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"The MeToo movement has allowed people to speak in a heightened, sharpened way that they couldn’t do before." Meg Wolitzer on her new novel, feminism, and meaning-making

Published in the Sunday Times

Meg Wolitzer, author of The Female Persuasion. Illustration by Kate Gavino.

 
The Female Persuasion
*****
Meg Wolitzer, Chatto & Windus, R290

Meg Wolitzer is finally getting the recognition she deserves as a powerful author who has big things to say. It’s her moment. She has two major things happening. The film The Wife will hit the screens this month and it’s based on Wolitzer’s 2003 novel of the same name. Starring Glenn Close, everyone is pitching it as an important film that will at last net the star her Oscar.

Close plays the angry wife of a famous author who is going to receive the Nobel literature prize. In the film, her character tells her husband, “everyone needs approval”. This is also the theme that runs through Wolitzer’s new book The Female Persuasion, the other major thing to happen to Wolitzer this year.

The Female Persuasion, her 12th book, is receiving rave reviews for its keen perception of being a woman in today’s MeToo world. It centres on two women: Faith Frank, an older second-wave feminist who encourages Greer Kadetsky, a younger fourth-wave feminist. It is about female empowerment, women mentoring women and the dangers of placing our mentors on pedestals.

In a phone interview from New York, Wolitzer explains why she chose to write about this.

“I’m somebody who has been helped and encouraged by older women and that feeling of being heard, being respected, perhaps for the first time, is very powerful. It’s important to be seen. To believe in yourself and an outside person giving you this permission. I have a friend who calls these people permissionaries.”

Her character, Faith, is a permissionary. In the early ’70s, Faith was one of the founders of Bloomer magazine – filled with acerbic columns and sharp articles about women’s rights. Faith is described as “a couple of steps down from Gloria Steinem in fame”.

Faith gives Greer permission to own her own story. Greer is innocent and green when she goes to college with no guidance from her stoner, uninterested parents. On her first night at Ryland she goes to a frat party where Darren Tinzler sexually assaults her. Greer wants to see him punished. Other young women too, as “other Ryland students had their own Darren Tinzler moments”. Unfortunately, the story follows a familiar narrative – he apologises for his inability to read signals from the opposite sex and gets off with a stint of therapy. It is 2006.

Greer’s need for justice grows. She and her friend Zee buy cheap T-shirts and print Darren’s face on it with the word Unwanted beneath it. They are wearing them the night they meet Faith, who comes to the college for a talk. Greer uses what she calls her “outside voice” to ask Faith a question. Faith is impressed. Greer finishes college and starts to work for Faith and her female-empowerment organisation called Loci. We see a clash of different types of feminism.

Wolitzer says the only way we can navigate this difference is for women to talk and listen and understand where we all come from.

“Women of second-wave and third-wave feminism grew up in a different world and their experiences of when they were young were different and this shaped how they have come to perceive being a feminist in the world. All we can do is inhabit our own lives, know about the past, learn about our mothers and their lives.

“There’s been valid criticism about inclusiveness as an important need for feminism. There are angry voices. I think we are in a moment right now; so much has happened, so much has been set into release. The MeToo movement has allowed people to speak in a heightened, sharpened way that they couldn’t do before. The idea of being believed and heard; these are fairly new things. We are in the middle of a change. I don’t know how it will shake down, nobody knows.”

Even though the book delves into all these issues it’s not a feminist manifesto, rather it’s telling a bigger story with many different layers. This is where Wolitzer excels – her novels are big in scope – in themes as well as in the time frame. The Female Persuasion is epic; Greer and Faith’s entire lives are on display.

Wolitzer explains: “I don’t think I can say for definite that this is only a bildungsroman. Without a doubt it’s a coming-of-age story but it’s not only about that. It’s also about how we make meaning and find our way and that’s not only about young people. For instance, Faith has to decide what legacy she wants to leave the world. I do want to say something about how we live and how we do good in our lives. I think in this way it is a big story.”

She didn’t try to write the quintessential MeToo novel.

“When I wrote this book (except for the last chapter), I assumed that we would have our first woman president. Assumed that it would be meaningful and lead to other things. Then my notion of feminism shifted. The notion that maybe sometimes in feminism things are a little bit worse or a little bit better and you keep on working. It got pulled away like a tablecloth in the magic trick. I then added the next chapter of the ‘big terribleness’ – after the Trump election. Now the need for the fight is stronger than ever.” @jenniferdplatt

Wolitzer’s Best Books

Mrs Bridge by Evan S. Connell
This is a 1959 American novel about a Kansas City housewife’s life right before WW2, and it’s brilliant, hilarious, tragic. A perfect, compact masterpiece.
 
 
 
 
 
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
What a shattering exploration of voice, among all its other gifts.
 
 
 
 
 
 

What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
This recent collection of stories by a gifted writer moves from vivid depictions of Nigerian life into the fabulisitic.
 
 
 
 
 

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
As a writer and reader, I return to this book again and again for its language.
 
 
 
 
 
 
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
This slender, devastating book about a long-ago wedding night is economical and deeply emotional.
 
 
 
 
 

Book details

"Who’s going to get lucky tonight?" Kate Sidley on her three current literary love interests (and not to worry, Steven - they're only books!)

Published in the Sunday Times

I arrive home from the book launch with a new love interest. Maybe it was the wine. I shouldn’t have had that second glass, we all know how it lowers the defences. Not that that’s any excuse. I know it was entirely my doing. Be that as it may, here I am with not one, but two … shall we say … prospects.

The one was a given, I knew I was going to purchase the launch book, The Season of Glass, the new novel by Rahla Xenopolous. But then the bookstore owner, who knows me and my weakness so well, said, “That book you were asking about just came in.”

It is Less, by Andrew Sean Greer, and it’s fresh and new, all decked out with the gold stamp of the Pulitzer Prize 2018. The very many cover shouts are glowing and there’s the word “hilarious” – nothing does it for me like hilarious – and then “bedazzling” and “endearing”.

I take both books.

I get home and clamber over the mountain of unread and partially read books that I believe was, some time in the early 2000s, a small bedside table. On top is my avowed current partner – Ken Barris’s award-winning The Life of Worm & Other Misconceptions.
 
Ooh, I love it. Properly, deeply love it. Wouldn’t leave it for anything. But this wouldn’t be leaving. It is a short story collection, and short story collections are by definition polyamorous. They don’t mind if you go off and frolic in other pastures for a bit. In fact, they expect it. After a dalliance, I find that I return to the relationship with renewed interest and delight.

Having made peace with a small break from Worm (it’s not you, it’s me, I tell him) I read the first few pages of The Season of Glass. You have to read the first pages on the night of the book launch. It’s the done thing. Well, it’s my done thing. The book’s a beauty, really a knock-out, but I’m not shallow, I don’t want to objectify my new love interest. It’s marvellous on the inside, too and though it’s early days, it feels like we’ve got something going.

This morning, when honest to God I should be working and not mucking around in bed with strange new books, I spot Less. In the spirit of research and professionalism (I am after all a book reviewer, and we have responsibilities), I open it up. Just a page or two. To see what all the fuss is about. I won’t lie. I’m intrigued.

Help me, then, with the eternal question of the reader – who’s going to get lucky tonight? @KateSidley

Kate Sidley is the author of 100 Mandela Moments (Jonathan Ball, R190)

The Season of Glass

Book details
The Season of Glass by Rahla Xenopoulos
EAN: 9781415209578
Find this book with BOOK Finder!

 
 
 
Less

Less by Andrew Sean Greer
EAN: 9780349143590
Find this book with BOOK Finder!

 
 
 

The Life of Worm

The Life of Worm & Other Misconceptiosn by Ken Barris
EAN: 9780795707957
Find this book with BOOK Finder!

Launch: Called to Song by Kharnita Mohamed (15 August)

Qabila’s marriage is falling apart – it has been for years. If she had not fallen pregnant she and Rashid might not have married in the first place. After all, he was seeing Thandi at the time. And now Qabila wonders if he ever stopped seeing her. Does that explain why Qabila has never felt the full measure of his love? At least he is not abusive, her mother would say, unlike Qabila’s father.

But with her mother’s passing, Qabila’s world is coming undone. She is dreaming of strange songs and making lists to stay sane. When she finds out Rashid is living a double life, she demands a divorce. Why does he still resist? Why not go to Thandi?

As she tries to pick up the pieces of her life, Qabila rails against the persistent legacy of discrimination in South Africa. Not least of which is the racism in her own community towards fellow black people. But she also rediscovers the joy of family, and her Muslim faith, and meets a group of musicians who might be the answer to her puzzling dreams.

Event Details

"I was thrilled to get a chance to finally write something in isiZulu - my love for storytelling came from the language." A Q&A with novelist Zandile Khumalo

Nal’ibali Column 19 Term 3, 2018

By Carla Lever

Zandile Khumalo

 
Congratulations on your upcoming novel, published by Kwasukela Books! What does it mean to you to be published in isiZulu?

I was thrilled to get a chance to finally write something in isiZulu – my love for storytelling came from the language.

What has the reaction to your upcoming novel been from your family and friends?

I honestly don’t think it came as a shock to them to realize that I’ve published something, even though writing is not really something I talk much about. My family and my few friends already know me as a bookworm – they’ve become very supportive!

Can you tell us a little about what your upcoming novel is about? What does the title mean?

uNtsika Ezweni Lesethembiso is about the story of two siblings who find their way back to each other after they’ve fallen victim to an unfortunate incident that threatens wipe out their whole family, which the whole story is centered around. The title basically means ‘Ntsika In The Promised Land’.

uNtsika eZweni leseThembiso is a young adult novel, but it’s also historical fiction – set in 1500-1600 South Africa. Did you do any historical research to write the story?

I’m currently using every opportunity I have to research more and more, so I’ve come across some interesting facts. One thing always leads to the other as far as information gathering goes and that’s what making this process more fun for me. It’s research in progress!

You actually adapted this story from a short story that you published in the 2017 isiZulu anthology Izinkanyezi Ezintsha. Was it hard to adapt the plot from the original short story?

No, it was more natural because I always felt the story was meant to be longer. I’m enjoying writing it in more detail.

What kinds of books did you grow up with? How did you fall in love with reading?

There were some isiZulu titles that I used to borrow from our small community library back home in Mariannhill, which I enjoyed thoroughly. I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Oliver Twist when my grasp of the English language was still shaky but I really had fun doing it. It was my teenage years that led me to the Harry Potter books after a toxic relationship with the Sweet Valley series.

How did you discover you could also be a writer, not just a reader?

As a teenager I kept a journal for personal thoughts – I also kept a different one for cheesy poems and song lyrics! There were times when I would read my journal to myself when I was bored and find my views entertaining. With doing all that writing I slowly began to feel comfortable expressing myself and, with practice, better.

Was it hard finding the time to write?

No, time to write is never much of a problem because it’s something we love as writers. I feel like perhaps the most frustrating thing is having time to write but no inspiration. Feeling stuck is the worst, but luckily I don’t find it lasts long.

How can we get more isiZulu literature published, read and appreciated?

Now is not a good time to be social media shy! It’s time we made use of those platforms in order for isiZulu literature to be more accessible, just like we are not shy to show off the latest movies that we like. Let’s create viral isiZulu #hashtags! Also, if packaging makes a product stand out from the rest, why not have exciting and creative book designs like the beautiful Izinkanyezi Ezintsha cover?

What advice would you give to people who want to find more published stories in African languages?

They should ask for it! The law of demand and supply will apply to everything we consume so why are books different? We can start by creating book clubs so we can have a stronger voice as a collective when trying to get the attention of distributors and bookshops about what we would like to read.

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit: www.nalibali.org.

Book Bites: 5 August

Published in the Sunday Times

The Girl in the Moon ***
Terry Goodkind, Head of Zeus, R315

Born to a meth addict, Angela is raped by her mother’s drugged-up boyfriends in her trailer home. But she transcends the abuse by focusing on getting revenge on the men. The drugs her mother took during her pregnancy created in Angela the ability to identify killers just by looking into their eyes – and she can actually see them committing the crimes. When her grandparents are shot dead, she moves into their remote cabin in the mountains where she lives off the grid. Her life’s work is to dispatch every rapist killer who walks into the bar where she works. A fast-paced read filled with blood and gore. Gabriella Beks @gabrikwa

Death is Not Enough ****
Karen Rose, Headline, R295

Gwyn Weaver survived an attempted murder and is as tough as they come.She’s always had romantic feelings towards friend and business partner Thomas Thorne and feels it’s now time to act on them. Thomas feels the same but as he is about to make a move, he wakes up to find himself covered in blood next to a dead body. It’s the start of a vendetta against him and the reader is taken into a web of intrigue. It’s a long read with many names and much background to keep straight, but stay the distance and you’ll be rewarded with a solid thriller that cements Rose as a force to be reckoned with in the genre. Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

Ill Will **
Michael Stewart, HarperCollins, R285

One of the great mysteries in Wuthering Heights is Heathcliff’s three-year absence when he got his wealth. In Ill Will, in those missing years, Heathcliff returns to Liverpool. While travelling, he meets Emily, and the pair make their way together, and seek answers to Heathcliff’s questions. It is a mammoth task to add to a narrative penned over 150 years ago. This book is jarring, much like Heathcliff himself, and has a contemporary voice filled with anger and violence. Heathcliff was unpolished, Stewart’s style is a contrast from the gentle darkness created by Brontë, making the two narratives incompatible. Samantha Gibb @samantha_gibb

Book details

A boy finds redemption with a disgraced priest in a magnificent new novel by Tim Winton, writes Michele Magwood

Published in the Sunday Times

Tim Winton. Picture: © Lynn Webb.

The Shepherd’s Hut
*****
Tim Winton, Picador, R290

In Tim Winton’s 2017 memoir, The Boy Behind the Curtain, he describes his upbringing in an evangelical church. His parents were latecomers to religion, joining the church only after Winton’s father, a traffic cop, nearly died in an accident. They made up for lost time. The author remembers the twice-on-a-Sunday, “no-frills, bare-knuckled” services where they bellowed hymns “until we saw spots and our limbs tingled”. But mostly he remembers the epic sermons.

“It was church that taught me the beauty and power of language,” he writes. “Recited and declaimed from the pulpit week after week and year after year, these stories and their cadences were deeply imprinted.”

It was here, too, that Winton became aware of the notions of grace and redemption, faith, sacrifice and mercy. Though his books are never overtly religious, these are recurring themes in his writing, gleaming just under the surface.

Another of his overriding themes is masculinity, especially in the form of young, damaged proto-men who he sends on physical or metaphysical journeys. And in every one of his books the landscape is paramount, less a backdrop than a character itself.

In The Shepherd’s Hut all of these themes are rendered down into a hot ingot of a story, forged by elemental forces as blinding as the saltpans in which it is set but utterly transcendent. This is ur-Winton.

Jaxie Clackton is just 15, a rough, punching, furious boy whose whole life has been one of loss and pain. His mother has died, as if in self-defence against the endless beatings of her drunken husband, the local butcher in their fly-blown, one-pub West Australian town. With her gone, “Captain Wankbag” as Jaxie calls him, turns his fists into his son. There is only one good thing in Jaxie’s life, his love for Lee, the only one who understands him. But Lee is his cousin, their love is taboo. Broken and barely surviving in a community that turns a blind eye to his predicament, Jaxie prays to God to “kill this c**t off once and for all”.

But when his father is, indeed, killed off in an accident of his own making, Jaxie knows he will be blamed for it.

Gathering a few provisions he flees to the bush. He has no plan other than to hide and eventually reach Lee hundreds of kilometres away.

From the arresting opening paragraph we know he will make it out: “When I hit the bitumen and get that smooth gray rumble going under me everything’s hell different. Even with the engine working up a howl and the wind flogging in the window the sounds are real soft and pillowy. Civilized I mean. And that’s hectic. But when you’ve hoofed it like a dirty goat all these weeks and months, when you’ve had the stony slow prickle-up hard country right in your face that long it’s bloody sudden. Some crazy shit, I tell you. Brings on this angel feeling. Like you’re just one arrow of light.”

Deep in the wilderness, when he is half-starved and hallucinatory, “burred up and narky as a feral cat”, Jaxie stumbles upon an old man in a hut on the edge of a salt lake.

This is Fintan MacGillis, a disgraced Irish priest, cast out by the church. He is no abuser, though; he is more of an ascetic, an anchorite, and the reference to John the Baptist is clear. He feeds Jaxie, clothes him, bathes him and restores him.

The boy is leery of him, and rude. They have to learn to trust each other but they settle into a fitful companionship.

“A couple times I had to tell him to go and get himself fucked. Then he got all pursy and red and said I was an uncultured ingrate. I said he was a knobjob and he called me a juvenile delinquent. But he never flogged me. So I figured I could put up with his stupid nonsense.”

Gradually Jaxie sheds his spikes and begins to alter. The brutal landscape shapes him too. He becomes minutely attuned to nature and stripped to the core of his young being. MacGillis sees something in him, a base material of goodness.

“When you do right, when you do good,” he tells Jaxie, “well, then you are an instrument of God. Then you are joined to the divine, to the life force, to life itself.”

And an instrument of God is what he becomes when the narrative erupts in a hideous violence. Jaxie will be tested beyond what he could ever have imagined.

At that moment “All the birds landed, the sunlight landed. The song landed. All the decent things in him landed. On me. On my head. And I knew where I was, and who I was, and what I was. Yes, what I am. And it was just like he said. What I laughed at him for. It was like the sun and the moon going through me. I was charged.”

Everything of Winton lands in this book, his preoccupations and perceptiveness, and his matchless writing.

Harrowing but tender, it is profoundly charged. @michelemagwood

Book details