Black and Present: A review of Barbara Boswell’s And Wrote My Story Anyway

Black and Present: A review of Barbara Boswell’s And Wrote My Story Anyway

Mandisa Haarhoff

In her first academic book, And Wrote My Story Anyway, published 2020 by Wits Press, Barbara Boswell animates significant contributions to feminist thought made by Black South African women writers.

These writers have often been undermined by critics such as Lewis Nkosi as mere stenographers concerned with motherhood, naïve reportage on apartheid horrors, and autobiography. Boswell challenges this reduction of Black women’s intellectual labour and articulates the literary topography their works make possible, the theoretical grammar of their narratives, and the aesthetic inventions of their imagined world.

What is it to “forcefully create” oneself? To “foresee the future through writing”? To “create new worlds out of nothing?” What is it to be transgressive as a Black South African Woman?” To “write your story anyway?” How do Black women write against and within the restrictions of being Black and women in an antiblack and heteropatriarchal world devised to deny their capacious creativity?

To foreground this unruly insistence, Boswell retells Gcina Mhlophe’s short story, ‘The Toilet’ (1987), from which the title And Wrote My Story Anyway, is taken. In this story, Mhlophe writes of a young woman who pursues her desire for writing poetry while facing the dehumanizing conditions of living under apartheid. The character discovers a toilet in a park reserved for whites only and transforms it into a safe haven where she can write her poetry. This safety and privacy are short lived however, when she arrives a few days later to find the toilet locked, in keeping with the inhospitable environment of the entire country at the time. The character defiantly walks over to a bench and writes her story anyway.

Throughout the book, Boswell offers acute readings of how these writers assert their creative voice and navigate the tightrope of writing with no certainty that their work will be published, distributed and reviewed in their own terms. Black writers were barely, if even, taught in schools and were hardly accessible in the public terrain due to extreme censorship during apartheid.

The South African literary landscape, like the toilet, has been primarily reserved for whites only and academic spaces centre white writers. Yet still, black writers, especially black women writers have built an archive spread throughout the continent and across the diaspora.

Miriam Tlali’s Muriel in Metropolitan and Lauretta Ngcobo’s Cross of Gold were banned by the South African government and published outside of the country after repeated rejections by publishers.

This should remind one of Thando Mgqolozana’s comments at the Franschhoek Festival in 2015 where he outrightly named that South Africa suffers from a “colonial literary system”. In the aftermath of the Rhodes Must Fall movement where university students throughout the country called for the transformation of the curriculum to include black thought, And Wrote My Story Anyway not only makes visible the long history of black women’s literary productions but also their vital intervention in feminist thought, racial geographies, and queer theory.

And Wrote My Story Anyway is a timely offering that discursively engages with the anti-apartheid activism and reimagining of Miriam Tlali, Lauretta Ngcobo; the dissenting voices of Farida Karodia and Agnes Sam; the pursuit of truth in Zoë Wicomb and Sindiwe Magona’s work; the forceful creativity of Bessie Head and Gcina Mhlophe, the revealing slave narratives Yvette Christiansë and Rayda Jacobs; and the expansion of gender and sexuality by Kagiso Lesego Molope and Zukiswa Wanner.

Through this book, she carves a genealogy of black women’s writing, specifically in the form of the novel, and the aesthetic and theoretical grounds for feminist thinking that these texts provide.

Boswell leads by asking “what we can learn from the literary output of those most negatively impacted by colonialism and apartheid – black women – if we consider their writing as a set of theories that produce a praxis towards a more just social order.” Through this lens, Boswell invites rigorous consideration of how these writers write themselves into a literary and public landscape that is structured to erase them and offer language for a politics of resistance and worlding otherwise.

She details in the span of six body chapters the multiple ways in which black women writers, like Bessie Head, forcefully created themselves under extreme conditions of being black and woman in South Africa. This creating takes the vast, intimate, often incommunicable experience of being a black woman and turns it into theoretical grammar. Drawing on Carole Boyce Davies’ notion of ‘migratory subjectivity,’ for Boswell, “black women’s writing signals personal agency, since the act of writing, for a black woman, consists of a series of boundary-crossings requiring an active agent to do such crossing”. In this book, Boswell maps these boundary-crossings, engaging the ways in which black women’s writing invites us to rethink the geographical, national, racial, patriarchal, and even aesthetic strictures.

The book challenges the relation between women and/as nation, building on feminist discourses that point to the danger of conflating women with nation. Particularly considering Zoë Wicomb and Sindiwe Magona’s work, Boswell discusses how the post-apartheid nation, so also the colonial-apartheid state, is built not only on the deferment of women’s rights, but the very illegibility of black women, their lives and experience, within the national terrain.

Boswell analytically discusses how Black women writers under apartheid and currently tend toward blackness as generative grounds for imagining, revealing queer feminist possibilities in South Africa.

To tend to blackness in these texts, and through the theorizing analysis Boswell offers, is to consider the critical and feminist possibilities of subversion, borderlessness, incoherence, of spectacle, of being elusive, fractured, abstracted, ambiguous, slipping through the bounds of reasonableness and respectability, without category, writing into the fissures, forced silences, and devised gaps, insisting on much more than mere survival in the nationalist, racist, and androcentric world which can only marginally include women.

To determine their narrative in the literary landscape and women’s lives in literary imagining these writers forcefully engage their identities as marked, threatening, and incommensurable. They escape the critical markers of aesthetic acceptance by both Black male and white critics precisely for the reasons that defines their black womanhood. Their writing settles into otherness – privileged by neither race nor gender– as queer feminist praxis, fractured existence as repudiation of racist and patriarchal hierarchical taxonomy. They do not offer their characters attainable escape from the strictures which contextualize their lives and rather offer the world of these characters as grammar for worlding outside of nationalist, white and male centred human rights, and formulaic aesthetic codes. They offer no neat conclusions, progressivist pursuits, or even transcendence.

To “write my story anyway” is to expose the racist, heteropatriarchal, nationalist, and androcentric ways of reading as pathogen, to bring the ghostly fleshiness of female bodies into sharp, unapologetic, and unreconstructed view.

Barbara Boswell ‘lays bare’ or ‘makes visible’ the works of black women whose literary production has been ignored by androcentric and racist critical traditions in South African literature.” Boswell is not concerned with considering black women’s writing within the scope of black male and white writing that is centered as South African literature, and rather traces the terrain of black women’s writing in their own aesthetic and theoretical interventions.

To read black women’s writing, Boswell insists, is to move with the disruptions, consider the chaotic, lean toward the alternate, listen for the questions, be with the shadows, the wayward, attend to rupture, theorise both out of time and out of place. Boswell writes, “A black South African feminist literary theory, then, accounts for the ways in which not only colonization, but also the singularly destructive inhumanity of apartheid inflected and structured people’s lives and continues to shape collective and individual futures.”

Keeping in spirit with the writers in her book, And Wrote My Story Anyway is an act of transgression. By recording, academically upholding, and publicly reckoning with the work of Black women writers, Boswell stands in resistance of the structures of exclusion and erasure by which Black women’s intellectual outputs continue to be marginalized. This is why And Wrote My Story Anyway is necessary in all institutions of learning, archival records, and a great read for any person interested in co-imagining a black, queer, feminist and accessible world.

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