A look into the scourge of rape
03 March 2009
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
The book opens with a rape
that occurs in front of a home in Cape Town, where five women gather
every Friday night to discuss literature.
The women are waiting in the
house while one of their own is being raped at gunpoint in her own
yard, in her own car.
Each chapter is told in the
voice of one of the women. They all recount their personal stories,
revealing their reactions to the horrific events of the present and
reflecting on their past experiences.
The Writing Circle
is a beautifully written, heartbreaking book that allows the reader
to experience an intense empathy for each woman.
The writer creates a picture
so that the reader can see, hear, touch, and even smell the thing or
scene talked about and describes a person so that the reader feels
as though she has met the person.
It reminds us that violence
against women knows no class boundaries and that people would listen
to the cries of women and girls and heed the suffering that surround
them and pay attention.
The writer brings difficult
subject matters facing our nation today. While reading this book I
realised that all the women in this book were very concerned with
safety. They had people accompanying them wherever they went.
This book explains all the
many different types of rape, from that of the one who was raped at
gunpoint to the case of a girl who was raped by her mother’s
employer. Just because a woman (or man) is dating someone, it does
not give the other the right to rape them. Just because the victim
knew their attacker doesn’t make it less of a rape. I highly
recommend this book to everyone, men and women.
Book: The Writing Circle
Author: Rozena Maart
Reviewer: Lindi Obose
True Love (www.truelove.co.za)
South Africa's most widely read women's magazine
Book of the Month: The Writing Circle by Rozena Maart
"I was born in District Six and in 1973 we were forcibly removed as
a result of the Group Areas Act. I was 11-and-a-half at the time. We
were relocated to Lavender Hill where I spent most of my teenage
years. Those years during the mid-1970s were tough. How does one
make meaning of the world you live in as a teenager when everything
seems so senseless? I first read one of Steve Biko's speeches from a
pamphlet handed to me at school and I remember thinking: 'Here is
something that allows me to think further than the colour of my
skin, or the reasons for my oppression; here is something that
forces me to question the whole concept of mind as crucial to my
existence.' Whenever those pamphlets were distributed, I read them
in great earnest because Biko's words brought forth a determination
that lifted my spirits and still lives within me today. Of course,
we are now fortunate to have those speeches and talks in a
collection called I Write What I Like. I have always put this book
forward as the most influential book in my life because it changed
the way I saw the world and changed the way I saw myself." (Quote
from Rozena Maart, author of The Writing Circle).
[The Writing Circle] is a wonderful story to get lost in over
the festive season. Written by Maart, who grew up on the Cape Flats,
and now lives in Canada, The Writing Circle explores the
lives of five women who gather every Friday night to discuss their
writing. When one of the women is attacked and raped, she fights
back and things become much more complicated. This book is original,
insightful and a great South African read.
-Melinda Ferguson, August 2009
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.
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 number. 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.
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.
Rozena Maart's newest novel opens
with a rape that occurs in front of a home in Cape Town, one where
five women gather every Friday night in the safety of a gated
neighbourhood to discuss writing. As in her previous novel,
Rosa's District 6, Maart perfectly evokes the daily lives of
South Africans. However, this time her novel centers on the
horrendous and at times banal violence that besieges Cape Town
The scene takes place in a car
outfitted with myriad electronic gadgets that could ostensibly
protect its occupants. The car also contains a copy of the daily
newspaper featuring a story of the South African deputy president's
rape charges. These details contextualize the violence faced by many
South African girls and women, regardless of their class, race, or
The five characters in the book
are all professionals. The writing circle provides a cathartic
outlet for the sorrows they experience living in modern-day South
Africa, where the promises of a post-apartheid world have yet to be
Maart convincingly inhabits her
disparate female protagonists. Through their narratives, we follow
their views of one another as they describe their individual life
stories. In the aftermath of this event, the women unite to protect
their friend. However, the aftermath triggers the unravelling of
each woman's fragile veneer. Each is aware of the casual chaos and
violence that lurks everywhere, but it is in the telling of their
own tragedies and secrets that Maart's sad outrage is keenly
The women's plight is conveyed
with moving immediacy, and the precise account of being female in a
misogynist world sparks outrage. In an ideal world, this form of
storytelling could mobilize political forces to take a moral and
courageous stand against the insidious violence that besieges women
throughout the world.
In the meantime, Maart challenges
our deepest preconceptions about everything South African—and
manages to convey a remarkable resilience.
— Irene D'Souza
look into the scourge of rape
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
The book opens with a rape that occurs in front of a
home in Cape Town, where five women gather every Friday night to
The women are waiting in the house while one of their
own is being raped at gunpoint in her own yard, in her own car.
Each chapter is told in the voice of one of the women.
They all recount their personal stories, revealing their reactions
to the horrific events of the present and reflecting on their past
The Writing Circle is a beautifully written,
heartbreaking book that allows the reader to experience an intense
empathy for each woman.
The writer creates a picture so that the reader can
see, hear, touch, and even smell the thing or scene talked about and
describes a person so that the reader feels as though she has met
It reminds us that violence against women knows no
class boundaries and that people would listen to the cries of women
and girls and heed the suffering that surround them and pay
The writer brings difficult subject matters facing our
nation today. While reading this book I realised that all the women
in this book were very concerned with safety. They had people
accompanying them wherever they went.
This book explains all the many different types of
rape, from that of the one who was raped at gunpoint to the case of
a girl who was raped by her mother’s employer. Just because a woman
(or man) is dating someone, it does not give the other the right to
rape them. Just because the victim knew their attacker doesn’t make
it less of a rape. I highly recommend this book to everyone, men and
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 her arrival.
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
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.
The Writing Circle is a group of five
women who live in Cape Town, South Africa and gather every Friday as
a group of women, looking for the strength that in their community
only comes from unity and protecting each other. A place where they
who cannot trust are surrounded by each other, therefore embracing
their loss, and while participating gain the friendships they hold.
Healing comes to a halt one night as the rest of the women are
gathered together, one of the circle members Isabel, is late, they
start without her, and she is raped in her car in front of her very
own house. The members of the group hear a gunshot, and from that
moment the question will be: can they survive this common scab being
scratched and picked at, or will the pressure and soreness cause
hatred from within the group?
Maart leads the reader though that night and the following days.
This was a group of women, united through experience, yet different
in most everything else, who are filled with a desire to live their
lives, and hope for a future that is better than their past. The
Writing Circle cries out for women all over, but especially in
places where they are not allowed to speak out on their own. Rozena
Maart brings up difficult subject matters facing her nation today,
the ramifications of apartheid, racism and segregation, rape, incest
and calls forth life into the souls of these raped and silenced
women, she gives a voice to the women of the world whose lives
parallel the women of The Writing Circle, but have not had the
chance to let it off their shoulders.
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.
Hope returns, it always does. Dark days turn bright, and South
Africa has begun taking steps of action against this problem. Good
things are on their way!
If you are interested in articles on the situation in South Africa:
South Africa Begins Getting Tough on Rape
Tackling South Africa's Rape Culture
Rape Survivor Journal- Rape Stats for South Africa and Worldwide
Rape Town and
the Writing Circle
Decked out in
a lovely grey dress, silver necklace and
matching earrings, Rozena Maart meets me in
a crowded coffee shop in Toronto on a chilly
Good Friday. She quickly informs me that she
has plans for later that evening, justifying
the ensemble. Almost immediately, Maart
dives into conversation, covering everything
from her new book to her passionate beliefs
to what I study in university.
on the table a mere foot away from my
notepad, she pulls me into her world through
her stories and her strong opinions, a world
I would safely stay in for the next hour and
a half. To call Ms. Maart an engaging woman
would be an understatement.
Maart, a Cape
Town native, moved to Canada in 1989 and now
resides in Guelph. An author-teacher by
profession, she published her first novel in
2004, Rosa’s District Six. Early this year
she released her second publication, The
Writing Circle; a fictional piece that
centers around five well-to-do women who
live in Cape Town and meet every Friday
evening to share and discuss their writing.
chapter, titled “Isabel,” begins the novel
by recounting the mugging of Isabel, one of
the members of the circle. On a random
Friday evening, after having just pulled up
to her home where the other four women are
awaiting the commencement of their weekly
meeting, a man corners Isabel at gunpoint
before forcing himself into her car and
raping her. Isabel gains control of the gun
as the man is mid-climax and shoots him in
the head. The rest of the women - Jazz,
Beauty, Amina and Carmen - hear the gunshot
from inside and hesitantly go to the scene
of the crime. There, they find the body of
Isabel’s lifeless attacker pinning their
traumatized friend to her own back seat.
‘Isabel,’ the novel transitions into its
second chapter, “Jazz,” documenting the
development and execution of an action plan
to help Isabel. Jazz, of course, devises the
plan – she is the only one of the women who
remains outwardly calm while the others
scurry around in hysterics. The remainder of
the novel intersects the perspectives of
Carmen, Amina and Beauty in their respective
title chapters, as they all endure the
disposal of the body and its inevitable
discovery, while revealing their own
encounters with sexual assault.
me how I found the book, I confess to Maart
that it was difficult to get through, to
which she wholeheartedly agreed. Each
chapter and page is weighed down with heavy
subject matter as the reader is subjected to
the traumatic experiences of the women as
they struggle to recover. Once you begin, it
is impossible to put down and, by the end, I
longed for an extension. Maart justifies the
loosely ended conclusion to “how life really
is,” a statement not only reflected in the
book’s conclusion, but in the depictions of
the characters and events themselves.
When asked if
art imitates life in beautiful Cape Town,
Maart sternly responds with an emphatic yes.
“Cape Town is
the rape capital of the world,” she informs
me. “The Brits never colonize ugly places.”
Under Cape Town’s beautiful exterior is a
world of crime and sexual misconduct that
has shaped Maart into the fearless woman she
“When I first
came to Toronto, I was out until 3, 4 in the
morning. I wasn’t scared.” To Maart, there
is a big difference between the reaction to
crimes in Toronto and in Cape Town. “In
Toronto, if someone is shot, there is an
investigation and it’s on the news and
there’s a vigil.” She explains that in Cape
Town, the event is mentioned in a passing
conversation and quickly forgotten.
sexual assault remains the topic for some
time. Maart admits that in talking to women
about The Writing Circle, most tell her that
they relate the experiences in the book back
to a woman they know who has been raped.
“Everyone knows someone who has been raped.
in a hospital in the 1980s, Maart was privy
to the frequency of these events. On one
occasion, she explains, a man who had raped
three women was brought in one evening after
being shot by police. When the perpetrator’s
mother arrived and was told what happened,
her only response was, “he’s my son, my
moment, I reluctantly understood that this
was not only a rapist, but a son with a
family,” admits Maart. This story is one of
many real life experiences she illustrates
in the book. All five women in the book are
given their own voice in their respective
chapters of the novel, and as a reader, you
will find both likeable and
annoying-yet-familiar qualities in each of
them. “Don’t you have a friend who is
controlling like Jazz?”
For the author, it was important that none
of the women were all together sympathetic;
there were aspects of them that the reader
would not necessarily agree with. This is
what keeps them true to life. Another
importance for Maart was to depict these
women as successful, educated women, rather
than poor and tragic. The point is that
sexual assault happens to women of all ages
and ethnicities. Maart is careful not to
over-dramatize these experiences, instead
portraying them as honestly as possible. She
comments that when women are in situations
like rape, they tend to “dissociate” from
it, and shut down emotionally. This is
portrayed during Isabel’s rape scene, in
which Isabel explains, “… all I could see
was my car jerking; someone was being
violently jerked around in my car. As I
looked down I saw a man on top of a woman.”
captivating as she is in person, Maart’s
novel is a perfect reflection of a woman
with a powerful voice and strong opinions.
In a time where women are still being summed
up as “tits and cunts,” The Writing Circle
takes a refreshing yet eye-opening look on
the realness of women forced to heal from
the most horrific of incidents, while at the
same time maintaining the lives that
continue around them.
— Samantha Berger
Writing the Experience of Women
"We weren't encouraged, let alone
allowed, to talk about violence against women. I feel like I want to
and I have to."
On an icy March afternoon, I meet
author Rozena Maart at the Second Cup near the University of Guelph.
We're there to discuss her latest novel, The Writing Circle,
but it soon becomes apparent that for Maart, her writing is
irrevocably intertwined with the social and political issues that
concern her, and so it is impossible to discuss The Writing
Circle without discussing Maart's hometown of Cape Town, South
Africa, issues of colonialism, issues of gender, and violence
The Writing Circle is
certainly a novel that addresses these issues. Exploring the lives
of five Cape Town women – Isabel, Jazz, Carmen, Beauty, and Amina –
who gather every Friday night for a writing circle, Maart's second
novel allows each of the five women to narrate the story in turns
through their own unique voices. The novelbegins with the rape of
the novel's first narrator, Isabel, during which she shoots her
attacker. It soon becomes apparent that what links the five
narrators together is their collective experience of violence
against women. The women give voice to different experiences with
violence against women as well as to ethnic groups in Cape Town.
"All of the women are over 40, and
they come from a very particular generation where I think writing is
still quite important," Maart says. "I'm not saying it's less
important now… [but the narrators of The Writing Circle]
are of the generation where women got together [to write]." It is
this generation of Cape Town women, and the issues they have faced
and continue to face in their lives, that Maart can identify with.
"I think I'm also of a generation where people ask me silly things
all the time, like, 'So what does your husband say that you've never
changed your name?' I've never asked him! … I think the generation
that I've depicted is a generation I grew up with [of women that
have] overcome or have worked towards overcoming so many things in
Maart also notes that in penning
The Writing Circle it was important for her to make sure
she wasn't "taking a chunk out of society which Canadians can feel
sorry for." The novel's characters are educated, capable,
professional women. "And the characters are not really likeable,
necessarily," she notes. "And I didn't want them to be, because I
think it's easier to feel sorry for somebody than to actually get to
understand the complexities of their life. So I don't construct
characters in a way that makes it easy for the readers."
She continues, "I also wanted to
make sure that I gave a depiction of a community where there is
diversity. I'm not saying there isn't racism, I'm saying there is
diversity, and women of their generation who've overcome certain
struggles and are striving toward overcoming other struggles do get
I ask Maart why, as a writer
currently residing in Canada the majority of the year, her stories
remain based in Cape Town. She notes that aside from the fact that
she still lives there from anywhere from three to five months of the
year, growing up in Cape Town has shaped her as a person and as an
"I learned to read, to write, and
to think and to imagine in Cape Town, with a very particular
language and with a very particular sense of the world," she says.
"And Cape Town is the place of my birth. I still get asked here all
the time, 'Where are you from?' I mean, I could never say Canada."
She speaks of a recent interview
on an Edmonton radio show, in which her passion for speaking about
South Africa and its political issues outshone the interview's
intended purpose – talking about her book. Maart says the
interviewer asked her what he regarded as warm-up questions about
South Africa to begin the interview. "I spoke for 45 minutes and I
didn't mention the book once," she laughs.
Maart's link to Cape Town isn't
one without its share of pain. Her family was forcibly removed from
their area, District Six, in 1973 as a result of the South African
government's Forced Removal Act. District Six was an area in Cape
Town that was settled by a mixed community of people who were
brought from the British and Dutch colonies to South Africa.
Maart explains, "I think in terms
of District Six, how it developed was, they [white colonialists]
were bringing people back and forth to serve their purpose. And
before they knew it, there were thousands of people in this space."
"[District Six] began to be the
hub of the city…It was like South Africa's Harlem: it was their
music, their culture, and so all of white culture wanted to come
there and be there. And so they [the government] declared it a white
area and basically got rid of half a million people."
The impact of being forced out of
her home has made a clear mark on Maart. "I was born there, my
mother was born there," she says. "It's the only place I knew until
we were forcibly removed."
Her last name also alludes to the
impact of colonialism upon her ancestors' lives in South Africa.
Maart, the author's mother's last name, literally means "March" in
Afrikaans, and it is a name that identifies their family as slaves,
as slave families adopted last names of months according to when
they gained their liberation. (There is also a similar theory that
the names were imposed upon families and that the months signify the
month they were forced into slavery. Maart says she considers these
two theories as "equally true.")
Her last name is a testament to
the colonial history of South Africa – one that even influenced the
type of literature she was able to study. "I grew up with Dickens
and the Brontës and Shakespeare," she explains, "and we weren't
taught South African literature at all. It's that old colonial
English tradition of literature – Wordsworth and daffodils, and you
name it, and [you have] the sense that, when do you get to read
something in book form that informs the way you think about
literature? Now, post the formal apartheid regime (because there's
still a lot of white power in South Africa), you'll see more and
more writers of colour being published."
One of the many issues that Maart
explores in her writing is that of violence against women. Maart
discusses the stigma associated with addressing issues of violence
against women her generation has faced and how it has influenced her
to address these issues in her own writing. "We weren't encouraged,
let alone allowed, to talk about violence against women," she says.
"I feel like I want to and I have to."
One thing that stands out in
reading The Writing Circle is the extent to which Maart
avoids feeding into stereotypes about violence against women in
South Africa. In the novel, the women eventually discover the
identity of Isabel's rapist and their own connection to him. This
concept of being interconnected with others, including violent
offenders, offers an alternate perspective in examining sexual
violence: not only do we see how violence against women affects the
victims, but we see how it affects the offender and the family of
Maart describes a situation she
faced when she worked in a hospital emergency room that may have
helped inspire this interest in examining the multiplicity of ways
in which people are affected by violence against women.
"I met this woman who was probably
almost 80, and her son had been shot," Maart begins. "And he had
held three women hostage, he had assaulted them – sexually assaulted
them – and he was killed in the process. … The nurse had tried to
explain to her what happened and all she [the mother] could say was,
'But he's my son. He's my son.'"
The experience had a profound
impact on Maart. "Imagine going to a hospital and your brother, or
uncle, or husband, or boyfriend, or male relative has been killed
and you also have to find out that he's raped women. What do you
do?" she asks. "It bothered me for days. It is the unthinkable. …
You think about rape as being some horrible, despicable person who's
not related to you, nothing to do with you, somebody you probably
Maart explains that she
deliberately chooses to explore these difficult issues in her
writing, rather than simply offering easy judgments and solutions.
"Whenever you write something
there will always be moral dilemmas and questions that you're faced
with," she explains, "and I also don't think that I'm the kind of
person that would offer solutions to any of them."
— Bronwyn Roe
friendship novel is a staple of women’s
literature. Typically, such a novel brings
together several women who went to college
together (as in Mary McCarthy’s The Group, a
classic of the genre) or women who grew up in
the same neighborhood (as in Rebecca Wells’
best-selling The Secrets of the Ya-Ya
Sisterhood.) Often the women in these novels are
from similar socio-economic backgrounds,
although their lives may have veered off in
different directions. In her latest novel, The
Writing Circle, South African expatriate Rozena
Maart, who now lives in Canada, uses a writing
group to bring together women of various walks
of life. As the urge to writes affects people of
all classes and cultures, it’s a clever ploy –
one that allows us to see a dissection of
multi-cultural South Africa.
The novel is
told in five voices - those of Isabel, a
counselor of sexually abused women; Jazz, a
doctor of Indian descent whose parents are
looking to marry her off; Amina, a divorced
Muslim from a wealthy family who lives with her
mother and son; Beauty, a Xhosa whose husband
died at the hands of the police; and Carmen, an
English woman who is in a relationship with
Jazz’s brother. The book starts off with Isabel,
who is hosting the writing group at her home in
a suburb of Cape Town. She is brutally raped in
her car while the others wait inside the house
for her to come home. In her struggle to get
free, she manages to grab the rapist’s gun and
then accidentally shoots and kills him. The
gunshot finally attracts the attention of the
other women, who decide to dispose of the body
and conceal the crime. Throughout the rest of
the novel, Isabel and her writing companions,
all of whom have been sexually assaulted at some
point, deal with the emotional repercussions of
Africa, which has been called “the rape capital
of the world,” women of all classes, ages, and
cultures are at risk. Maart drives the point
home in this compelling psychological drama.
In this book
about five women who form a writing circle in Cape Town, Maart gives
us a friendship novel with a slant toward social justice.
These women - Isabel, Jazz, Carmen, Beauty, and Amina - are of
differenct ethnicities and different social
classes, but all
have suffered violence at the hands of men. The book opens with a
harrowing scene in which Isabel is raped just outside her suburban
house. Her friends are inside waiting for her. When they hear a
gunshot, they go outside to investigate and discover that Isabel has
accidentally killed her assailant.
In the ensuing chapters, the women deal with the body and their
memories of abuse.
At times Maart's writing is a bit stilted, but this is overall an
engrossing and disturbing read.
Novel Pick for International
second novel focuses on five women who form a weekly writing circle
in a suburban South African city. They are all successful
professionals, but their lives are shockingly upset by a brutal
attack on one of their members. The violence forces the club members
to question their philosophies, confront their secrets, and
re-evaluate their relationships.
The range of response and
confusion brings the reader beneath the surface of these women's
lives to help remind us that violence against women knows no class
boundaries, and makes no exceptions. Told almost as a murder mystery
in the voices of the different club members, the intertwining
stories create a portrait of fear, grief, and redemption.
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
“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.