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Giving a voice to women's lives.

Coullie, Judith Lutge, ed. 2004. The closest of strangers: South African women's life writing. Johannesburg: Wits University Press. 386 p. Price: R190,00. ISBN: 1-86814-388-0.

Well-established in the field of life writing, Judith Coullie here presents a truly wide-ranging collection of extracts from existing self-representational texts by South African women, set within the parameters of 20th century South African history. The book contains three useful, though rather blurry, maps (South Africa in the 1890's, mid-1990's, and the Bantustans), a general introduction, followed by nine chronologically arranged and themed sections containing a cull of narratives (52 in total, some written autobiographies, some oral transcriptions) of women from diverse walks of life. There is, unfortunately, no concluding chapter, leaving it entirely up to the reader to draw conclusions retrospectively.

The introduction constructs a historical (and, indeed, ideological) backdrop, clarifies the concept "life writing", and seeks to explain the seemingly naive title of the book, claiming that, despite the almost unbridgeable divides of apartheid, South African women have shared a paradoxical intimacy of experience: black women as prisoners of discrimination, white women as prisoners of privilege. Arguing the need for a focus on women's life writing, Coullie does not step in the trap of "a feminine essence". Against the background of urgent current issues affecting women, most notably HIV/AIDS and rape, she points out that South African women still suffer the consequences of patriarchal gender systems, both Christian and traditionally African, that retain as a central tenet the oppression of women. Coullie attempts to address the neglect and distortions of the past by giving a voice to women's lives.

Most of the extracts are not overtly or consciously feministic, but seem more concerned with racial injustice and everyday life under a racist minority, leaving the reader with a lasting impression of the individuality of the victims, both black and white, of a system that sought to liquidate the individual.

Coullie is right in drawing attention to the importance of considering not only what these narratives, mostly concerned with telling the "truth", have to say, but also how they say it. Indeed, reading these extracts, one is reminded of the counter-conventional focus of psychoanalytic criticism on the letter rather than the spirit of the text: Lacan maintained that, not only dreams and slips of tongue (Freud), but every word ought to be seen as revealing. This reading strategy is, in fact, essential when dealing with a collection, such as this, which contains extracts from longer texts, many based on oral accounts, and hence often lacking the pace and density of professional writing. The cover design (by Bon-Bon) shows the face of one of the featured women "drawn" with, and hidden behind/emerging from, the letters that spell the names of those included, thereby highlighting both individuality and language.

This compilation should offer a thoroughly engrossing read for both the specialist and the general reader. It is, however, more than just a one-off read, but a work of reference to which one can, and should, return time and again. In my opinion it should prove a truly useful publication which could provide basic or supplementary material in the history, sociology, psychology and literature class, among others.

Coullie ought to be commended for having decided to include izibongo (praise poetry) and for the way this genre is gradually explained in the introductory parts of the successive sections, showing how it has evolved with time, but the examples sited are often rather disappointingly short and insubstantial.

Each section is provided with a brief introduction with regards to the history of the period in question, and this should be adequately enlightening for the layman/laywomen, but these overviews are maybe somewhat too general (here and there even superficial/one-sided), lacking a sustained focus on women. Each individual extract is preceded by a few, very helpful, introductory comments, but there is a conspicuous absence of integrative and evaluative observations about the respective groups of selected extracts, about the criteria for inclusion and exclusion.

Generally speaking, the book contains a well-balanced selection, ranging from the known/expected to the less familiar and downright astonishing. There are far too many to single out a representative few. However, the deeper complexities, humanity, and paradoxes underlying the various extracts are reflected and condensed in some narratives more than in others, for example:

The "life story" as genre and the telling of the own history, are particularly beautifully realised in the extract from the narrative of cleaning lady Mpho Nthunya's, reported to her close friend, Limakatso Kendall, a visiting woman American academic.

Particularly memorable is Gillian Slovo's account of her experience, as the child of activist parents, of the Republican Day celebrations in 1961, when each white school child was to be presented with a gold commemoration coin and pocket-sized model of the new flag. The latter she did not want and, like her parents, despised, but the "Judas coin" she secretly coveted (having been only 9 years old at the time).

Antjie Krog gains prominence in this book through Coullie, almost concluding her introductory chapter with approving echoes of Krog's sentiments as expressed toward the end of Country of my skull, a dubious choice, since Krog's book could be considered an example of somewhat confused/naive new South African posturing. In the last section, Coullie also included a long extract from the same book. The choice of this text as touchtone with regards to truth and reconciliation could be (deliberately) symptomatic.

Furthermore, there is a glaring discrepancy in the selection as far as Afrikaner women are concerned: the focus on the role of Afrikaners, sustained both in the introductory parts and many of the extracts, is not borne out by the text selection in terms of "authorship". In other words, apart from Krog and Marike de Klerk, Afrikaner women do not speak for themselves, even with regards to historical periods most affecting them, notably the aftermath of the South African War: with the exception of the narrative of "cowgirl" Sarah Raal, the accounts of sympathetic English women like Emily Hobhouse and Pauline Smith have to suffice.

These shortcomings notwithstanding, The closest of strangers is an impressive compilation which should bring the reader much closer to those thought to be strangers, and reveal the strangeness in those considered close.

Phil van Schalkwyk School of English, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland
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Title Annotation:The Closest of Strangers: South African Women's Life Writing
Author:Van Schalkwyk, Phil
Publication:Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, comparative linguistics and literary studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2006
Words:1057
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