André Brink (1935-2015)
The work: A Dry White Season (1979) was his masterpiece, but he wrote 20 other novels, many of which explore the legacy of apartheid in South Africa.
The life: Brink was raised by Afrikaner nationalist parents, who supported apartheid. He became an outspoken critic of the system when his novel Kennis van die Aand was banned in South Africa because of its depiction of a mixed race love affair. He joined “The Sixty-ers” (“Die Sestigers”), a group of writers who used Afrikaans to speak out against apartheid. Brink purported to be timid and passive. South Africa’s security services – not to mention the six wives he accumulated over the years – may beg to differ.
The word: “Writers don’t normally have a very important role but in any kind of oppressive society they become foregrounded.”
Assia Djebar (1936-2015)
The work: Algerian novelist, playwright, translator, poet and film-maker Assia Djebar depicted the lives of Muslim women in her fiction. A committed feminist living in a patriarchal world, she published her first novel, La Soif (The Mischief), aged 21. Fifteen more were to follow, exploring the themes of inequality, shifting identities, and colonialism.
The life: Djebar was always an outsider. She was one of only two girls in her boarding school and then the only Muslim in her High School class. On finding her voice through fiction, she critiqued power structures in Algerian society and later in her roles as an academic in Algeria and the U.S..
The word: “I am not a symbol. My only activity consists of writing. Like many writers, I use my culture and I collect several imaginary worlds.”
Yaşar Kemal (1923-2015)
The work: A prolific Turkish writer of Kurdish descent, Kemal wrote about the poor and the oppressed. His first novel, Memed, My Hawk, was his most famous, and was translated into 40 languages. It was inspired in part by stories he heard from bandits hiding out in his village when he was a child.
The life: Kemal championed outsiders. He was a constant thorn in the side of the far right. First imprisoned as a teenager for handing out Communist pamphlets, he spent his adulthood getting harassed by the police for various “crimes” ranging from attempting to unionize tractor drivers to putting Marxist references in his newsletters. Well into his seventies, he earned the wrath of Turkish elites by standing up for Kurdish autonomy. When he died, thousands turned out to mourn him.
The word: “I don’t write about issues, I don’t write for an audience, I don’t even write for myself. I just write.”
Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015)
The work: Uruguayan-born Galeano was one of the greatest of all the great Latin American writers in the second half of the Twentieth Century. He was a novelist, artist, journalist, poet, and editor. His masterpiece is Memory of Fire, a searing and bloody history of the Americas.
The life: Aged 14, Galeano began drawing cartoons for El Sol, Uruguay’s Socialist weekly paper. Inspired by the Cuban Revolution, he moved on to editing left-wing magazine Crisis. But like so many Latin American writers, he was exiled when the military regime sought to silence him. He remained in Spain until 1985. On his return to Uruguay, he wrote a series of outstanding books based on his encyclopedic knowledge of Latin American history.
The word: “I’m a writer obsessed with remembering the past of America … and above all that of Latin America, intimate land condemned to forgetfulness.”
Günter Grass (1927-2015)
The work: Grass was a giant of post-war German letters. He was best-known for his extraordinary first novel, The Tin Drum, a work of mythical magical realism that described the rise of Nazism. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999.
The life: After his spectacular start, Grass spent the rest of his life admonishing Germany for its recent past and reminding them that not every problem was resolved by unification in 1990. He shocked the literary world with his admission that he’d been a member of the SS as a 17-year-old, but no one who followed European letters in the second half of the Twentieth Century could be in any doubt about where he stood politically and morally.
The word: “The job of a citizen is to keep his mouth open.”
Henning Mankell (1948-2015)
The work: Mankell is best known for his crime fiction and particularly for his Inspector Kurt Wallander novels, but his output was as diverse and interesting as his life. He wrote around 50 plays (and ran a theater in Mozambique for years), as well as screenplays and children’s books.
The life: Mankell spoke out about numerous issues including the Vietnam War, South Africa’s apartheid regime, and Israel’s treatment of Palestine. In 2010 he sailed on the Sofia, one of the aid ships that tried to break the Israeli embargo of the Gaza Strip, and he was deported back to Sweden.
The word: “An oppressed people will always rise.”