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UWC features its internationally acclaimed resident author during National Book Week

Author: Harriet Box

With National Book Week, a commemoration that coincides with International Literacy Day on 8 September, UWC celebrated their internationally acclaimed author and lecturer, Meg Vandermerwe.

(Published - 12 September 2019)

Her books are well received locally and she prides herself on them having been welcomed by the communities she has worked with, whether it’s Zimbabwean or fishing communities along Cape Town’s West Coast. Vandermerwe has a way of pinning her characters down to the T.

She supports National Book Week as an important initiative in encouraging the nation to value reading as a fun and pleasurable activity.

A nationally representative survey of reading and book-reading behaviour of South African adults was conducted in 2006 and 2016 by the South African Book Development Council.

Reading statistics report that only 14% of the South African population are active book readers, and a mere 5% of parents read to their children. Vandermerwe says, “This is a concern for me because reading and writing are obviously very empowering things. We have a declining number of people reading books and buying books. This doesn’t surprise me because books have been made to become luxury items.

“What concerns me is that there is a higher tax on books than there is on cigarettes and alcohol, and certainly a book in South Africa costs double what it costs in Europe. I don’t understand why that is, when we have a government who is keen to encourage its citizens to buy books. Locally an average book costs more than many people earn per day. It’s a concern that our youth are being discouraged to buy books, simply because they’ve become such luxury items.

“We’re creating a real problem for future generations. Given the commitment the liberation struggle had towards literacy, it concerns me even more.

“I know there has been funding put towards libraries, but this has been decreasing gradually. I do still think that government has to be held much more accountable.”

She spoke about the chara​cters in her books which are almost always a mental challenge for her in that they're very different from her in terms of ethnicity and language.

"When I create my characters, I believe in leaving my own fossilized comfort zone and defying what apartheid taught - that the 'other' is lesser.

“I believe, that through my work, by imagining the lives aparteid labeled as ‘the other’, the mythical stereotypes that were created by apartheid can be questioned and discussed.

 “I explore these characters as a way to help myself open minds to start talking about social challenges.”

More about Meg Vandermerwe

One of the many highlights in Vandermerwe’s career was when her book, Zebra Crossing, which deals with Zimbabwean communities experiencing xenophobia, was made a set text by a Zimbabwean at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Zebra Crossing, written as a part of her PhD at the University of Lancaster, was also chosen for Guardian newspaper in the UK as one of the ten best books about migrants.

Other highlights include when Zebra Crossing became a set text at Georgia State University in America, and another when a film option for her new novel was bought by the internationally acclaimed and multi award winning SA director, Hanneke Schütte. The book is currently being adapted into a script which Schütte hopes to shoot as a feature film in the not too distant future.

Vandermerwe’s own life-story began in South Africa in 1978, and later she was raised and educated in Switzerland and the United Kingdom. She holds degrees from the universities of Oxford, Sussex, and East Anglia.

She returned to Cape Town in 2008. Shortly after, she started lecturing Creative Writing and English Literature at the University of the Western Cape where her responsibilities include running UWC Creates, the first multilingual Creative Writing programme in South African higher education.

As the initiator of the first creative writing programme at UWC, UWC Creates - a multilingual platform for aspiring writers - she encourages writers of colour who were told their stories are not valued or marketable, to keep writing and telling their stories. Vandermerwe’s colleagues and prominent fellow authors Antjie Krog and Sindiwe Magona also mentor for UWC Creates (in Afrikaans and isiXhosa respectively).

A collection of her short stories, This Place I Call Home, was published in 2010.

Zebra Crossing is one of three books, the others being This Place I Call Home, and her latest is entitled, The Woman of the Stone Sea, which was published in March of this year.

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