Maureen Isaacson
courtesy of Maureen Isaacson

That Thing That She Does: Journalist, fiction writer, chronicler of change…

Where Maureen Isaacson lives has indelibly influenced who she is: as a white South African, the 45-year-old journalist and fiction writer has lived through enough tremendous social and political change to provide material for a lifetime. As a child, she lived a cloistered and segregated life in white areas of Johannesburg where she attended school. As an adult, she has both absorbed and embraced the reality of the new, desegregated and complex country with passion and integrity.

Though she spent some time traveling in Europe, South Africa has been her home and is the dominant theme of her writing, both fiction and nonfiction. As a longtime journalist for independent newspapers, Isaacson covered the time leading up to the dismantling of apartheid and later tracked the transition to a new form of government. (She is now the books, features and assistant editor of a publication called the Sunday Independent.) She is studying Zulu and says she speaks enough of the language to “allow one into a world apartheid succeeded in so neatly sequestering. And it is welcomed by mother tongue speakers with generosity.”

“It’s hard for me to quantify her ‘achievements’,” writes her friend Lynne Segal, a fellow South African, who grew up with Maureen. “Her day-to-day life in and of itself is a triumph of the micro. She is very much a woman of the place… She has integrated within the “new” South Africa in a way that I know of no other. She’s got her ear to the ground.”

Where Isaacson can’t go in journalism she can travel with fiction: she’s published a book of short stories in English — some translated into other languages and republished — about the complex and shifting experience of growing up in South Africa. A recent story, called “Spy,” garnered the local vita/herstoria short-story competition in 1999. “It relates to the truth commission and the kinds of realities South Africans faced in the years following the first democratic elections,” she writes. “Some of the monsters of apartheid are walking free; and this man, on whom the story is based, received amnesty, much to the consternation and horror of the families of the victims.” (To read her short story, click here.)

“She is just such an excellent commentator on the changing world that exists there,” says Segal. “She has watched it transform from a staunch Afrikaner nation through Nelson Mandela’s “rainbow nation” to what it is now… She has the intricate understanding of someone who has witnessed these huge changes in her life.”

Word from Maureen

Her Next Step: Big question. I have been working in the same building for eleven years and the next move has to be to more movement, more extensive travel, more freedom. But I am waiting, hopefully, for a big opportunity to write and travel more.

How She Shakes Off a Bad Day: Straight from my office in downtown Johannesburg, which is utterly deprived of such luxuries, to one of the bookstores in the shopping malls here — they are well stacked and have great coffee bars. I grab a pot of tea and a pile of magazines or books and disappear for hours. It doesn’t take long to wipe the day out and move into private space that is uncrowded, its infinity limited only by the 10 p.m. closing time.

Her Favorite Way to Travel: My favorite way to travel, although I seldom do this because of time constraints, is by train. I like the relaxation of long journeys, settling down at the window with a book, allowing the driver to steer my course for a time. I love the transit. In reality, the way I travel most is by plane, and I love, too, the sacred space of the duty free zones — not the shopping, but the sense of disappearing into a space designed for transition.



Maureen Isaacson

Literary Witness



Coordinates:

Johannesburg, South Africa


Read Spy, Maureen’s award-winning short story.

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