South African Womxn Writers – Day 3: The Johannesburg Review of Books editor, Jennifer Malec, reflects

South Africa has a rich literary history, but it hasn’t always been representative. I feel very lucky to be editing a literary magazine at this point in South Africa’s story. While we still have a long way to go, it’s undeniably an exciting time to be in books. Our publishing industry is becoming more inclusive, writers who would previously not have been given a platform are forging new and innovative self-publishing paths, and we’re seeing the careers of writers who came of age in democratic South Africa begin to soar.

We’ve covered many excellent South African womxn writers in The Johannesburg Review of Books since we launched back in May 2017, and I’ll be introducing a few here. To list them all would take many more words than I have been commissioned to write, and I’ve already blown my word count, so—shameless self-promotion alert!—if any of these writers appeal to you, subscribe to The JRB (it’s free) to receive our monthly online magazine in your inbox.

I’d like to begin by mentioning a few of our womxn contributors, because to me literary criticism is a vital and underrated—and elegant!—part of the literary machine.

First, our Francophone and Contributing Editor Efemia Chela, who hosts a magical series called Temporary Sojourner in which she travels through Africa by reading a book from various countries. Her writing combines astute observation with poetic turns of phrase—a skill I am quite envious of. Read, for example, her recent review of Maaza Mengiste’s Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, The Shadow King:

‘Mengiste explores each image in vivid descriptions, each detail within the corners—a cunning posture, a tense plait, a demure chin. It fools us into thinking we are not alone with a book in a corner of the house but leafing through the personal archive of a dedicated rememberer, thrilling to the layered, secret nature of it.’

Another writer we feel privileged to publish is Khanya Mtshali, who has one of the sharpest critical minds I’ve come across. She’s fair, but tough—and this latter trait is a rare one in a small, intimate literary community like South Africa’s. She has also been known to turn her hand to fiction, and contributed a dark and witty story to our 2019 Fiction Issue. You can read that here.

Our regular contributor Mbali Sikakana is another writer who can be relied upon to turn in something exceptional. Her 2018 interview with the novelist Songeziwe Mahlangu, which focuses on the challenges faced by debut Black authors in South Africa, has become quite legendary. More recently, she tackled the thorny question of whether South African literature is perceived as insular by the rest of the world. The results were illuminating.

Finally, if you’re looking for a new way to think about South African literature, look no further than the literary and cultural criticism of Panashe Chigumadzi. Her essays are not for the faint of heart, but it’s well worth your time to make a cup of coffee, sit down and dig in. You’ll end up looking at things in a different way. Panashe’s essay on JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, for example, examines her complicated and intensely personal relationship with a book that, when she first read it at eighteen years old, she wished could be banned. And after the death of legendary Zimbabwe-born South African jazz artist Dorothy Masuka in 2019, Panashe composed a fascinating re-reading of Masuka’s work, career and life, arguing that the singer presented a brave, revolutionary challenge to white supremacy and structural patriarchy.

Turning to another razor-sharp form of writing: in every issue of the JRB we feature new or original poetry, courtesy of our poetry editor Rustum Kozain, and we have been pleasantly surprised at how popular this feature is. Many of these writers happen to be South African womxn, and since that is the focus of this piece I’d like to take the opportunity to refer you to some recent features here: Read an excerpt from Fiona Zerbst’s new collection, In Praise of Hotel Rooms; ‘Nipple Hair’, a new poem by Genna Gardini; new work, in memory of Matsephe Letseka, by Isobel Dixon; Koleka Putuma’s powerful ‘EVERY / THREE HOURS’, the title of which refers to how frequently womxn are murdered in South Africa; and some white-hot verse by Maya Surya Pillay.

You can also dip into Toni Giselle Stuart’s suitably intimate review of Gabeba Baderoon’s poetry collection The History of Intimacy, which won the 2019 University of Johannesburg Main Prize and a 2020 Humanities and Social Sciences Award.

Our Patron Makhosazana Xaba, who happens to be a very fine poet herself (read an excerpt from her latest collection, The Alkalinity of Bottled Water, here), recently edited an anthology of the writing of Black South African womxn poets, and the excerpt we featured in JRB, ‘Surely This [Mother Tongue] Should Count for Something’, an interview with five contemporary poets from Gauteng, is extremely pertinent to the question of translation in South Africa. I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in translation, to understand why this is such a complex and controversial topic here.

Now I’d like to turn to what is perhaps the area of the JRB we’d like most to expand, a notion our audience would agree with wholeheartedly, and that’s original short fiction.

We publish short stories by writers from around the world—our recent fourth annual Fiction Issue is testament to that—but, keeping studiously to brief, I’ll mention some of our recent South African womxn contributors here. Julie Nxadi blew us away in the early days of the JRB when she submitted a story called ‘Love Back’, about a young girl ‘sent on a mission to get her father’s love back’:

‘Washed in iyeza, to mask izothe that her mother says she was born with, she was to stand before him and pull him back from indifference.’

The story is understated but powerful, and formally interesting too. Since then Julie has contributed two further pieces of writing, equally arresting. I expect big things. Watch this space.

In 2017, unsuspectingly, we published ‘Monkeys’, a gem of a short story by a writer called Keletso Mopai. Since then, Keletso’s career has detonated, crowned by her acclaimed short story collection If You Keep Digging, which was published in 2019. We were delighted to welcome her back to our pages in our recent Fiction Issue, with a new, hard-hitting short story called ‘Six Girls’.

Perhaps one of my favourite pieces of fiction we’ve published is ‘Snake Story’, by our Contributing Editor and lauded author Henrietta Rose-Innes. The story began life on Twitter, a strange medium for a writer who describes herself, in the author’s note that accompanies the piece, as ‘a secretive soul who hates to show her working’. But the character limit affected Henrietta’s writing in strange and interesting ways, and the story is somehow other-wordly and yet eerily familiar—perhaps because it feels like a half-remembered dream. Highly recommended.

Lastly, with the lines between genres becoming more blurred by the day, I’d like to highlight some of the notable non-fiction by South African womxn we have featured.

In 2017, we published ‘I want my legs back’, an almost unbearably moving piece of confessional writing by Palesa ‘Deejay’ Manaleng. Today, Deejay is one of South Africa’s top para-athletes. But this particular story begins in 2014, the day she had the cycling accident that changed her life. It’s brutal, it’s funny, it will make you want to contribute to Deejay’s Backabuddy.

In early 2018, Makhosazana Xaba approached us saying she’d like to write about a book called Eyes in the Night: An Untold Zulu Story by Nomavenda Mathiane for The JRB. The book had been published two years earlier, in 2016, and we usually try to focus on recently published work, but Khosi was resolute, so we agreed. The result is a sparkling review of a book that, as Khosi puts it, brings to the fore previously-unheard voices and leads us to previously-unknown spaces. When that issue of The JRB was published, we had a number of people reach out to tell us they went out and bought the book after reading the review, which is possibly the best thing you can tell the editor of a literary journal.

And finally, this year, in July, we published a piece of creative nonfiction titled ‘Does my chest sound tight to you?’, notes from the first forty days of South Africa’s lockdown by playwright and author Nadia Davids. Quite apart from her eloquence and striking powers of observation—the atmosphere and emotions will be uncannily familiar to those who lived through those awful weeks—Nadia displayed what seems to me to be quite superhuman strength in documenting the days when most of us were zombified, merely existing and watching TV. Once all this has passed, this will be the piece I return to to remind myself of how strange 2020 was.

So that’s a brief summary of some of the writing by South African womxn writers we have been privileged enough to publish over the last few years. We have no intention of stopping, so if you are interested in South African—and indeed African—womxn’s writing, keep in touch.

I’d like to end with the words of Margie Orford, author, President Emerita of PEN South Africa and board member of PEN International, and member of The JRB Editorial Advisory Panel, from a piece she wrote for The JRB on the PEN International Women’s Manifesto, which was launched in 2018:

‘The vitality and beauty of literature is diminished if women’s stories are not told and when women’s voices are not heard.’

A sentiment The JRB strives to live by.

Jennifer Malec is the founding editor of The Johannesburg Review of Books (@JoburgReview), an independent literary journal that publishes writing from South Africa, Africa and beyond, and the publisher of The Reading List (@readinglist_), a news website for books and the publishing industry. In 2019 she won a South African Literary Award for Literary Journalism, and as the editor of Books LIVE she won Arts Journalism Awards in 2015 (News: Gold) and 2016 (Features: Silver), and the 2016 African Blogger Award for Best in Arts and Culture. She has an MA from UCT and spent a number of years as a soccer journalist. Twitter: @projectjennifer

This month’s blog is curated by Jen Thorpe.

Jen Thorpe is a feminist writer. Her first novel, The Peculiars (2016), was long listed for the Etisalat Prize for Literature (2016) and the Sunday Times Fiction Prize (2017). Her second novel, The Fall, was published in July 2020. Thorpe has edited three collections of feminist essays – My First Time: Stories of Sex and Sexuality from Women Like You (2012); Feminism Is: South Africans Speak Their Truth (2018) and Living While Feminist (2020). Her writing has been published in Brittle Paper, Saraba Magazine, Jalada, and Litro. Find out more via Jen is also the host of the Living While Feminist Podcast available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Anchor, or wherever you get your podcasts.

4 thoughts on “South African Womxn Writers – Day 3: The Johannesburg Review of Books editor, Jennifer Malec, reflects

  1. I am one of those who immediately ordered, read and reviewed Eyes in the Night, and I not only ordered, read and reviewed Dancing the Death Drill, but have also been quoting on my blog what Fred Khumalo had to say in the JRB about the value of historical fiction as a way of revealing untold history from voices that have been silenced.
    Someone who regularly reads my blog has a strong dislike of historical fiction: he is adamant that we should only read the authentic voices of people writing in that era. That, it seems to me, is racist and sexist because (not just in South Africa but elsewhere as well) People of Colour and women did not have the opportunity to publish their stories so we don’t have the opportunity to read them. But when authors weave oral history and story-telling passed down through the generations into contemporary historical fiction, we hear those stories at last and they become part of a shared narrative of history.
    Cheers, Lisa Hill, Melbourne, Australia


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