In 2013, South African-born author Deborah Levy published Things I don’t want to know, a response to George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I write”. The Notting Hill Editions version of this exquisite book flourishes two quotes on the cover. On the front: “To become a writer, I had to learn to interrupt, to speak up, to speak up a little louder, and then louder, and then to just speak in my own voice which is not loud at all.” On the back: “Perhaps when Orwell described sheer egoism as a necessary quality for a writer, he was not thinking about sheer egoism of a female writer. Even the most arrogant female writer has to work over time to build an ego that is robust enough to get her through January, never mind all the way to December.”
Levy’s incisive essay was very much on my mind when I was reading two recent titles published by Modjaji Books: the poetry volume How to open the door by Marike Beyers, and the memoir Flame and song by Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa. But it took me a while to figure out what the connection my intuition had been suggesting was, and then it hit me: since its inception, Modjaji Books has been offering a publishing platform for loud books by authors with soft voices – the kind of soft which utters the most powerful messages. No shouting necessary, please; we are getting all the way to the end of the year here.
“A female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly. If she does, she will write in a rage when she should write calmly,” says Levy. Exploring what it means to be a woman who wants to write, and echoing Virginia Woolf’s classic A room of one’s own (1928), Levy speaks up for the things one desires, about “being in the world and not defeated by it”.
Marike Beyers is a poet. Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa is a storyteller, with published poetry and children’s books to her name. How to open the door and Flame and song are books about “being in the world and not defeated by it”…
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