Bestselling Author Wilbur Smith Has died in South Africa, aged 88. He wrote some 49 books, including the Courtney series and one that I have only just finished, ‘River God,’ the first in his Ancient Egypt series.
She published more than 70 novels and sold more than 34 million books translated into 29 languages, making her one of Australia’s most successful and prolific authors. Yet many are not familiar with her name.
Valerie Parv passed away suddenly last weekend, a week before her 70th birthday. She began as an advertising copywriter, and her first books, non-fiction home and garden DIY guides, were published in the late 1970s. In the 1980s, she began to publish in the genre she was most well-known for: romance fiction.
Her first romance novel, Love’s Greatest Gamble, was published by Harlequin Mills & Boon in 1982. This was, as Parv noted, a book which “broke a few moulds at the time”, featuring a widowed single mother heroine dealing with the fallout of her late husband’s PTSD-induced gambling addiction.
Parv went on to write 56 more romances across various Harlequin imprints. With these books, she was primarily working in the genre known as category romance — most frequently associated with Mills & Boon in Australia, and sold in print at discount department stores like Kmart, Big W and Target.
Romance fiction is often derided as formulaic. This is especially true for category romance fiction, as publisher guidelines can dictate things like length, setting and level of sexual content. Parv, however, firmly rejected this notion.
“Not when people and their stories are so varied.”
Romance, and aliens
In addition to writing romance, Parv also wrote science fiction novels and a number of non-fiction works. She is the only Australian recipient of the Romantic Times Book Reviews Pioneer award, which honours those who have broken new ground in the development of the romance novel.
Parv was unafraid to experiment, enjoining aspiring authors to “write dangerously” rather than to satisfy the market, and often hybridised genres in her work.
She frequently told an anecdote about her 1987 book The Leopard Tree, which raised the possibility its hero might have arrived by UFO.
While she received pushback on this from the English Harlequin imprint Mills & Boon, the book was published by the American imprint Silhouette, where the book, she would say, “became the poster-child for cutting edge romance for some years afterward”.
Completing her masters degree in 2007, Parv’s thesis was inspired by a question often posed to her by aspiring authors: “where do you get your ideas?”
She explored this question in relation to both her own work and the work of other authors, concluding authors often revisit themes and ideas resonant with their own lives, whether consciously or unconsciously.
In her own work, she observed a consistent preoccupation with characters resolving feelings of alienation, which she linked to the fact her family emigrated from Britain when she was seven, leaving her with a sense of rootlessness.
A writers’ writer
Parv’s professional career is as much a story of community-building as it is the story of an individual author.
An enormous part of her legacy will be her bestselling guides on the craft of writing, including The Art of Romance Writing (1993), Heart and Craft (2009), and, most recently, her part memoir/part writing advice volume 34 Million Books (2020), the title of which is a wink to her own prolific success.
In her writing guides, Parv focused unerringly on practical advice for writing, but also steered away from prescriptivism.
“There’s no one way to write a romance novel, no ‘secret’ that can be applied to every writer and every story,” she wrote in the introduction to Heart and Craft.
Parv was also strongly committed to mentorship. For 20 years, the Valerie Parv Award was run through the Romance Writers of Australia. Winners of the award — fondly referred to by Parv as her “minions” — received a year’s mentorship with Parv.
Nearly all of Parv’s minions have gone on to have works published. Their numbers include several highly successful romance authors, such as Kelly Hunter, Rachel Bailey and Bronwyn Parry.
In 2015, Parv was made a Member of the Order of Australia for significant contributions to the arts — both as a prolific author and as a mentor.
‘I believe in romance’
As a genre, romance fiction has never enjoyed an enormous amount of respect from outside its readership. For this reason, Parv — like her highly prolific and successful peer Emma Darcy, who predeceased her by four months — may never be a household name, despite her service to Australian literary culture: a fact of which she was well aware.
Despite this, she never ceased to advocate for the genre in which she made her career, and in which she assisted so many others to do the same.
Toni Morrison, who has died aged 88, was the most influential and studied American author of her generation. Born as Chloe Wofford in Ohio in 1931, she graduated in 1953 with a B.A. in English from Howard University, a historically black college located in Washington DC. She then completed an M.A. at Cornell on the work of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, before beginning an academic teaching career.
She married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect, in 1958, but after their divorce in 1964 Morrison started working as an editor for Random House in New York. It was here that she began writing fiction, publishing her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970. It was her third novel published in 1977, Song of Solomon, that was her breakthrough work, winning the National Critics’ Book Circle Award.
Her most famous novel, Beloved followed in 1987. It was a fictionalised account of the 19th-century slave Margaret Garner, who killed her own daughter to save her from slavery.
Morrison became a well-known figure within the worlds of American academia, publishing and cultural life. In 1990, she gave the Massey lectures at Harvard dealing with the invisibility of the African American presence in American literature. These influential essays were later published as Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.
The following year Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature. She also held a Chair in the Humanities at Princeton from 1989 until her retirement in 2006 and continued to publish important novels during the latter part of her career.
In her Massey lectures, Morrison spoke of her ambition
to draw a map, so to speak, of a critical geography and use that map to open up as much space for discovery, intellectual adventure, and close exploration as did the original charting of the New World.
Both her creative and her critical work are designed to remap the contours of American literature and culture. She aims to highlight what was omitted in the conventional forms of liberalism that governed institutional life in America during the second half of the 20th century.
Her 1993 novel Jazz, for example, involves a self-conscious revision of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mythological “Jazz Age.” For Fitzgerald himself, this Jazz Age was centred almost exclusively around white culture. By setting her work in Harlem during the same era, Morrison executes in fictional form the remapping project that she outlined in her Harvard lectures.
‘The national amnesia’
Arguing that “the time for undiscriminating racial unity has passed,” Morrison sought, in both her fiction and non-fiction, to expose the “national amnesia” underlying often unconscious forms of racism.
Given such a remarkable career trajectory, it would seem Morrison’s literary reputation at the time of her death could hardly have been higher. Nevertheless, there is a significant gap between Morrison’s status as an Establishment figure and the radical ambiguities of her fiction. The latter, more elusive quality might well sustain her literary reputation more compellingly over time.
In Beloved, Morrison develops a conception of “rememory” (the character Sethe explains in the book this is the act of remembering a memory). Many of her fictions feature ways in which old ghosts haunt contemporary scenes.
The rhetorical reversals that are a common feature of Beloved reflect a condition where past and present, slavery and freedom, are all mixed up together. Indeed, the best of Morrison’s fiction is powerful precisely because it flirts with a pathological quality that avoids one-dimensional, political formulations.
In Tar Baby (1981), the reader is told how the black heroine’s “legs burned with the memory of tar,” despite her degree in art history from the Sorbonne. In Jazz, the heroine finds herself compelled to go back to a department store and “slap the face of a white salesgirl” who had snubbed her, despite recognising this to be self-destructive gesture.
Morrison, who studied classical literature at university, was influenced intellectually by the fatalistic cycles that permeate ancient Greek theatre. Something of this darker mood enters into her own fiction.
This is why Morrison’s novels are more unsettling than was her public persona. Unlike many of her intellectual contemporaries, she retained a traditional faith in aesthetic quality and the literary canon, defending fiction as offering “a more intimate version of history”.
She endorsed Barack Obama as presidential candidate in 2008 by commending his “creative imagination, which coupled with brilliance equals wisdom.”
Yet such polite terms as “creative imagination” find themselves contradicted by the cycles inherent in Morrison’s own imaginative universe. In Sula, for instance, the institution of a “National Suicide Day” epitomizes the kind of in-turned violence typical of her sombre fiction.
Morrison’s art resists classification. This quality of aesthetic elusiveness and ambiguity will make her more disconcerting representations of the psychology of power resonate with future generations of readers.
Does it matter who we really are? It definitely does in the eye of the law or if we are in a line of work in which our identity is crucial to perform our job correctly. For example, if we say that we can fly an aeroplane and we are subsequently hired as commercial pilots, our identity really does matter to the hundreds of people whose lives would be in danger if we had never received appropriate training for it.
But there’s a professional field in which, according to world-renowned writer Elena Ferrante, registry office records and formal education do not really count. As she wrote in her column for The Guardian in April 2018:
In the work of art, biography and autobiography have a truth completely different from that which we attribute to a CV or an income tax return. In that space there is, there has to be, a freedom of invention that allows one to violate all the agreements about truth in everyday life.
Ever since her debut novel, L’amore molesto (Troubling Love) was published in 1992, Ferrante has been consistent with this attitude – revealing very little about her CV and even less about her income tax return. That is, until the day journalist Claudio Gatti published a report of his investigation into the identity of the writer in October 2016. Based on Gatti’s analysis of publisher’s accounts, there is evidence to suggest that the author of the Neapolitan Novels coincides with one particular bank account holder: the translator Anita Raja, wife of Neapolitan writer Domenico Starnone.
In April 2017 I interviewed Starnone at the Italian Cultural Institute in Dublin. Being a voracious reader of his books I was really looking forward to that meeting and had been preparing for a few months. The tension started rising when I heard that Raja was also going to be in Dublin. I was warned not to ask any questions which could imply in any way that I believed Raja – or Starnone, for that matter – could be the brains behind the “Elena Ferrante” books: “Domenico gets really angry when someone asks him if he is Elena,” I was told.
But I couldn’t resist the temptation and I allowed myself one question that could be indirectly hinting at the issue of Ferrante’s identity. It had to do with Starnone’s 2016 novel Ties, which starts off with a series of letters written by the protagonist Vanda, who is distraught after her husband Aldo has abandoned her for a younger woman. I asked him:
Ties is divided into three sections written from three different points of view: the husband, the wife and the children. How challenging was it to write the story from Vanda’s perspective? Generally speaking, is it hard for a male writer to engage in a first-person narrative from a female perspective?
Starnone gave me a hard stare. I could feel the tension. Then, unexpectedly, he gave one of his wide disarming smiles. “It depends on the writer’s mimetic ability, which is one of the crucial elements of storytelling,” he started. According to Starnone, a good writer is one who can put him or herself in anyone’s shoes. The written word can speak the voice of anything, “even the flickering flame of a burning match”.
The metaphor was powerful. A flickering flame: one moment it’s there and the next it isn’t. Like the face and gender of the author Elena Ferrante.
Borderless, plural, posthuman
My personal research on Ferrante’s notion of identity combines well with Starnone’s discourse on the importance of empathy to negotiate “otherness”. To create convincing characters, Starnone seems to argue, writers must be able to feel what others feel, think what others think – “become” others, if only on paper.
Equally, in Ferrante – as I contend in an in-depth study of her work – the “I” is always defined via a relationship with a “you” and therefore identity is always relational. Furthermore, the “you” in question might not be another human being but also an animal, an object, the environment, or a technological device. This special type of empathy between human and nonhuman entities gives birth to a new identity which is not just “relational” but indeed posthuman.
To understand how we are becoming posthuman, think of the ways smartphones and social media are shaping our daily lives so that we are constantly connected with others by means of technology. Think how emotionally bound we are to pets and animals whose status of creatures with feelings might soon be legally recognised. Or think how the debate on climate change is affecting our eating habits, social behaviour and even our reproductive ethos, as shown by birth-strikers (women who are refusing to have children because of climate change).
Elena and Lina’s identities are so closely bound to one another and to the porous Neapolitan landscape – described, at times, as an unstable mass of flesh, objects, inert matter, energy, blood, lava – that often readers and viewers are left wondering whether the two characters are in fact just one: the dyad Elena-Lina.
Through this loss of boundaries between the two characters and their surroundings, Ferrante intends to bring attention to the unsettling matter of a crumbling, fragmented world without margins, a world in which singular identity feels constantly threatened by the “other” – man, woman, avatar, the animal, the environment.
What is Ferrante’s answer to this threat? How does she advise us to counteract our fear of a borderless world in which the identity of the human is at risk of vanishing?
Rather than suggesting that we die, destroy ourselves or disappear, like Lina in the Neapolitan quartet, Ferrante alludes to the fact that we are done with individualism and its notion of borders. If our identity is constantly redefined through dialogue with others, individuals and their names no longer matter. Our collaborative effort is what matters, our empathy with others – whether it’s humans, nonhuman animals, the environment or even our technological avatars.
Hugh Lewin, who provided a unique voice on the South African story over many decades as militant, prisoner, journalist, author and much else, has died in Johannesburg at the age of 79.
Lewin is perhaps best known for two books that arose from his early involvement in the anti-apartheid underground. Bandiet, Seven years in a South African Prison, which has been described as a remarkable piece of prison literature, and Stones against the Mirror, published decades later, in which he describes grappling with the betrayal of the man whose testimony sent him to jail.
But his poetry, his children’s books and his work in publishing and the training of journalists and refugees leave as big a legacy. An outpouring of tributes has greeted news of his death. He has been called “an incredible writer and courageous soldier” by President Cyril Ramaphosa. and “a courageous stalwart” by Lord Peter Hain.
I first encountered him when he ran the small publishing house Baobab Books in Zimbabwe. Later I worked with him at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg, and will mainly remember his gentle humour, a sharp intellect that was never cutting, his ability to listen and his concern for others. It made him a great friend and outstanding teacher and mentor to many.
I will also remember the quiet dignity with which he dealt with his gradually failing health over the past decade, cared for by his partner Fiona Lloyd. His wit was still on clear display when I saw him just about a week before his death, despite frailty and struggling with the words that were his life – “I keep bumping against empty sentences,” he had previously said.
Lewin was born in the small town of Lydenburg in 1939 into an Anglican missionary family. He studied at Rhodes University before entering journalism at the Natal Witness in Pietermaritzburg.
He was quickly drawn into anti-apartheid politics of an increasingly radical kind, and got involved in the National Committee of Liberation, later renamed as the African Resistance Movement. This group of activists grew out of the Liberal Party and embarked on a campaign of sabotage of infrastructure targets, which it carried out between 1961 and 1964.
In July 1964, Lewin, then 24, was sentenced to jail for seven years for sabotage. He served this time in Pretoria Central prison, where he kept notes of his experiences in his Bible. After his release, he left the country on a “permanent departure permit”, to begin life as an exile in London.
Bandiet was published during this time. It manages both to provide harrowing detail of life in an apartheid jail and to use prison as a metaphor for the system as a whole. Reviewer Daniel Roux described the book as deserving, “its place in the global canon of prison writing”. Roux called it an,
understated, elegant and honest memoir that resists self-pity and self-glamorisation, and shows in careful detail what it feels like to drop out of one reality and to enter a completely different world.
Long banned in South Africa, the book was republished in 2002 as Bandiet – out of jail, including additional later material.
His family remember an additional result of the prison years: his skill at sewing, from sewing mailbags in jail. His stitching was apparently large but very neat.
During 10 years in London, he worked as a journalist and for the International Defence and Aid Fund, a support organisation for anti-apartheid causes.
Another 10 years of exile followed, this time in Zimbabwe, where he worked as publisher and wrote a series of children’s stories, the Jafta series, whose simple narratives spoke to the ordinary reality of Southern African children.
Hugh returned to South Africa in 1992 and began work at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, the institution founded by Allister Sparks to train journalists for the new democracy.
He served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission before returning to the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in 1998 as its executive director. It was during this time that he was involved in the early initiatives that led to the establishment of the journalism programme at Wits University.
But processing of the traumatic events of his youth was clearly not complete, and after retiring from the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, he worked on the memoir that became Stones against the Mirror. Published in 2011, the book deals with a friendship that ended in betrayal. Adrian Leftwich was the man who gave his name to the security police and testified against him in court, and the book describes Lewin’s 40-year search for some kind of resolution.
South African author Nadine Gordimer wrote about the book:
There have been many accounts of life in the active struggle against the apartheid regime but this one is a fearless exploration into the deepest ground – the personal moral ambiguity of betrayal under brutal interrogation.
It won the Alan Paton Award in 2012 – one of many honours he has received.
During these later years, Lewin also continued his involvement in training, travelling to the Myanmar border to work with refugees with his partner Fiona Lloyd. However, failing health made this more and more difficult.
Lewin leaves his partner, two daughters from an earlier marriage and three grandchildren.
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
The world’s first known author is widely considered to be Enheduanna, a woman who lived in the 23rd century BCE in ancient Mesopotamia (approximately 2285 – 2250 BCE). Enheduanna is a remarkable figure: an ancient “triple threat”, she was a princess and a priestess as well as a writer and poet.
The third millennium BCE was a time of upheaval in Mesopotamia. The conquest of Sargon the Great saw the development of the world’s first great empire. The city of Akkad become one of the largest in the world, and northern and southern Mesopotamia were united for the first time in history.
In this extraordinary historical setting, we find the fascinating character of Enheduanna, Sargon’s daughter. She worked as the high priestess of the moon deity Nanna-Suen at his temple in Ur (in modern-day Southern Iraq). The celestial nature of her occupation is reflected in her name, meaning “Ornament of Heaven”.
Enheduanna composed several works of literature, including two hymns to the Mesopotamian love goddess Inanna (Semitic Ishtar). She wrote the myth of Inanna and Ebih, and a collection of 42 temple hymns. Scribal traditions in the ancient world are often considered an area of male authority, but Enheduanna’s works form an important part of Mesopotamia’s rich literary history.
Enheduanna’s status as a named poet is significant given the anonymity surrounding works of even earlier authors. Yet she is almost entirely unknown in the modern day, and her achievements have been largely overlooked (a notable exception is the work of Jungian analyst Betty De Shong Meador).
Her written works are deeply personal in subject, containing numerous biographical features.
Enheduanna’s cycle of temple hymns concludes with an assertion of the work’s originality and its authorship:
The compiler of the tablets was En-hedu-ana. My king, something has been created that no one has created before.
While clearly asserting ownership over the creative property of her work, Enheduanna also comments on the difficulties of the creative process — apparently, writer’s block was a problem even in ancient Mesopotamia.
Long hours labouring by night
In her hymns, Enheduanna comments on the challenge of encapsulating divine wonders through the written word. She describes spending long hours labouring over her compositions by night, for them then to be performed in the day. The fruits of her work are dedicated to the goddess of love.
Enheduanna’s poetry has a reflective quality that emphasises the superlative qualities of its divine muse, while also highlighting the artistic skill required for written compositions.
Enheduanna’s works were written in cuneiform, an ancient form of writing using clay tablets but have only survived in the form of much later copies from around 1800 BCE, from the Old Babylonian period and later. The lack of earlier sources has raised doubts for some over Enheduanna’s identification as the author of myths and hymns and her status as a religious official of high rank. However, the historical record clearly identifies Enheduanna as the composer of ancient literary works, and this is undoubtedly an important aspect of the traditions surrounding her.
Aside from poetry, other sources for Enheduanna’s life have been discovered by archaeologists. These include cylinder seals belonging to her servants, and an alabaster relief inscribed with her dedication. The Disk of Enheduanna was discovered by British archaeologist Sir Charles Leonard Woolley and his team of excavators in 1927.
The Disk was discarded and apparently defaced in antiquity, but the pieces were recovered through excavations and the scene featuring the writer successfully restored. The scene depicts the priestess at work: along with three male attendants, she observes a libation offering being poured from a jug.
Enheduanna is situated in the centre of the image, with her gaze focused on the religious offering, and her hand raised in a gesture of piety. The image on the Disk emphasises the religious and social status of the priestess, who is wearing a cap and flounced garment.
Art imitates life
Enheduanna’s poetry contains what are thought to be autobiographical elements, such as descriptions of her struggle against a usurper, Lugalanne. In her composition The Exaltation of Inanna, Enheduanna describes Lugalanne’s attempts to force her from her role at the temple.
Enheduanna’s pleas to the moon god were apparently met with silence. She then turned to Inanna, who is praised for restoring her to office.
The challenge to Enheduanna’s authority, and her praise of her divine helper, are echoed in her other work, such as in the myth known as Inanna and Ebih.
In this narrative, the goddess Inanna comes into conflict with a haughty mountain, Ebih. The mountain offends the deity by standing tall and refusing to bow low to her. Inanna seeks help from her father, the deity Anu. He (understandably) advises her against going to war with the fearsome mountain range.
Inanna, in typically bold form, ignores this instruction and annihilates the mountain, before praising the god Enlil for his assistance. The myth contains intriguing parallels with the conflict described in Enheduanna’s poetry.
In the figure of Enheduanna, we see a powerful figure of great creativity, whose passionate praise of the goddess of love continues to echo through time, 4000 years after first being carved into a clay tablet.