South African and non-South African life writing (autobiography
- Literary theory (including narrative theory and gender
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
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
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
[…] 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.
2. JOURNAL OF AFRICAN LITERATURE AND CULTURE
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”
[… 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
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
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
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
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.