Category Archives: African Literature

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.