Judith Lütge Coullie

Judith Lütge Coullie

Research Interests

  • South African and non-South African life writing (autobiography and biography)
  • Literary theory (including narrative theory and gender theory)

Recent Publications: Books:

2006: Selves in Question: Interviews on Southern African Auto/biography. Eds. Judith Lütge Coullie, Stephan Meyer, Thengani Ngwenya and Thomas Olver. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.  

2004: The Closest of Strangers: South African Women’s Life Writing. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.  (See reviews below.)

2004: a.k.a. Breyten Breytenbach: Critical Approaches to his Writings and Paintings. Eds. Judith Lütge Coullie and Johan Jacobs. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

CD-Rom: 2004: Campbell in Context. Eds. Judith Lütge Coullie and Jean-Philippe Wade. Durban: University of KwaZulu-Natal, Killie Campbell Africana Library Series.


Download complete Curriculum Vitae

Email: coulliej@ukzn.ac.za


Synopses of reviews of The Closest of Strangers: South African Women’s Life Writing

1. Susan Tridgell. Life Writing Vol 3, No. 1

Judith Coullie’s superbly designed and selected anthology of South African women’s writing, The Closest of Strangers, should appeal to the general public as well as to scholars and students in the areas of life writing, post-colonial literature and women’s studies.

The extracts are vivid, varied and intriguing.  This last quality… is sure to make the volume attractive to the browsing reader.  At the same time, however, the volume holds great interest for scholars in a number of areas, and would make an ideal text for use in schools and universities.  For anyone new to South African women’s writing, Coullie’s selections are sufficiently brief to provide a bird’s eye view of the field [yet] they are sufficiently substantial to give an idea of each woman’s concerns and style, and thus act as guides to more focused research.  The collection is also ideally crafted to act as a teaching anthology.  The extracts function as self-contained texts which can be analysed in their own right. The enormous variety contained within the volume should allow teachers to introduce their students to a vast range of texts which might otherwise be difficult to obtain, and should facilitate comparisons between these varied accounts of South African experience.

[…] The deftness of Coullie’s editing gives many of the pieces in this collection the self-contained arc of a short story [and] Coullie’s contextualizing introductions provide closures to other stories.

[…] The Closest of Strangers is a ground-breaking work.



The book’s merit lies in its concentration on stories that denote the ‘human angle’ to South Africa’s frightful history of apartheid and violence. It yields to us the travails of women during the turmoil and turbulence that South Africa had passed through. That the stories and poems are culled from actual biographies, autobiographies and interviews gives the impression of participation on the part of the reader. One feels that he/she is getting the story directly from the narrator. It lends an aura of truth to these experiences. From that perspective too, the Izibongo(s) (personal/oral praises panegyrics) appear to be appropriately situated within the context of the work. […][Charlene] Smith’s report appears to highlight the view that life and existence in the new South Africa can only be achieved when people have a greater understanding of their neighbours (work, home, community) some of whom had been their closest strangers in the past. One way of achieving this insight appears to be the objective of this anthology. With decades of political, cultural and economic divide officially dismantled in South Africa, individuals are challenged to eschew emotional and psychological attitudes by availing themselves of the opportunity being offered to synergise others’ experiences.


3. Laura Wright. African Studies Review December 2006 49 (3) 49-57.

[Coullie’s work] eschews more conventional understandings of “autobiography” as an individualist, often alienating, undertaking—the act of telling the story of the self to the self and, ultimately, if the narrative is accessible enough, to others.  Coullie’s work, as a collection of women’s life writing, is obviously polyphonic. […]

The South African women whose work appears in The Closest of Strangers are from varied racial, historical, and socio-economic strata; their testimonies take the form of journal entries, letters, oral interviews, and … izibongo.

For Coullie, however, The Closest of Strangers does not represent an attempt at unification through writing: “the lack of ordinary social contact between members of different race groups…”, she says, “is reflected in almost all of the life writing collected here” (p. 1).  Despite the fact that there appears to be no “cross-racial sisterhood, no shared intimacy” (p. 2) among women of different races, there is, nevertheless, a communal resonance in their work. […]

The Closest of Strangers provides its readers with [an] imperative to keep listening—particularly to the often unheard words of women, whose stories are not just about the quest for equality, but also about the larger quest of survival through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in South Africa.


4. Sam Raditlhalo. Biography 29 (2): 367-374.

It is a good and valuable exercise to read these vignettes of South African women over the last century and into the new millennium.  For what the editor, Judith Lütge Coullie, has done is to allow these voices to “speak” for themselves, to articulate for the compatriot and the cross-border reader the evolution of South Africa from an insignificant, middling southern African country to a mid-level regional economic and political player.  The eclectic selection done decade by decade is astonishing to read, as the evolution of a contested country and terrain is stenciled on the psyche of the writers.  Importantly, the autobiographical subjects offer fascinating insights into the historical subjects, and one way in which this text proves its timeliness is by juxtaposing what the autobiographical subjects relate about a particular era and what we think we know of South Africa at the time from sometimes dry and polemical historical tomes.  Through a close reading, one gets the personal history as it is played against the background of the larger, more reified political contestations.

Starting in 1895, […] Coullie meticulously charts the life writings of women in these colonies up to and including the democratized space that South Africa attains in 1990 and following.  How a warped society shapes its subjects, and how such autobiographical subjects are experienced as displayed selves, becomes the heart of the text.

[…] For readers unacquainted with South African political history, I believe Coullie provides a very useful Introduction, and for each period, a concise and articulate overview of each era and a pithy summary of each text as it was then shaped and lived.  […] Coullie meticulously selects writings that are coterminous with the eras being described by the autobiographical subjects.  This allows for an easy as well as fascinating reading of each section, as the reader combines “official” history with “personal” narrative.  Nor does Coullie shy away from the more contentious issues raised by the obsession with “race” and racism.

[… The]  praise poems, diary entries, and ghost written autobiographies of black South African women […] reveal a profound truthfulness to the tenacious nature of identity formation, identification, and the rootedness an identity provides for the illiterate practitioners documented here.

[…] As a country born of violence, [South Africa] has nurtured some extraordinary women whose contribution to the culture of human rights is immeasurable, demonstrating yet again the tenacity of its citizens to claiming a “right to life” that goes beyond the pietistic discourse of reconciliation, reminding us that to write is to become.


5. Michelle McGrane. Scrutiny2 11 (1) 2006: 145-148.

Well-researched and documented, The Closest of Strangers […] encompasses a wide range of personal experience drawn from 52 contributors of divergent social backgrounds.  […] While these women all have very different writing styles, the editor shows how, in many cases, previous generations of South African women resisted easy categorization by forging highly individual aesthetics and self-presentation.  Often disarmingly conversational in style, many of the pieces are remarkable for their uncomfortable honesty and unsentimental psychological insight into the divided world of lifelong outsiders.  […]

The Closest of Strangers is a strongly present, beautifully organized and important volume of women’s writing that includes a glossary, a list of primary sources, sources of historical and literary information and an index after the main text.

[…] The insistence on the women represented in this volume on finding language to describe the suffering they have undergone, on making their voices heard; their adamant refusal to pander to half-truths and political expediency, reveals the measure of their strength.  Whether writing from a profound sense of injustice or to celebrate their different cultures, environments, personal beliefs and relationships, these women have strong, independent spirits and voices we cannot ignore.

The Closest of Strangers allows the reader to trace women’s negotiations with one another, as well as to reflect more generally on the politics of women’s engagement with history, politics, sexuality, identity, death and writing itself.  It is a fascinating collection of autobiographical accounts which lends insight into the lives and struggles of over a century of South African women from well-known public figures to dispossessed, unsung heroines.  This is life writing of great personal force, helping us to stay alive to the world and stay true to ourselves.


6. Annie Gagiano. LitNet 4 May 2006.

[Judith Lütge Coullie’s] collection of English-language “life writing” (extracts from autobiographies and transmitted, recorded or reflected autobiographical accounts, brought together in a single text) is not only fascinating in its diversity and range, but contains a generally even-handed, succinct and reliable history of the country. […]  The earliest item included in Coullie’s collection recounts an 1895 “trip to Durban” (from Cape Town) undertaken by a family of mixed European settler descent, whereas in the text’s final piece a black woman speaks about living with AIDS in 2000.

Coullie analyses and defends her (well-chosen) title by insisting on the continuing “lack of ordinary social contact” between women of differing racial origins within the South African context and insists that “the testimonies recount no cross-racial sisterhood” (1), since the “intimacy” (mostly in the domestic sphere of the white woman’s home) of such women’s encounters did not allow proximity to override “alienation” (3). On the same page she cites Sindiwe Magona’s summary: “White women could not escape the privilege which their colour bestowed on them. Black women could not escape the discrimination which theirs made them heir to.”  […]On the whole[…], I feel (as I believe most readers will) grateful to Coullie for having assembled this elegant, poignant and immensely worthwhile collection of women’s testimonies – history’s all-too-often unjustly silenced or overlooked witnesses. For this reviewer, the central irritation in writing about this text is the lack of space in which to describe more of its haunting and memorable entries.


7. Awino Okech. Feminist Africa.

[… In this review] I provide an overview of the book and the insights it gave me, hoping to entice the reader into buying and reading their own copy. […] The book is probably unique in its attempt to corral an entire range of South African women, regardless of race, class and creed.  […] One of the strengths of this collection is that it intersperses the known with the unknown.  It does so not only in terms of those included; it also gives unprecedented insight into the lives of well-known figures such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Antjie Krog, Gillian Slovo and Bessie Head, among others.  Their stories give readers a glimpse into their lives as wives, friends and political activists in their own right. [… The]   paradox of simultaneous visibility and invisibility strikes the reader […].  Huge assumptions are often made about what it means to be the partner or child of an icon, especially a political activist.  Cognisance is rarely taken of the significant personal sacrifices that these women have made for the greater cause.

[…] This book is definitely a worthwhile read.  It must be recognized for its attempts to begin to remedy the paucity of available writing by black South African women.  The editor is to be commended for her efforts to obtain stories that are rarely heard, or not circulated, because of their oral nature.  As a graduate student, I found it useful and helpful to my own work… I found it a wonderfully alternative and refreshing take on the history of [South Africa], rather than the usual male-dominated discourses and overviews.  I would recommend that anyone with an interest in women’s history and stories buy it, and read it, especially if they are keen to learn about this continent.


8. Chris Dunton.  The Sunday Independent. 21 November 2005: 18.

This substantial anthology covers the years 1895-2000.  The material is arranged by historical period, [… and for each] of these Coullie provides a brief historical introduction.

Some of the juxtapositions are striking, even surreal.  The introduction to the section 1950-1959 (“Apartheid Escalates”) is horrifying: not that the facts it records are unfamiliar, but because their compression into a few pages has the effect of rendering them all the more outrageous.  Immediately after comes a snapshot of Marjorie Michaels, the wife of a big-game hunter, and then a eulogy to her husband, a classic of its epoch: “I have often found in the past that when I have scoffed at something George has told me, I have been forced to admit that, unlikely as I had thought it, he was right and I was wrong.”

In this case, the invincible George had been spouting about black women’s fortitude in childbirth.

A question arises: where does the focus lie…?  Coullie tackles the question in her general introduction […]: the recognition that interdependencies were forged, inextricably, on the basis of injustice.  […The] book is full of marvels….  There is writing of exceptional insight and sensitivity….  Even if there is some uncertainty about what the whole book has to say as a whole, individual parts of great value and Coullie’s editorial work is scrupulous.

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