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10 women writers you might not know

world of authors.001I’m always on the look out for writers outside the tradition of the western literary canon. So this article from Signature e-magazine was a welcome change from the usual fare of promotions – there is still a long way to go before literature in translation becomes part of our stable diet unfortunately.

The columnist Kate Schatz has found 10 women writers she thinks deserve more attention because they “have produced or are producing beautiful, necessary works of literature.”  These are women she believes whose work show us worlds, cultures, lives, and truths that need to be known.

The 10 come from Iran, Mexico, Palestine, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Japan Italy and Great Britain. I’m not convinced that Elena Ferrante needs any more exposure and Helen Oyeyemi surely doesn’t need an introduction? But there are certainly names on this list that are unfamiliar to me even if you all know them well.

Shahrnush Parsipur from Iran appeals, not because her novels weave use fantasy (not one of my favourite genres) but because she has been imprisoned for her writing. Reading her books is one form of protest I can make against her treatment.

The other writer who is calling to me is Doris Pilkington Garimara, an  indigenous writer from Australia whose 1996 novel Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence sounds a remarkable story about a real-life episode in the country’s history – a government-sanctioned removal of mixed-race children from their families. This isn’t something from ancient history but occurred in the 20th century remarkably. I’ve been promising Lisa at ANZLitLovers and Sue at Whispering Gums that I would read more authors from their parts of the world. So this could be my chance (not promising it will happen any time soon though).

I also have a few names on my own list of authors I want to explore. This includes Dalene Matthee from South Africa whose novel  Fiela’s Child which deals with ethnic acceptance I enjoyed last year. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from India who won the Booker prize in 1975 with Heat and Dust which I didn’t rate very highly but I wonder if that was really her best novel? And then of course there are my latest finds (Ok, I know I am late to this party) of Yoko Ogawa whose novella The Housekeeper and the Professor and Amelie Nothomb, who wrote  Fear and Trembling gave me some of the most interesting reading this year.

I could go on….and on…. and on with names but don’t want to overwhelm you but just take a look at some of the recommendations from the bloggers in several countries that have done guest posts about literature from their country.More than enough for you to get your teeth into.


Fiela’s Child by Dalene Matthee – a hidden South African gem

Fiela's ChildVisitors to South Africa today frequently make Knysna a stop off point along the Garden Route (the scenic drive between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth) or before they head north to the Little Karoo region and its famous Oudtshoorn ostrich farms. Today this is an area bustling with shops and restaurants close to a peaceful lagoon but in the late nineteenth century the waters around the entrance to the town were unpredictable and treacherous, threatening the lives of fishermen and sailors. Inland, herds of bush elephants roamed the dense Knysna Forest, proving hazardous for the woodcutters who made the forest their home.

The Forest and the surrounding mountains of the Little Karoo are the settings for Dalene Matthee’s novel Fiela’s Child published in 1985.  Lukas van Rooyen, the three year old son of a white woodcutter family goes missing in the forest. Nine years later, two census officials discover Benjamin, a white, blue-eyed boy living with the native Komoetie family at their ostrich farm in the Long Kloof.

Are Benjamin Komoetie and Lukas van Rooyen the same child?  Fiela Komotie is adamant this cannot be. Benjamin was a gift of God, a foundling sent to her to care for as if he were her own flesh and blood. Having nurtured him for six years she cannot endure the idea that they may be separated. Across the forest Elias van Rooyen and his wife Barta are equally adamant that the boy is their lost son — and they want him back. However unlikely a child of three could have made his way through miles of hard mountain terrain, the officials in Knysna are convinced this is what happens. Benjamin is transported back to the forest to become Lukas once more.

Forced to change his name and to call these strange new people ‘ma’ and ‘pa’ he cannot however be forced to forget the woman who he considers his real mother.  All he can do is wait, enduring the cruelty of his new father who can think of nothing else but how get rich by killing an elephant so makes his children do all the work of shaping tree trunks into beams. The child looks every day for Fiela to find him and rescue him but as the years roll on and Fiela never arrives, he becomes a man who feels neither part of the forest nor of the mountains. But who exactly is he? This is the question Benjamin/Lukas has to answer before he can form a relationship with the woman he loves.

I’d never heard of Dalene Matthee until I walked into a bookshop on an overnight stay in Johannesburg earlier this year and asked for recommendations of local authors. Matthee wrote 13 novels, four of them bracketed as ‘the Forest novels’ because they were all set in and around Knysna Forest, an area she came to know intimately. Fiela’s Child is the second of this quartet.

It’s the picture of this region and its culture conveyed by Matthee that I appreciated most in her novel. The relationships between Benjamin and his two sets of parents are effectively portrayed but they didn’t sing to me as much as the detail about life in the forest and in the farmlands of the Little Karoo. Matthee clearly did her research so that when she describes how elephants trod ancient paths through the trees, bonding together to navigate sleep slopes and alert the herd to danger, I was there with the woodcutters watching. She provides too some fascinating insight into the habits of ostriches; how these creatures whose feathers were so beautiful they became the must have fashion accessory in the Art Nouveau period, are vicious birds who can kill with one swipe of a claw.

I’m surprised that Dalene Matthee isn’t more widely known outside South Africa. Perhaps its because although it deals, as does so much of the literature from that country, with the issue of race and colour this isn’t  the main theme. Her focus is really on the bonds of family and identity and on the individual’s relationship with their environment.

End Notes

Fiela’s Child by Darlene Matthee, is available as a Penguin Modern Classic in translation from Afrikaans.

To discover more about the author, take a look at this website which is in tribute to her memory and her achievements.

The adventure begins

By the time you all get to see this I will be well on my way to this magnificent view.

victoria falls

It’s of Victoria Falls on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia in case you didn’t recognise it. The first destination on our holiday.

When I can manage to lift my eyes away from the view, they’ll be buried in one of several books I have with me. I thought it would be appropriate to start with two classic novels by African authors.

Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton is a novel from my large TBR. Published in 1948 it tells the story of Stephen Kumalo, a black Anglican priest from a remote rural Natal town, who goes to Johannesburg to search for his son. As Kumalo travels from place to place, he begins to see the gaping racial and economic divisions that are threatening to split his country. I remember reading this in the 60s and being moved by the way Paton shows some of the issues that would later give rise to apartheid.

My second choice is something I found when browsing in a bookshop in Johannesburg today. Odd how we bloggers gravitate to bookshops no matter where in the world we are.

The shop had a good selection of African writers and an assistant who was more then happy to share her recommendations. I could have come away with an armful but given I have to actually be able to lift my suitcase, I settled for just one.
Dalene Matthee was a South African author writing in Afrikaans and best known for her four Forest Novels, written in and around the Knysna Forest, along the tourist trail called The Garden Route between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. I bought Fiela’s Child, a 1985 novel in which a boy goes. Issuing in the forest. Nine years later government officials find a white child living with a coloured family in the mountains beyond the forest. They take him away from Fiela who has brought him up as her own son and return him to his original parents. But the boy waits and waits for Fiela to rescue him once more.

I had never heard of this author but have dipped into a few pages already and it seems a good one.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have an right appointment with a gin and tonic. Purely medicinal yiu understand, tonic being a well know means of avoiding malaria.


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