Bookmarks: Great Reads for Spring 2008
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The Writing Circle
By Rozena Maart
Using rotating perspectives, Maart shows how the women in a South African writing group react when one of them is raped. As they help her cope, they’re forced past boundaries of friendship to confront apartheid and class.
Review From: Amazon.com
five women, many wounds…the mystery of it all, May 21, 2008
Bethany L. Canfield “B&b ex libris” (Corvallis, OR,USA.)
It is easy to hear that Maart’s every desire is for the people of her nation, and others like it around the world, to open closed ears stunned by an ugly tradition. That all people of all races would listen to the cries of women and girls and to heed the suffering that surrounds them is real and needs attention. The dark and horrid secrets of uncles, fathers, and husbands shriek out from Rozena Maart’s The Writing Circle.
This book is a novel, but it is not based on fiction, but fact, as South Africa is one of the nations with the highest number of reported rapes (and estimated 500,000 cases of rape every year!) The law pass system, is one that becomes a breeding venue for rape and incest. The men are removed from the homes, placed in hostel like locations in the city thus leaving families unprotected in the country. Before that apartheid. Those in power feel the freedom to do as they please with their supposed inferiors. When those angry, powerless inferiors became free…things did not improve in the aspect of women’s voice.
Rozena Maart’s newest novel far exceeds expectations. Maart’s narrative style and lyrical prose prove why she is one of the best at her craft.
Indigo/Chapters Reviewers, 2007.
. . . a universal tale of profound suffering, grief, and, refreshingly, humour . . .
Quill & Quire, September 2007.
Maart writes with self-assuredness . . . [A] competent and trustworthy writer— Books in Canada
Launch and Promotion in Canada, 3rd December 2007.
The Writing Circle
Published in Canada by TSAR Publishers, December 2007.
A New novel set in today’s Cape Town . . .
Five women gather every Friday night to discuss writing memory, writing the body. Isabel, returning home, where the writing circle meets, is attacked in her car at gunpoint and raped. But she manages to turn the gun on her attacker and shoots him. In coping with the killing, the disposal of the body, and the breakdown and recovery of Isabel, we learn about the intersecting personal lives of the women—Isabel, Jazz, Carmen, Beauty, and Amina, all successful professionals in today’s South Africa. And when the body is discovered, and the identity of the attacker revealed, all their stereotypes fall away. The novel is narrated by all five women in their individual styles.
News and Reviews:
The Writing Circle by Rozena Maart
Reviewed by Calgary’s Jennie Palmer
Every Friday night in a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, a group of five female writers gather to discuss literature and life. The novel begins with the women gathering for the writing circle, but one of the members is missing. She is being raped at gunpoint in her car, only a few meters away from her friends who await
The Writing Circle begins with the rape of one woman, but the effects of sexual and physical violence on all five of the women is a common theme throughout the book. After their friend is raped, the members of the writing circle are forced to confront the many issues of violence and racism that are a very real part of life for women in South Africa.
The book is told from the perspectives of all the women, with each character narrating two chapters. Because of this the story can be somewhat convoluted and difficult to keep track of the characters at times. However, the story is well written and will entertain readers with its murder-mystery feel and surprise ending. Maart successfully engages readers with her descriptive writing and the charming use of Cape Townian slang throughout.
While reading the book I continually noticed that all the women were very concerned with safety. They rarely travelled without a companion, they all used their cell phones to constantly check up on each others whereabouts, and their brothers, husband or boyfriends picked them up and dropped them off almost everywhere. I wondered why the women were so worried, but it soon became clear that a woman’s personal safety is a serious matter in South Africa.
Sexual violence pervades South African society. A BBC article from 2002 states that women born in South Africa have a greater chance of being raped than of learning how to read. With one of the highest rates of rape in the world, one in four girls face the prospect of being raped before the age of 16.
Maart was born in Cape Town but now lives in Guelph, Ontario. She witnessed first hand the rampant sexual abuse against women in South Africa. As a social worker in emergency and gynaecology at a Cape Town hospital in the late 80’s, she saw cases of rape and sexual assault daily. Since the 80’s she has dedicated her life’s work to ending violence against women, and her efforts were vindicated in 1987 when she was nominated for South Africa’s Woman of the Year award.
The Writing Circle is a thought-provoking novel that delves into the lives of normal women who deal with the threat of sexual assault daily. It serves as a reminder that violence against women knows no boundaries of class or race, and that the effects of sexual violence on the lives of women are disturbing and profound.
This review below was written by Dianne who is an avid reader and blogger from carpe(e) libris.
The Writing Circle by Rozena Maart
When I first started reading The Writing Circle by Rozena Maart (TSAR Publications), I immediately began wondering about the character Isabel. Why did she need someone to follow her home from work? Why did her house have large security gates around it, and why was someone supposed to watch for her at the window? Was she so important? But as I read further, I realized all the female characters were living the same way. No woman was leaving her house after dark without a male chaperon, and to do so meant admonishments from family and friends. Everyone had cell phones and checked in with each other constantly. Why? The answer was simple: They’re women living in Cape Town, South Africa.
With a little research online, I was to learn The Writing Circle was not a strange and dark fairy tale, but a story based on the scary truth: South Africa has one of the highest levels of reported rape in the world. And when you consider a large percentage of rapes are never even reported, you have an even bigger problem that cannot be ignored.
Rozena Maart handles her characters with compassion and sensitivity, revealing the fear they live with daily and the memories they have to face when their writing group friend, Isabel, is raped in the driveway as they await her arrival. Each chapter gives a character a chance to speak in her own voice, every voice unique and richly layered. Their stories and how they deal with their friend’s mental breakdown after the rape make this more than a book – it should be used as a tool to help loved ones of rape victims to understand the tragedy that continues to occur even after the rape has been committed.
The Writing Circle is a beautifully written, heartbreaking piece that will open your eyes to not only the issues of sexual assault, but to racism and biased viewpoints as well. Maart has written a novel with a greater purpose, one that will educate and enrich. If your book club is looking for a book to spark meaningful conversation and bring awareness to the group, no matter where you live, The Writing Circle will deliver that and more.
THE UNITER— University of Winnipeg
Arts & Culture
Cape Town author shares apartheid era stories
By Whitney Light
Rozena Maart’s book The Writing Circle is now available from Tsar Books.
Canadians don’t imagine violence the way South Africans do, contends Rozena Maart, but writing could help us understand. Born and raised in Cape Town in the apartheid era and now a resident of Guelph, Ont., Maart is a writer and scholar who knows the extent to which aggression, fights, rape and even murder intrude into the everyday lives of South Africans. As a social worker in emergency and gynecology at a Cape Town hospital in the late `80s, Maart saw cases of rape and sexual assault daily; helping end violence against women has become her life’s work. Partly this has meant sharing stories, as Maart does in her most recent novel about the lives of five South African women, The Writing Circle.
Maart read the opening chapter of the novel for an audience at the University of Winnipeg last week. Set in the present, a group of women who gather weekly to discuss their writing about the body wait for their final member to arrive, who unbeknownst to them is being raped at gunpoint in her own car, hijacked only a few metres away. Though she escapes after turning the gun on the rapist, the members of The Writing Circle must deal with their emotions and reflections after the awful scene.
Such instances of violence in South Africa, said Maart, are never as easy as black and white because crimes were occurring against a backdrop of apartheid and the fight against it, and continue to occur. At the Cape Town hospital, Maart said, she recognized that the perpetrators of sex crimes were often men in positions of power within anti-apartheid political organizations. The villain in The Writing Circle likewise turns out to defy all stereotypes.
“That was one of the horrors of working [at the hospital]: of knowing the people who came in and who they were raped and sexually assaulted by because I had to apply through the court system for abortions, because [abortion] was illegal.”
After the white South African government banned the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela was jailed following the 1963 Rivonia Trial, the anti-apartheid struggle intensified, said Maart, with the unsettling side effect of silencing talk of violence against women. To combat this silence, Maart, with a group of other women, started Women Against Repression (WAR), the first black feminist organization in South Africa. Some criticized WAR’s mandate at the time, but Maart’s efforts were vindicated in 1987 when she was nominated for South Africa’s Woman of the Year.
“There were a lot of challenges [to WAR] because it was during the anti-apartheid struggle,” Maart said. “I think men in positions of authority within political organizations were completely opposed [to it] because it was taking away from the emphasis on the struggle.”
During apartheid, the world imagined South Africa primarily through the writings of white major literary figures such as Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. Now, however, with writers such as Maart, the literary scene is quite different.
“My generation, who were involved politically, has a very different set of interests,” Maart said.
Her previous novel, Rosa’s District Six, for instance, depicts life in a suburb of Cape Town through several short stories about different women’s lives that are connected through Rosa, a young girl who runs about the neighbourhood with a notepad and a pencil around her neck. It’s a story with the jumping, playing, laughing and skipping of childhood, and for Maart, that’s as much a part of apartheid history as any other story.
But why write fiction and not history? In Maart’s view, history is the stuff of historians, sociologists, and political scientists concerned with important dates, leaders, and oppression at particular moments. Fiction, in some ways, offers something more powerful.
“Fiction allows you a particular insight as a reader to understand a society, a culture, an environment, by the people who live in it.”
So through her characters, Maart communicates something that is much more than simply a picture of violence. Through them a window opens, into the rich histories of people who may well encounter violence more often than most Canadians’ imaginations can conjure, but who live and work and love and carry on.
Quill & Quire
The Writing Circle
Rozena Maart; $20.95 paper 978-1-894770-37-8, 208 pp., 5¾ x 7¾, Tsar Publications, Oct.
Reviewed by Laurel Smith
The Writing Circle is a welcome follow-up to Rozena Maart’s enchanting first novel, Rosa’s District 6. Her second novel is centred around five women who form a weekly writing circle in a suburban South African city. All are successful professionals, but their lives are torn asunder by a brutal attack on one of their members. The resulting events force the women to question their lives, confront their secrets, and re-evaluate their friendships.
Each chapter is told in the voice of one of the women. They recount their personal stories, revealing their reactions to the horrific events of the present and reflecting on their past lives. This structure allows the reader to experience an intense degree of empathy for each woman. However, it also means that the story becomes somewhat convoluted; tracking the narrative and the people within can be difficult at times.
The brutality that lies just beneath the sophisticated veneer of these women’s lives is depicted with honesty and immediacy, and is yet another reminder that violence against women knows no class boundaries. Told almost as a murder mystery (complete with a twist ending), the intertwining stories create a universal tale of profound suffering, grief, and, refreshingly, humour.
Reviewed by Laurel Smith