180 Degrees: New Fiction by South African Women Writers

I admit, anytime I see those words, women’s writing, I raise my brows in suspicion. Perhaps that’s why the foreword of this collection of short stories begins with addressing just that.

There is no other way of saying it really, is there? Women’s writing. Women’s words, what women writes. It wouldn’t matter, except that there’s often an unsaid something that goes with the phrase ‘women’s writing’, like ‘women’s movies’, it implies- what? That it’s going to be soft, sensitive, romantic, cathartic, therapeutically, touchy-feely?

There is a difference between women’s writing and men’s writing- at least for me. I’m not in no way saying one is superior, better, deeper than the other; I’m just simply saying that I can sense the difference. I usually can tell if a story is written by a man or a woman without knowing the author’s name beforehand. And I don’t think that’s such a bad thing; variety gives depth to literature.

180 Degrees is a collected short stories written by African women. There isn’t a single theme in particular that the stories circle around; these writes have written about love, loss, hate, motherhood, childhood, marriage, fear, faith, being deceived… There are 21 stories and since I can’t talk about all of them, I had to narrow them down to two of my favourite ones out of the collection (which was harder than I thought).

Beginning of Wisdom  (by Sue de Groot) is the story of Amanda, who one morning wakes up and realises that she is not afraid anymore. For Amanda, this was a very unusual feeling since she had spent her entire life in fear; not being able to get out of the house, go to work or function as a normal human being. She is agoraphobic and one day her therapist tells her about this drug that was being tested and has not yet been proved. Amanda takes the drug anyway, disregarding the unknown side effects and suddenly she is a new woman.

Day by day she loses that internal fear which helps human beings stay alive. She feels like there isn’t anything she can’t do anymore because she is not afraid of anything anymore. Including death. So she begins to question: what’s the point of living if you’re not afraid of dying?

‘Death be not proud’, the priest quoted, and she decided, impatiently waiting for her failed exercise to end, that John Donne was a fool. Death should be very proud indeed. Death should have its thumbs hooked in eternal smugness under its armpits. Death had put men on the moon. If we weren’t afraid of dying we might as well be immortal. If we lived for ever, would we ever bother doing anything? She flipped disconsolately through a hymnbook as the priest gave the final blessing. Without fear of death, she thought, humans would have died out long ago.

We witness Amanda coming to terms with what once turned her life into a prison: her fear. She realises that fear of dying motivate humans to take action, the fear of losing makes people cling to their significant others and it is fear that nurtures our basic needs.

At the conference she’d heard a speaker say that fear and greed were the prime human motivations. Now she thought perhaps he’d got it wrong. It was need that ruled alongside fear. Fear and need- cancel one and you automatically cancel the other. She was no longer afraid because she didn’t need anyone. She didn’t need them because she was no longer afraid.

The second story is called Gabriel’s Wife and it is about adultery. Gabriel is having an affair with an ambitious, care-free girl from the office, Libs. What made this story stand out for me was its voice. It was distant, as if the author was aiming for a ‘matter-of-fact’ effect. The author, Pamela Joostle, sets the tone as soon as the story opens:

Gabriel and Libs work for a one-stop advertising agency. Three floors of a raw face-brick building down near the dock in an area that’s in a constant fever of activity. That’s where you’ll find them.

Then comes the basic scenario; Gabriel tells his wife that he doesn’t want to wear his wedding ring anymore because he thinks ‘What difference does a ring make? Why is the paraphernalia of marriage suddenly so important?’ and he starts ‘working late’ and going to ‘business dinners’ but his wife knows about Libs. She never confronts him, but she knows. And it’s her perspective, the way she reacts (or refuses to react) gives the story its depth.

Yet there it is. About as difficult to spot as a cornet shooting across the sky on a night with no moon. How, she wonders, is she supposed to feel now? What do other women feel? Not, she suspects, quite the way she does. Do other women want to laugh out loud? Do other women, she wonders, not see the desperate banality of it all and find it amusing?

Gabriel’s wife finds herself trapped. Not in motherhood or marriage, neither of which, on good days, are uncongenial to her. What careless, thoughtless, selfish Gabriel has done is to trap her inside a cliché. This is what she finds most difficult to forgive.

The title of the story, Gabriel’s Wife, is not a random title; we do not get to learn her name. Throughout the story she is simply referred as ‘Gabriel’s wife’.

I spent the past few days with stories of women written by women… And I realised that perhaps women do, as the foreword implies, write soft, sensitive, romantic and cathartic stories. But they are also raw, painful, deep and honest stories. Some of them I laughed while reading but some were difficult. Harder to swallow because the authors talk about the kind of incidents we see around us happening everyday and doesn’t hold back. They let us see what’s beneath the mask, behind the curtain, inside the character’s heart.

If you enjoy short stories and women’s writing then I highly recommend this book.




8 thoughts on “180 Degrees: New Fiction by South African Women Writers

  1. Caroline says:

    This sounds like a very interesting anthology and a great way to get to know new authors. I’m not all that familiar with South African writing. I’ve read a few writers but not many. The themes strike me as very universal.
    Is there a companion with stories by men?
    I’m curious to know why they chose only women.
    I’m reading an anthlogy with 30 stories from German women writers and in their case I know, it is because they are so often overshadowed by men. Especially the earlier writers.

  2. That’s what I love about anthologies; they are a great way to discover new authors! I don’t think there is a companion stories by men but the feeling I got, like the anthology you’re reading, that this was a literary revolt against the hegemony of men in Africa.

  3. Risa says:

    Thank you for stopping by my blog and welcome to the blogosphere! :D…. I really enjoyed reading this post of yours. Especially as it started with your opinion about ‘women writers’.I just want to comment on that — it’s a pity that men and women writers are segregated as so. In many ways we’re doing an injustice, not only to the women, but to the men as well. However, through many conversations with others I’ve lately discovered the rather derogatory way in which men consider women writers. If something is written by a woman then it’s not worth reading, so they say. I believe works like Gone with the Wind and Thorn Birds are scorned because they are written by women and so are automatically assumed to be of the Mills&Boon or Harlequinn variety. I can see then why women are still struggling in the literary world. It has just occured to me, perhaps if women writers weren’t sold out with a title, perhaps ‘men’ would pick those books up and then judge them according to their works and not their gender. The title ‘Women Writers’ actually tends to work against women writers…I think.

    As for the stories…I really like your reviews on the two you chose to mention. The little excerpts sound good and intriguing. I haven’t read anything by any African writer (save a couple of poems by Maya Angelou). I really should seek to remedy that!

    • I definitely agree with you- the title ‘women’s writing’ works against women. I think that’s why the author who made the collection felt the need to explain the title of the book in the foreword.
      It is sad, how women are still struggling, even today, to claim their spot on the literary map. I’m not suggesting men don’t struggle, it’s just that they don’t have an adjective that’s working against them.
      If you’re looking for a place to start with modern African literature, I say this book is a good one 🙂 I hope you enjoy it and make sure to let me know 🙂

  4. Amy says:

    I haven’t read many African writers but this anthology seems a great place to start. I like how the idea of women’s writing was addressed and I agree – in some cases – there is a difference, but I tend not to think much about the gender of the author and focus more on the writing itself. But that could just be me.

    • It is a good place to start, I definitely suggest it 🙂 And I also think your approach is the right one; it should be about the writing itself, not the gender, or the race or the religion od the writer… If the writing is good, it should speak for itself.

  5. Nymeth says:

    I don’t know – a lot of people feel they can tell the difference, but then there’s James Tiptree Jr and research using double bind tests showing otherwise. Variety is indeed a good thing, but intra-gender variety is so much bigger than gender differences will ever be. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one 😛 (Having said that, I DO dislike the label “women’s fiction” immensely.)

    • I like “agreeing to disagree”- it provides me with a fresh perspective to view the topic 🙂
      It is true though; if I lived back then, I could’ve never understood that James Tiptree Jr was in fact a “woman writer”.

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