Wicomb, Zoë 1948-

views updated

Wicomb, Zoë 1948-


Born November 23, 1948, near Van Rhynsdorp, Cape Province, South Africa; daughter of Robert and Rachel Wicomb; children: Hannah Palmer. Education: University of the Western Cape, B.A., 1968; University of Reading, B.A. (with honors), 1973; University of Strathclyde, M.Litt., 1989, earned PhD.


Home—Glasgow, Scotland.


Writer and educator. University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland, senior lecturer with professor of English studies.


South African MNet Prize, 2001, for David's Story.


You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town (short stories), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1987.

David's Story (novel; "Women Writing Africa" series), Feminist Press at the City University of New York (New York, NY), 2001.

Playing in the Light (novel), New Press (New York, NY), 2006.

Author of several essays on South African fiction and culture. Contributor to Southern African Review of Books and London, and to anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Contemporary South African Short Stories, edited by S. Gray, Penguin (Johannesburg, South Africa); The Heinemann Book of South African Short Stories, edited by D. Hirson, Heinemann (London, England); The Art of the Story: An International Anthology of Contemporary Short Stories, edited by Daniel Halpern, Viking (New York, NY); Colors of a New Day: Writing for South Africa, Pantheon, 1990; and The New Century of South African Short Stories, edited by Michael Chapman, Ad Donker (Johannesburg, South Africa), 2004.


Zoë Wicomb is an author and educator whose books include You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town, a collection of connected stories featuring mixed-race South Africans, called coloured, and their lives and experiences of living somewhere between white and black society. The South African-born Wicomb was herself labeled "coloured" according to official government classification.

The stories in the collection take place between the 1950s and 1980s, and revolve around apartheid. Bharati Mukherjee wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the characters "do not condone the system of racial classification, even if some of them go along with the segregated seating in buses and the segregated waiting rooms in doctors' offices." Some of the characters attempt to elevate their positions by requiring their children to speak English. Wicomb's own parents spoke Afrikaans and encouraged their children to learn English. In the title story, a maid tells fellow riders on a bus that she steals chicken legs from the family she cooks for to make up for injustices. Many of Wicomb's characters escape to Canada; in "When the Train Comes," Frieda is the first non-white to enter a previously all-white school, but she later moves to England following an interracial affair.

"Ms. Wicomb's subject isn't—as American readers might expect—simple apartheid," wrote Mukherjee. "It is the desperate search of the ‘coloured’ for identity in a harshly hierarchical society. In this ‘acceptance’ of apartheid and the desire to see beyond it, Ms. Wicomb follows Faulkner and certainly echoes her black countryman Njabulo Ndebele." Mukherjee called Wicomb's prose "vigorous, textured, lyrical. An alien landscape … rendered vividly. The smallest gestures … are invested with arrested images." Mukherjee continued: "This is a sophisticated storyteller who combines the open-endedness of contemporary fiction with the … simplicity of family stories."

Wicomb's first novel, David's Story, is set in 1991, just as Nelson Mandela is being released from prison and the African National Congress has been legalized. A Publishers Weekly contributor said the story "unravels a long, fascinating family history." The protagonist is David Dirkse, a coloured anti-apartheid activist married to fellow protester Sally. He leaves his wife and children for Kokstad to research his roots and takes a lover, Dulcie, who has suffered torture and rape. The history of Griqualand is revealed through David's discovery that he is descended from Andries Abraham Stockenstrom Le Fleur, who brought the Griqua tribe into the desert during the nineteenth century. New York Times Book Review contributor Tom Beer called the novel "a kaleidoscopic book—its story is fragmented and colorful, its focus continuously shifting." Library Journal reviewer Ann Irvine wrote that David's Story is "more than a history lesson … or even an exciting adventure story," but rather it is "a huge step in the remaking of the South African novel." "There's no preaching," said Hazel Rochman in Booklist, "Wicomb is commenting on her own intricate narrative, showing how hard it is to tell the truth."

Wicomb's 2006 novel, Playing in the Light, continues the author's examination of racial politics in the new South Africa. In this story, Marion Campbell, born with light skin and smooth hair, works as a travel agent (though she hates traveling herself). Marion embarks on what Christian Science Monitor Online. critic Rebecca L. Weber called "a physical and psychic journey" that culminates in the discovery of her late mother's secretive life. For example, Robert H. McCormick noted in World Literature Today that "Marion learns, during a Ulysses-like recognition scene in Wuppertal, that her mother only allowed Marion's grandmother, called ‘Tokkie,’ to visit their house once a week. To prevent neighbors from identifying her dark-skinned mother, Helen had her enter through the back door."

Critical reaction to Playing in the Light was positive. A Kirkus Reviews writer found the volume "stylistically nuanced and psychologically astute," adding that "this tight, dense novel gives complex history a human face." "As in her earlier works," concluded Weber, "Wicomb's prose is as delightful and satisfying in its culmination as watching the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean." Furthermore, McCormick lauded Wicomb's book as "a fresh wind in the world of fiction."



Bardolph, J., editor, Short Fiction in the New Literatures in English, 1991.

Fletcher, Pauline, editor, Black/ White Writing: Essays on South African Literature, Bucknell Review Press, 1993.

E. Hunter and C. Mackenzie, editors, Between the Lines II: Interviews with Nadine Gordimer, Menan du Plessis; Zoë Wicomb, Lauretta Ngcobo, NELM (Grahamstown, South Africa), 1993.


Booklist, May 1, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of David's Story, p. 1669.

Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2001, review of David's Story, pp. 288-89; March 9, 2007, review of Playing in the Light, p. 493.

Library Journal, May 1, 2001, Ann Irvine, review of David's Story, p. 129.

New York Times Book Review, May 24, 1987, Bharati Mukherjee, "They Never Wanted to Be Themselves," review of You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town, p. 7; May 27, 2001, Tom Beer, review of David's Story, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly, March 26, 2001, review of David's Story, p. 65.

Wall Street Journal, May 11, 1987, Lee Lescaze, review of You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town, p. 25.

Washington Post, August 19, 2001, Anderson Tepper, "No Direction Home," p. T06.

World Literature Today, winter, 1996, Dorothy Driver, "Transformation through Art: Writing, Representation, and Subjectivity in Recent South African Fiction," review of You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town, p. 45; March 9, 2007, Robert H. McCormick, review of Playing in the Light, p. 67.


Christian Science Monitor Online,http://www.csmonitor.com/ (June 20, 2006), Rebecca L. Weber, review of Playing in the Light.