Zoë Wicomb

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Zoë Wicomb (born 23 November 1948 near Vanrhynsdorp, Western Cape, South Africa) is a South African-Scottish author.

Early life[edit]

Zoë Wicomb grew up in small-town Namaqualand, went to Cape Town for high school, attended the University of the Western Cape, and after graduating left South Africa for England in 1970, 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] Since 1994 she has lived in Glasgow, where she was, until her retirement in 2009, Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Strathclyde. She was Professor Extraordinaire at Stellenbosch University from 2005 to 2011. She is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Strathclyde.


Wicomb gained attention in South Africa and internationally with her first work, a collection of short stories, You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town (1987), which takes place during the apartheid era and is partly autobiographical, as 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.[1] 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.[2]

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, 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.

Wicomb's 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.

She has also published numerous articles of literary and cultural criticism. Her own fiction has been the subject of numerous essays and three special issues of journals, the Journal of Southern African Studies, Current Writing, and Safundi. She chaired the judges' panel for the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing.

Awards and honours[edit]

  • 2010 Honorary Degree from the Open University[3]
  • 2013 Windham–Campbell Literature Prize.[4] Wicomb's citation is on the website of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. It states: "Zoë Wicomb’s subtle, lively language and beautifully crafted narratives explore the complex entanglements of home, and the continuing challenges of being in the world."


  • You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town, London, Virago, 1987; The Feminist Press, 2000; published in South Africa for the first time by Umuzi in 2008.
  • David's Story, Kwela, 2000; The Feminist Press, 2001.
  • Playing in the Light, Umuzi, 2006; The New Press, 2008
  • The One That Got Away, Random House-Umuzi, 2008; The New Press, 2009; second edition, Five Leaves Publications, 2011
  • October, The New Press, 2014.
  • "Shame and Identity: The Case of the Coloured in South Africa", Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-1995, edited by Derek Attridge and Rosemary Jolly (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 91-107.
  • "Setting Intertextuality and the Resurrection of the Postcolonial", Journal of Postcolonial Writing 41(2), November, 2005:144-155.


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ Gready, Paul. 2008. "Culture, Testimony, and the Toolbox of Transitional Justice", Peace Review 20, no. 1: 41-48.
  3. ^ "Open University Honorary Degrees". 
  4. ^ Dorie Baker (4 March 2013). "Yale awards $1.35 million to nine writers". YaleNews. Retrieved 5 March 2013. 

External links[edit]