and those are definitely imbued with a female erotic - the erotic being something sorely lacking in much southern African writing.
(Blood Rose, Oshun).
Ceridwen Dovey: There was a feature article published in The New York Times on Dec. 3, 2006, called “Post-Apartheid Fiction”. I thought it was an interesting analysis and somewhat accurate in describing post-apartheid literature as “fragmented” and seeing evidence of a kind of turning inward after the political, activist literature of apartheid with post-apartheid writers feeling justified only in dealing with their “own ethnic experiences.” And the article spotlighted the main issue in current South African fiction, which is the search for the “great black South African novelist.” In terms of race, South African fiction probably has a way to go - but I think with the burgeoning new black middle class, the creative writing courses at South African universities will soon have many more black applicants (currently there are hardly any - which makes sense given that pursuing any kind of arts degree as opposed to a vocational degree is still seen as somewhat of a luxury). In terms of gender, I think that female South African authors are extremely well-represented and are dominating the current fiction scene in South Africa. Just look at all the recent female authors who have been published to local (and international) acclaim: Rayda Jacobs, Mary Watson, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Lauren Beukes, Diane Awerbuck, Conseulo Roland, Susan Mann, Patricia Schonstein Pinnock. Then there are all the women SA authors who have been publishing to acclaim for a while now: Rachelle Greeff, Gcina Mhlope, Antjie Krog, Marguerite Poland, Nadine Gordimer (of course!), Marita van der Vyver. And then there are all the South African writers living overseas, some of whom I’ve already mentioned above: Sarah Penny, Sheila Kohler, Barbara Trapido, Anne Landsman (who has a new novel, The Rowing Lesson just released in the U.S.), Elleke Boehmer. I think courses like the one I did, the Creative Writing MA at UCT, are giving women a forum within which to write and the structures to back them up, and most of the top South African publishers are women - Annari van der Merwe at Umuzi, Alison Lowry at Penguin, Michelle Matthews who was at Oshun until recently - which bodes extremely well for female authors.
(Blood Kin, Penguin)
Gail Dendy: I feel we have not consolidated our identity as ‘South Africans’ — certainly English-speaking white South Africans (my ‘category’), and as such the fiction is generally somewhat rootless. In contrast, I think Afrikaners have a far clearer identity and this impacts very positively on their work. Generally, though, I tend not to categorise fiction into ‘women’s and men’s’. Regarding the ‘current state of fiction in SA’, I’m concerned that it is being cornered (hi-jacked?) by university academics (usually teaching English, or Creative Writing courses) and by the ever-growing number of students of those university courses. (I work in the corporate legal world and am therefore something of an anomaly.) The result appears to be a bland sameness of the approach to writing or, alternatively, a mimicry of the approach taken by each particular university. I wonder if ‘writing’ is not slowly being removed from the central sphere of society? If so, it would be tantamount to squeezing the blood out our collective heart.
(The Lady Missionary, Kwela/Snailpress)
Elizabeth Pienaar: Lots of rough talent that would ultimately be better served if it waited a little to be honed. But vibrant. It’s exciting.
(Taking Zoe To Play, is Elizabeth’s latest short story to be published in the erotica anthology Open, Oshun)
Joanne Hichens: It seems this a bit of a Golden Age for fiction, in that really, anything goes. Publishers seem to be sweating to get their paws on novels that are original, ground-breaking, edgy, and the public seem to want to read a wide variety of different sorts of these stories, some popular, some literary, including fiction and non-fiction. Writers are giving voice to the diverse stories out there and there is definitely space for varying perspectives. As writers we no longer seem restricted by need to bring down Apartheid, though I reckon politics will always sneak in somewhere.
(Out To Score, co-authored with Mike Nicol, Random House/Umuzi)
Rose Richards: This is a time of great change. SA writers are learning a new identity or identities. It is exciting, but I worry that we might not know how to be ourselves yet. I get the impression SA writers feel they need to write a particular way to be South African. Women are coming into their own as writers in SA. (Luvandvar is one of Rose’s recent stories published in Kunapipi an Australian journal of post-colonial writing)
Emma van der Vliet: There is an openness to talking (and writing) about a very wide range of issues now. It’s OK to talk about frivolities, about personal issues and most importantly it’s OK to laugh. Which is a huge relief. I think this is particularly important in women’s writing because, if I may generalise in a deplorably sexist manner, women are often keener to share stories from the “macro” world as well as the more intimate world, which were understandably eclipsed in the apartheid past by more specifically political stories. It’s miraculous that we can now explore as far afield or as close to home as we want to, and people such as Penguin SA are willing to publish this because they know other people, not exclusively women, are interested in hearing these stories.
(Past Imperfect, Penguin)
Jann Turner: We’re in an interesting phase where a lot of new stories are being told and a great many new voices are speaking out, but we lack good editors. Nevertheless it’s an exciting time because there is an appetite for more work by all South African writers and particularly new ones.
(Southern Cross, Orion UK)
L.M. Brickwood: Most S.A. publishers told me in no uncertain terms that there is no market here for more complex teenage fiction (my genre). Too much like Harry Potter, too big a project, too international in flavour. The book should be set in South Africa (not in prehistory), be very short (up to 100 pages) and very simple. It seems too risky to develop a new author and a lot of publishers don’t accept teenage fiction at all. In contrast, teachers, librarians and readers across the colour, education and age spectrum tell me that the fiction in ‘Children of the Moon’ is exactly what they want. On an international scale, South African writers barely register.
(Children of the Moon, Zulu Planet Publishing)
Lauren Beukes: I read books that interest me and I find pigeonholing irritating - which means that I don’t choose my reading material based on the author’s gender or country of origin. There are certainly more exciting and energetic and experimental books coming through than ever before as publishers are more willing to take a risk on stuff that doesn’t fit the formula.
Dawn Garisch: It felt as though the lid came off in 1994 with the first democratic elections in this country. South Africans no longer regard most SA writing as inferior to overseas publications.
The slogan ‘Proudly South African’ reflects a real change in attitude. The quality of writing ranges, but there is much that I have read that is impressive.
(Once, Two Islands, Kwela)
Catriona Ross: For women novelists, this is perhaps our most exciting, liberated time in history. Censorship is dead, diversity is embraced, and apartheid has faded enough for authors to move beyond their role of guardian of justice and simply write what they love. The result is a flowering of personal stories, infinitely varied and fascinating. We’re seeing smaller stories, funny stories, sad and strange and true stories - the whole spectrum of human experience.
(The Love Book, Oshun)