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After Childhood Struggles in South Africa, New Purpose in 'Grace’

Alum Turns Journals Into Debut Novel

By Maya Pottiger ’17, M.Jour. ’20

Barbara Boswell

Courtesy of Barbara Bowsell Ph.D. '10

Courtesy of Barbara Bowsell Ph.D. '10

As Barbara Boswell Ph.D. ’10 was growing up in the waning days of apartheid in South Africa, the violence in the streets echoed in her home.

For years, she struggled with shame and—common for victims of domestic abuse—blamed herself and tried to bury her memories.

It wasn’t until she was a student at the University of Maryland, separated by time and distance from the source of her pain, that she began to reflect more deeply about it, and put those thoughts to paper.

What emerged was fiction inspired by her experience, beginning with the scene of a frightened girl silently willing her mother not to open a locked door to a pleading, threatening, alcoholic father.

The resulting novel, “Grace,” was published in her home country in 2017 and went on to win the Debut Prize from the University of Johannesburg Prize for South African Writing. Last month, a U.S. edition, now called “Unmaking Grace,” became available.

“It’s an important topic to be dealt with,” Boswell said of domestic violence. “We need to actually see depictions of it and what it’s like to be living in that kind of environment, especially for children.”

For decades, South African writing has focused primarily on the fight for freedom from racial oppression. Boswell said the move to democracy that began in earnest with multi-racial elections in 1994 allows more freedom to write about other topics, including the lives of young, black and queer people in South Africa. Boswell feels part of a movement of “telling the stories that have been suppressed by a very racist and brutal history.”

“It’s a really exciting, very vibrant time, and people are being very creative,” Boswell said. “It’s not a formal movement, but I feel part of a community that’s really redefining African-ness and South African-ness at this particular moment.”

Moving to the West in 2003 offered something her home didn’t: access to banned texts written by South African authors. This was key, as Boswell planned to write her dissertation on the history of the country’s black women fiction writers.

Above all, Boswell chose Maryland because she quickly connected to the professors she was emailing from South Africa. Bonnie Thornton Dill, professor and dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, remembers Boswell as bright and engaged.

“I remember her as having a lot of dynamism in what she thought and the way she expressed her ideas,” Thornton Dill. “She was really helpful to us in thinking about issues of intersectionality, particularly around race and class and gender.”

Boswell wrote the majority of “Grace” during her seven years at this university on a Fulbright Scholarship. Inspiration often came while on walks through Rock Creek Park and Lake Artemesia. Boswell didn’t want to write her own story as a memoir; the only true event from Boswell’s life is the novel’s opening scene.

She says she didn’t want to expose her family matters by sharing revealing details. She didn’t even tell relatives about the novel until it was finished, when she asked a few relatives to read it. Having their approval made Boswell feel confident in publishing her novel.

For the past two years, Boswell has been an associate professor at the University of Cape Town. She teaches English, focusing on black women’s diasporic literature, African feminist literary theory, and gender and sexuality.

The women Boswell researched for her dissertation served as motivation for more than just her debut novel. To come full circle, Boswell is publishing another book based off her dissertation later this year, tentatively scheduled for publication in September.

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.