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Sheila Roberts was a South African novelist and author of four novels and five volumes of short stories and poetry. She retired to Oakland, California, in 2008 after 20 years as a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. She died at the age of 68 on August 11, 2009, of natural causes at her home in Oakland.
She was born Sheila Valerie Williamson on May 25, 1942, to the late Gideon P. and Clara M. (Freestone) Williamson, of Potchefstroom, South Africa. Raised in relative poverty in the working class town of Potchefstroom, South Africa, the experience of white poverty in the South Africa’s racially charged environment became one of the central themes of her work.
Having spent her formative years in Apartheid South Africa, her writing and scholarship sought to understand the country’s inequalities and the repercussions of violent repression, often through a deeply personal, feminist lens. As a scholar she spent much of her career examining the writings of Athol Fugard, Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee, Andre Brink, and Dan Jacobson.
Roberts began publishing in the early 1970s in the wake of the suicide of her husband Arthur Edward James Roberts in November 1970. By 1973, she was deeply immersed in the left wing politics of the era, and began regularly publishing in South African literary magazines. She first came to prominence with the publication of a collection of short stories Outside Life’s Feast (Johannesburg: AD Donker Press, 1975), which won the Olive Schreiner Award for Prose that same year.
Her first novel, He’s My Brother (Johannesburg: AD Donker Press, 1977) was banned by the South African Censor board and subsequently republished as Johannesburg Requiem (New York: Taplinger, 1980). In the wake of the censorship by South Africa’s apartheid regime, she immigrated to the United States in 1977, joining the faculty at Michigan State University where she held the position of associate professor of English until 1986.
During this period—among her most prolific—she published the highly regarded novel The Weekenders (Johannesburg: Bateleur Press, 1981) and Jacks in Corners (Johannesburg: AD Donker Press, 1987), a collection of short stories This Time of Year (Johannesburg: AD Donker Press, 1983), a collection of poetry Dialogues and Divertimenti (Johannesburg: AD Donker Press, 1985), and Dan Jacobson: A Critical and Analytical Study (Boston; GK Hall, 1984).
In 1986 she accepted the position of professor of English at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, subsequently publishing a collection of short stories Coming In (Johannesburg: Justified Press, 1993), a collection of poetry Daughters and Other Dutiful Women (Johannesburg: Justified Press, 1993) and her final novel Purple Yams (Penguin SA, 2001).
A gifted student, Roberts received her diploma in Speech and Drama from Trinity College of London (1962), her Bachelor of Art, Honors in English and Master of Arts from the University of South Africa (1965, 1967 and 1972 respectively), and completed her Doctorate at the University of Pretoria in 1977.
Among other recognition, she was a two-time recipient of the South Africa’s Thomas Pringle Award for Fiction (1982 and 1984), the Milwaukee Arts Council Futures Award for Fiction (1991) and the Wisconsin Writers Award for Fiction (1992); for her teaching, she was awarded the Teachers Scholars Award, by Michigan State University.
She was the recipient of several prestigious academic scholarships from Exeter College, United Kingdom, and Yad Vashem, Israel, in 1981, and held visiting professorships, at the University of Natal, South Africa (1982), Justus Liebig University, Giessen, Germany (1989), and the University of Tsukuba, Japan (1996).