Black South African Women Writers: Narrating the Self, Narrating the Nation

Thumbnail Image


Publication or External Link






This dissertation examines the ways in which Black women writers construct the South African nation in their fiction. Based on analyses of four novels, Miriam Tlali's Muriel at Metropolitan (1979), Lauretta Ngcobo's And They Didn't Die (1989), Zoë Wicomb's David's Story (2000), and Sindiwe Magona's Mother to Mother (1998), it examines how those most disenfranchised by the policy of apartheid in South Africa articulated, configure and re-imagine the nation through their writing.

It also investigates how these women writers construct themselves as writing subjects in a society that has historically denied them creative and personal agency. I view Black women's writing as a form of activism and resistance to apartheid, and situate the production of their novels within the larger political context of twentieth century South Africa. The dissertation thus focuses on the ways in which the apartheid doctrine affected Black women's lives politically and as producers of writing.

Drawing theoretically on Mamphele Ramphela's conceptualizations of space, Carole Boyce Davies' formulation of Black women writers as "migratory" subjects, and life course theory, I analyze life history interviews with four writers in an attempt to map the ways they transcended their "received" identities as laborers and reproducers of labor for the apartheid nation, to become authors of their own lives and works. I expand traditional feminist definitions of agency, arguing that, for these women, writing became an act that was cumulatively agentic, instilling in them increased personal agency. This outcome was the opposite of the apartheid's state intended goal of oppressing and silencing these writers. I further argue that in writing, the authors were engaged in creative re-visioning - a subject's ability to re-envision or reimagine what is possible for her to achieve within her lifetime.

The dissertation then goes on to examine four novels produced by Tlali, Ngcobo, Magona, and Wicomb, emphasizing the ways in which these texts undermine unitary, masculinist forms of nationalisms, be these apartheid or emerging African nationalisms. I conclude by proposing a Black South African feminist literary criticism as a means for producing literary texts about Black women and as a methodology for interpreting such texts.