Zoë Wicomb

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Zoë Wicomb
Born (1948-11-23) 23 November 1948 (age 72)
OccupationWriter and academic
Notable work
You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town

Zoë Wicomb (born 23 November 1948) is a South African-Scottish author and academic who has lived in the UK since the 1970s.[1] In 2013 she was awarded the inaugural Windham–Campbell Literature Prize for her fiction.[2]

Early life[edit]

Zoë Wicomb was born near Vanrhynsdorp, Western Cape, in South Africa. Growing up in small-town Namaqualand, she went to Cape Town for high school, and attended the University of the Western Cape (which was established in 1960 as a university for "Coloureds").[3][4]

After graduating, she left South Africa in 1970 for England, where she continued her studies at Reading University. She lived in Nottingham and Glasgow and returned to South Africa in 1990, where she taught for three years in the department of English at the University of the Western Cape.[citation needed]

In 1994 she moved to Glasgow, Scotland, where she was Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Strathclyde until her retirement in 2009. She was Professor Extraordinaire at Stellenbosch University from 2005 to 2011. She is also Emeritus Professor at the University of Strathclyde.


Wicomb gained attention in South Africa and internationally with her first book, a collection of inter-related short stories, You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town (1987), set during the apartheid era. The central character is a young woman brought up speaking English in an Afrikaans-speaking "coloured" community in Little Namaqualand, attending the University of the Western Cape, leaving for England, and authoring a collection of short stories. This work has been compared to V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival.[5]

Her second work of fiction, the novel David's Story (2000), is set partly in 1991 toward the close of the apartheid era and explores the role of coloureds and women in the military wing of the ANC, and the challenges of adjustment to the realities of the "New South Africa". By presenting the novel as the work of an amanuensis creating a narrative out of the scattered statements of the central character, David Dirkse, Wicomb raises questions about the writing of history in a period of political instability, and by relating the stories of the Griqua people from whom Dirkse is, in part (like Wicomb), descended, it exposes the dangers of ethnic exclusiveness. The novel has been studied as a key work dealing with the transition period in South Africa along with Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee and Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor.[6]

Playing in the Light, her second novel, released in 2006, is set in mid-1990s Cape Town and tells the story of Marion Campbell, the daughter of a coloured couple who succeeded in passing for white, as she comes to learn their painful story and to reassess her own place in the world of post-apartheid South Africa.

Wicomb's second collection of short stories, The One That Got Away (2008), is set mainly in Cape Town and Glasgow and explores a range of human relationships: marriage, friendships, family ties and relations with servants. Many of the stories—which are often linked to one another—deal with South Africans in Scotland or Scots in South Africa.

Her third novel, October, was published in 2015; its central character, Mercia Murray, returns from Glasgow to Namaqualand to visit her brother and his family and to face the question of what "home" means. The novel explicitly evokes its connection with Marilynne Robinson's Home, the title Wicomb also wanted for her work.

Wicomb prefers nonprofit presses for her fiction, such as The Feminist Press and The New Press. Her short stories have been published in many collections, including Colours of a New Day: Writing for South Africa (edited by Sarah LeFanu and Stephen Hayward; Lawrence & Wishart, 1990) and Daughters of Africa (edited by Margaret Busby; Jonathan Cape, 1992).

Her latest novel, Still Life, was published in 2020 by The New Press and was selected by the New York Times as one of the ten best historical novels of 2020. The novel has been called stunningly original. Although ostensibly about Thomas Pringle, the so-called Father of South African poetry, the story is told through the prism of characters from the past - West indian slave, Mary Pringle, whose memoir was published by Pringle; Hinza Marossi, Pringle’s adopted Khoesan son; and Sir Nicholas Greene, a character time travelling from the pages of a book. The novel features the paranormal yet is neither thriller nor mystery; the characters may move in our modern world but their main purpose is to interrogate the past.

Wicomb has also published numerous articles of literary and cultural criticism; a selection of these has been collected in Race, Nation, Translation: South African essays, 1990-2013 (edited by Andrew van der Vlies; Yale University Press, 2018). Her own fiction has been the subject of numerous essays, three special issues of journals (the Journal of Southern African Studies, Current Writing, and Safundi ) and a volume edited by Kai Easton and Derek Attridge, Zoë Wicomb & the Translocal: Scotland and South Africa (Routledge, 2017). She chaired the judges' panel for the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing.

Her work has been recognized for a number of prizes, including winning the M-Net Prize (for David’s Story) in 2001, being shortlisted in 2009 for the Commonwealth Prize (for The One That Got Away), nominated for the Neustadt International Prize of Literature in 2012, and shortlisted for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize (for October) in 2015.[7]

Awards and honours[edit]

Selected bibliography[edit]


  • Wicomb, Zoë (1987). You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town. London: Virago.
    • Reprints: The Feminist Press, 2000; Umuzi, 2008.
  • David's Story, Kwela, 2000; The Feminist Press, 2001.
  • Playing in the Light, Umuzi, 2006; The New Press, 2008, ISBN 978-1595582218.
  • The One That Got Away, Random House-Umuzi, 2008; The New Press, 2009, ISBN 978-1595584571; second edition, Five Leaves Publications, 2011, ISBN 978-1907869044.
  • October, The New Press, 2014, ISBN 978-1595589620.
  • Race, Nation, Translation: South African essays, 1990-2013 (ed. Andrew van der Vlies), Yale University Press, 2018, ISBN 978-0-30022-617-1 and Wits University Press, 2018, ISBN 978-1-77614-324-5.[10]
  • Still Life, Penguin Random House, South Africa, 2020. ISBN 9781415210536.

Essays and other contributions[edit]

  • "Shame and Identity: The Case of the Coloured in South Africa", in Derek Attridge and Rosemary Jolly (eds), Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970–1995 (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 91–107.
  • "Setting Intertextuality and the Resurrection of the Postcolonial", Journal of Postcolonial Writing 41(2), November 2005:144–155.
  • Wicomb, Zoë (December 16, 2013). "Nelson Mandela". The Talk of the Town. Postscript. The New Yorker. 89 (41): 27.


  1. ^ Neel Mukherjee, "Homing instinct: October by Zoë Wicomb", New Statesman, 26 June 2014.
  2. ^ a b Dorie Baker (4 March 2013). "Yale awards $1.35 million to nine writers". YaleNews. Retrieved 5 March 2013.
  3. ^ "UWC History", University of the Western Cape.
  4. ^ "Zoe Wicomb A Writer Of Rare Brilliance". Interview by David Robinson for The Scotsman, 2000; via Intermix.
  5. ^ Donnelly, K. (2014). "Metafictions of development: The Enigma of Arrival, You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, and the place of the world in world literature", Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 49(1), 63–80.
  6. ^ Gready, Paul. 2008. "Culture, Testimony, and the Toolbox of Transitional Justice", Peace Review 20, no. 1: 41–48.
  7. ^ Joan Hambidge, "The uncompromising Zoë Wicomb", Africa is a Country.
  8. ^ "Open University Honorary Degrees".
  9. ^ "Honorary Degrees 2016", University of Cape Town.
  10. ^ Race, Nation, Translation at Wits University Press.

External links[edit]