Nostalgic, reflective essays on the writing life by the South African novelist Freed (House of Women, 2002, etc).
Her favorite writers are V.S. Naipaul, Marguerite Duras, and Nancy Mitford, from whose work she quotes often in establishing the autobiographical cord to a novelist’s craft. In 11 essays, Freed traces her trajectory from a 1960s childhood in Durban, South Africa, to her reinvention as a much-married expatriate novelist living in California. Freed begins with her reading lists as a child (Enid Blyton and the plays of J.M. Barrie) in an affluent household that until the mid-1970s, she notes, knew no television. The author dwells on the contrasting personalities of her parents, both actors. Freed’s flamboyant, assertive Jewish mother was an especially strong presence; “the love affair she conducted with trouble” obsessed her daughter for 30 years. In the essay “Honorary Son,” she explains that because her two older sisters were beautiful and being groomed for marriage, and her four “shadow” brothers had died in miscarriage, plain Freed was allowed to discover her true nature from her parents’ beneficent neglect, and she gained confidence through defiance and self-assertion. “My sense of male entitlement has carried easily into every sphere of my life,” she writes. She explores the autobiographical elements at length in her novels, especially the first, Home Ground, with its explosive opening paragraph detailing a white child’s “pulling on the penis of the garden boy.” (28) The book was subsequently banned in apartheid South Africa and beyond. Two essential elements in the development of the writer: years of practice and ruthlessness. Her own sense of ruthlessness took her away from her homeland, as an exchange student in Far Rockaway, New York, and later as a teacher trying to impart to her writing students how to sustain a “focus” she took many years to find in her own life.
Instructive, well-poised lessons from the trenches.