Sunday, October 26, 2003

A new book focuses on women writers in southern Africa

Margo Jefferson, writing for the Books section of The New York Times, recommends a new anthology of writers.

Sometimes literature itself puts a country on our internal map. At about the same time the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize, Oprah's Book Club announced that its next selection would be another South African novel, Alan Paton's 1948 book, ''Cry, the Beloved Country.'' To learn more about South Africa, I turned to the Feminist Press's rich new anthology ''Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region.'' It's an amazing resource, close to 600 pages, and it's a true collaboration, the work of seven editors from four countries. The 20 or so original languages include English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa and siNdebele. The traditions are oral and written: there are poems and folktales, stories, diaries and political documents starting from the 1830's.

An anonymous widow's chant from Lesotho (first collected in 1836) has the ring of Greek choral poetry.

Would that I had wings to fly up to the sky!

Why does not a strong cord come down from the sky?

I would tie it to me, I would mount,

I would go there to live.

And here's the black South African journalist Marian Morel describing, with sardonic brilliance, a 1959 Capetown beauty contest:

''The girls -- colored, Indian and African -- had to provide their own dresses. Factory workers, domestic workers, waitresses by day. Now with a dab of powder, a secret twist of their dresses, they were trying to become the Princess for the Night.

'' 'Gonna, I feel like a baggage of nerves,' one girl told me. 'I wish I wasn't competing. I wish I was just spectating like you.' . . .

''The band swung into 'Anchors Aweigh' and the girls sailed in. . . . A fellow in an orange shirt posted himself behind No. 19, and every now and then licked her left ear. She didn't blink an eyelash. I gave her 10 out of 10 for poise.''

I've been a fan of South African literature for as long as I've been politically conscious. When I consider how much my life has been enriched by Nadine Gordimer, Athol Fugard, Bessie Head and other writers of the country, I am amazed. Amid its political strife, southern Africa has produced a wealth of observers of what it means to be human in the twentieth century. If the new anthology from the Feminist Press is a guide, that legacy will continue into this one.

Note: My blog is Silver Rights.

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