When writer and academic Barbara Boswell was 20 years old, she came across a book by fiction writer Bessie Head, The Cardinals and Other Stories. At the time she was a journalist living in Cape Town, when South Africa was on the brink of democracy. Boswell turned the book over and saw a photograph of Head, and this moment would define her life’s path.
“As a child of apartheid,” she says over a Zoom call, “I had never read a book by a writer that looked like me and that was set in the space I grew up in. At that moment, it became a possibility for me to write.”
Boswell’s first encounter with Head remains a familiar story, decades into democracy. In many ways, structurally and otherwise, the historical work of black South African women writers remains invisibilised and devalued in mainstream canons, much like the broad, distinct and incredibly nuanced subject matter of their lives and pens. Boswell’s new book, And Wrote My Story Anyway: Black South African Women’s Novels as Feminism, speaks directly into and against this reality.
Documenting and analysing the work of quintessential South African black feminist writers, she puts forward the idea that their powerful and audacious work, while written as fiction, transcends it and becomes a site of generating critical theory.
In And Wrote My Story Anyway, Boswell writes: “Since black women have been historically – and, to a differing degree, are currently – denied access to sites of formal theory-making, their fiction can be viewed as a site of prodigious theoretical production, as a discursive ‘place’ where they critique an existing unjust political order, and imagine an alternative, more socially just world.”
Published by Wits Press and scheduled for release in September, the book urges the importance of rethinking and recreating the canon to include writers such as Miriam Tlali, Lauretta Ngcobo, Agnes Sam, Farida Karodia, Zoë Wicomb, Sindiwe Magona, Yvette Christiansë, Rayda Jacobs, Kagiso Lesego Molope and Zukiswa Wanner. Boswell chose these authors as “their works and lives present us with a series of firsts”. In addition, the writers’ texts all point to particular moments in apartheid and post-apartheid and actively do the work to interogate how nations are constituted.
Explaining why she embarked on this epic task of documenting and archiving, Boswell says, “It was a book I needed to read all my life.” She pauses and touches her hand to her neck, hesitating, and continues, “And so I have done it. We learn so much from reading their novels. It gives us guidance on how to do this living thing.”
While her new book documents how other black women writers have made fiction a site of feminist theory, it is made more poignant as Boswell’s work does this, too.
Boswell’s first novel Grace is set primarily in post-apartheid Cape Town. It was published in 2017 and won the University of Johannesburg 2018 Debut Creative Writing Award. Growing up in a house with a violent father, she describes writing Grace as a way to exorcise the demons. “I wanted to understand what makes a man do such violent things. I still don’t. So I drew on memory and from there it took on a life of its own.”
In her writerly hand, Grace becomes a crucial site of making theory, a place to locate black womens’ abundant realities and where their abundant stories matter.
The book tells the story of Grace, who struggles to navigate her way through her trauma from growing up with a violent father and under apartheid. As the story unfolds, it becomes a space that comments deeply on gendered violence, showing the inextricable link that connects personal violence with structural violence and revealing how it plays out in the country (and world) in which we live. Boswell’s understanding and articulation of the complicity of community in violence is sharp and suggests the need for several undertakings of interrogation: individual, communal and societal. She warns in an interview with literary podcast Cheeky Natives, “We are often told to forget about the past. When there is no justice, it comes back to haunt us.”
Read against the context of South Africa’s gender violence, Grace documents the importance and urgency of this story, the complexity of this narrative, and still holds on to hope, urging self-interrogation and honesty. The story is finely tuned to a thread of lives shaped in this place, as the lives of black women are established in meaning and matter. Boswell, like the authors she documents in her upcoming book, writes about lives that have long been viewed as too ordinary, not valuable and ultimately easily transactional in our economies of attention and being.
When presented with the idea that her fiction, too, does the theory-making work she describes in And Wrote My Story Anyway, Boswell disagrees. She describes herself as a “modest practitioner of life who is trying to find and make a life that is joyful and has love, both political and personal, at its centre”.
“I am trying to make a tiny radius around me a better place for me having been here,” she says. Interestingly, Boswell thinks of this labour primarily through her teaching and mentoring.
In reading Grace, however, her radius extends outwards. Boswell writes with gentleness and an unwaveringly acute sense of observation and understanding. She depicts the Capetonian community where Grace lives with her mother, Mary, with delicacy but also with instantly recognisable South African tropes such as the lace curtain, endless cups of tea and plumes of cigarette smoke.
Her characters are solidly drawn, and meticulously and timeously unravelled for the reader. Patrick, Grace’s father, is portrayed sensitively and with complexity. Through him and Johnny, Grace’s lover, Boswell explores the links between structural state violence and domestic violence, and how a “nation” functions through family and how patriarchy informs both.
While Patrick remains dislikeable throughout, Boswell is careful to reveal elements of Patrick’s past that contextualise, without excusing, some of the choices he makes, no matter how abominable. Finally, when Grace meets with Patrick many years later at his insistence, to seek his own redemption, the scene reads as layered, difficult, tenuous and ultimately impossible.
Like the authors Boswell archives, with her words she gives us guidance on how to do this living thing.
Enlarging the canon
Boswell says writers are a lot like mediums who, if in tune, become alchemists of sorts. “I think this requires a consciousness, empathy and a sense of justice,” she says. In writing And Wrote My Story Anyway, she illuminates these writer’s broader burning political sensibility, their value, the need for their celebration, and their conjoined intellectual and creative work.
Boswell points out that all spaces are always gendered and racialised. “So, too, is literary production. Who gets to write, and under what circumstances they are allowed to publish, are deeply political issues, infused with power differentials based on race, gender, sexual orientation and one’s place in the world.” The work of black feminist writers disappears, making archiving ever more important. Boswell explains that the works of Tlali, Wicomb and Christiansë are mostly out of print.
She reminds us, “Black women have always been involved in the creation and performance of our literature, especially oral literature.” Women have long been the repositories for stories – familial, communal and national. Boswell speaks about the writers she explores in the book as contributing significantly to a national narrative whether through complicating it, resisting it or the mere political act of writing.
Production as pleasure
Coexisting with this work, Boswell speaks tenderly about writing and telling stories simply for pleasure. Contemplating this, she thinks for a while and says, “I like all forms of writing – fiction, academic and journalling – and take pleasure. Our labour is always in service of others and so to be able to produce something for the pleasure…” She trails off and smiles.
With these words, she moves the conversation against the narrative of only nurturing – in this sense of nurturing family and national stories – towards delightfully radical and useful ideas of joy, celebration and self-love.
Boswell often speaks about the “audacity to write”, a process that is filled with struggle, documenting, research, writing, commitment, dreaming, feeling and consistency. She glows recounting her process. “It is like I enter another realm. A very creative space that becomes my own world. I used to derive intellectual pleasure from writing but now it’s a bodily pleasure, too. A nice blue pen on a white page excites me.”
Boswell’s final words in her novel are resonant, in thinking about her work and the work of the writers she archives. In the book’s closing sentences, Grace remembers the words of her creative, empathetic aunt: “Never forget what you did today. You created something. Don’t you ever forget that you have this inside you: the ability to create an entire universe out of nothing.”
In Boswell’s writing world, the work is twofold. She creates these universes and archives them. In so doing, she ensures that what is produced out of nothing is abundantly remembered.
And Wrote My Story Anyway is scheduled for release in September 2020 from Wits University Press.