Marié Heese is surely a woman of many writerly facets. Take first, this excerpt from a piece in which she calls herself, Hungry Traveller, but proves herself too, to be a writer who enkindles in readers, a hunger to travel – even at times when she’s not particularly enjoyed an experience.
“I cannot recommend a trip by hydrofoil. One day Chris and I travelled on a hydrofoil from Copenhagen to Malmö. This vessel is something between an aeroplane and a speedboat, with the worst features of both. Frankly, it feels like a trip in a stolen aeroplane driven by a drunken juvenile delinquent who can’t lift it from the runway but is determined to keep trying till the wings rip off!”
If you’ve not yet read Die Honger Reisiger, Heese’s popular travel cookbook published last year, you can find voorsmakies of her travel writing at the Showcook.com website. Her constant curiosity and love for new experience, gustatory or otherwise, are very evident in those accounts of visits to various European cities. I’d never have imagined wanting to take on a bowl of brown bread ice cream yet Marié Heese does manage to convince me (as the buxom proprietor of a Malmö restaurant does her) that it’s a not-to-be-missed eating experience.
Marié Heese has been writing and publishing for an enviable four decades, writing in both English and Afrikaans, and in genres ranging from essay to childrens’ books, fiction to poetry and academic texts. And too, the faces of my older friends light with nostalgia when I mention the name, Audrey Blignaut; Audrey Blignaut, late mother of Heese, busy nonagenarian, icon of popular Afrikaans writing and whose work is still bought and read today. Blignaut’s essays, magazine pieces and radio broadcasts blazed a trail for Afrikaans literature and reading. Through her column, Uit die dagboek van ’n vrou in the then Sarie Marais magazine, she validated the experience of everyday women decades before South Africa declared August 9 as day to celebrate our strong women and the contributions they make to society. But back to the daughter of the formidable mother.
The charm of her travel writing is Marié Heese’s ability to winkle out the less-told stories about places she visits. And where there is no story to be told, she easily imagines a plausible interpretation of the facts to hand for herself and her readers – as she does with Clarence Blum’s grey granite statute of an anonymous fiskegumma (or, fish grandmother) that stands and glares out to sea from the quays of Sweden’s port town, Malmö.
That she also delights readers of fiction is evident from the success of The Double Crown which earned the Heese a short-listing for the 2010 Commonwealth Writers Prize and carried off the contest’s prize for the Best Book of Africa.
The Double Crown: Secret Writings of the Female Pharoah (Human & Rousseau) is set in Egypt, about 15 centuries before Christ, and explores the life of Hatshepsut queen of Egypt who, on the death of her husband, boldly claimed for herself the male privilege of ruling as pharaoh in his place. Besides imagining herself into the mind and everyday life of the long-ago woman, Heese also hones in on issues relevant still, to women today; ‘glass-ceiling’ power issues in a patriarchal society; high-power job, public life and the resultant costs to our children, friendships and family life – all of which form important support systems for women of all eras.
Perhaps it’s Marié Heese’s background in political philosophy, drama or perhaps it’s her experience as educator of literary skills that makes this book so engagingly readable despite its location in a geographically and temporally very different world to that of ours. Either way, two years after The Double Crown we have now The Colour of Power – another meticulously researched and unputdownable historical adventure.
The Colour of Power: A Story of Theodora, Empress of Byzantium jumps two thousand years forward in time and is set in the sixth century after the death of Christ. It traces the fortunes of the Syrian-born strip-tease artist who rose up through the rigid ranks of society to become Empress, wife of the great Justinian I, Emperor of Byzantine (also known as the Eastern Roman Empire).
Again, Heese not only examines, carefully, the available historical sources, but she also re-evaluates, with a far less sexist mindset, the interpretations and conclusions of many twentieth century historians. For example, a prime source of information of the time comes from the preserved and translated writings of Procopius, sixth century scribe and historian. This is what Marié Heese says:
“I find it strange that historians who, on the one hand, do not take seriously Procopius’s statements that Justinian was a daemon who could disappear through walls, on the other hand do swallow accusations that Theodora routinely slept with thirty men per night.”
She continues her interrogation with questions about Procopius’s sources that are easily as apposite to readers now, in 2011:
“Doesn’t anyone notice that Procopius passes on totally uncorroborated hearsay? He actually uses the words “we are told” on p.44 and “it is said” on p.84. Hearsay in the passive voice. How can such a reporter be trusted?”
The novel centres on Theodora’s life, her shrewd political sense and her influence as co-ruler of the Empire. It is written in simple, accessible language with contemporary dialogue. Right from the start, it keeps the reader (if you can resist checking out the actual history) on edge and guessing what the outcome will be, all the way to the end of the book.
Heese’s story opens to find the Emperor Justinian barricaded inside one of his lavish palaces. At the palace gates, thousands of citizens are in revolt against his despotic rule and clamouring for regime change. Even the combined might of his army of loyal soldiers and well-paid mercenaries is unable to quell the angry crowds. A story about the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ in one of the countries along the northern coasts of Africa, perhaps?
The Colour of Power is indeed placed in that part of the world, albeit some 1500 years ago. It is set along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in 505-532 AD. That’s when Istanbul was Constantinople, when the Byzantine Empire stretched from Greece and Turkey down through Syria, Palestine, Egypt and along the north African coast, including Cyreniaca which is now Libya and past Carthage which is now Tunis. So much changes; so little is different. What better than rediscoveries of the adventures of history to remind us of that?
I mentioned earlier, Marié Heese’s poetry, and actually, my first encounter with her work was through a tiny book published in English in 1997 (Unisa Press). Her Haiku for Africa contains a few dozen short, illustrated poems and this one, entitled ‘Long live the king’, seems apt comment on rulers who have overstayed their best-before date, whatever the year, wherever the country:
Vultures are circling.
Just to frustrate them, I shall
Survive one more day.
The Colour of Power deur Marié Heese
Uitgewer: Human & Rousseau
Resensent: Moira Richards
Review first published by Rapport in Afrikaans, August 2011
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