Cape Town-based author, Penny Haw, who hails from the hills around Ixopo.
Cape Town-based author, Penny Haw, who hails from the hills around Ixopo.

Former Ixopo child on a writing roll

By Duncan Guy Time of article published Jun 26, 2021

Share this article:

Durban - One could be forgiven for assuming that when Penny Haw says she decided to write a novel while on an outdoor adventure, she was taking part in the Sani2c epic bike ride.

Rather than it being on the cycling trail traversing KZN that her brother, legendary “Farmer Glen” Haw started, it was on the Tsitsikamma Trail in her adopted province, the Western Cape.

Ixopo-born, -bred and -educated, Haw’s adventure story, set on the Tsitsikamma Trail, weaves in the dramas of a group of adult friends and one of the next generation who suffers from anorexia. The eating disorder is something Penny battled with in her young adulthood.

She states in her author’s note: “The exploration of anorexia is loosely based on my own experience and, while I hope it throws some light on the pain and crushing shame that can accompany the condition, I am not a professional in the subject and make no claims as such.”

Penny Haw’s novel The Wilderness Between Us is set on the Tsitsikamma Trail in the Western Cape.

That said, Haw would be “very happy” if her writing could help anyone else who suffers from it or knows someone with it.

“It took me many years to be able to speak openly about my experience. The shame ran very deep and, like Clare (the main character in The Wilderness Between Us), I refused to get help because I felt that would confirm just how weak I was.

“When I look back ‒ as a wise, older woman ‒ I realise how stupid that was and how accepting help then would probably have helped a great deal. The other thing that would make me happy would be if Clare’s story helped families and friends understand the condition a little better.”

Alongside Clare in the novel is Faye who is in an unhealthy marriage.

Their situations of being trapped were similar.

"My experience of anorexia, on which I based Clare’s condition, was definitely something of a trap. The bait was the thrill of self-control, which led to a hellish place in which I was completely out of control.

“Faye, with her Machiavellian, manipulative husband, Derek, fell into the trap of marrying a man she thought came with the key to friendships and opportunities she’d not otherwise have access to.

“She was cowed by him and allowed him to diminish her and ruin her confidence. What I also wanted to show through the characters is the devastating shame that can come with having an eating disorder and, similarly, from being abused in a relationship.”

Haw feels that many encounter “Dereks” in their lives.

“I watched one of the strongest women I know withdraw further and further into herself as she was browbeaten and stage-managed by her husband.

“At some point, she stopped driving because he told her she was no good at it. It was hard to watch and I did speak out but ‒ possibly out of shame ‒ she defended him.

“It’s hard to imagine that even the most independent, resilient people can be ground down until they’re insecure and more or less helpless.”

She said the sources of Clare and Faye’s shame were different, “but both were paralysed by it”.

Haw recalled the Tsitsikamma hike some years ago that gave birth to her idea of writing a book.

“After our first night in the mountains, one of our party woke up with a debilitating migraine and was not up to hiking that day. She insisted we go on, saying she’d medicate and sleep it off, and hitch a ride to our next stop with the rangers.

“We were uneasy about leaving her in so remote a place without the ability to communicate with her or the rangers, but she was adamant, and we went on without her.

“As we walked, I imagined various scenarios, picturing what could go wrong. Nothing did. We were happily reunited that evening and, over the next several days, completed a wonderful hike.

“But the idea of what could have happened under different circumstances, to different people, took root and I began thinking what a beautiful setting it would be for a story.

“Also, I am fascinated by how being in nature, at the mercy of the elements and seeing how animals and plants survive can help us see totally unrelated things in our own lives more clearly. I like the idea of people allowing nature to help them resolve their problems.”

Haw credits her grandmother, Alice Kirk, and Ixopo’s English teachers, including Anne Wyatt-Goodall and Jos Campbell, for shaping her ambitions to become a writer.

“My grandmother not only encouraged my love for animals; she was also a reader, writer and wonderful storyteller.”

Haw's first book, an animal story for children called Nicko: The tale of a vervet monkey on an African farm, is the true story of her grandmother, a monkey and several other animals who lived with her in the Lufafa valley.

“Another book, which I wrote before The Wilderness Between Us and hope will be published in the not too distant future, is based on a fictitious farm in the Umkomaas valley and features Ixopo’s Buddhist Retreat.”

She says her love of the outdoors and animals began in KZN and much of her writing is inspired by her experiences there.

Haw went into journalism after university, imagining that she might one day try her hand at fiction.

“The idea of going from journalist to author is a daunting one. I think of Nicko ‒ being a children’s book of less than 20 000 words and based on a story I’ve known all my life ‒ as something of a gateway to authordom.”

Haw said it was even more difficult to make a living as an author than as a journalist.

“And much more work.

“The writing is great fun, though. It’s taken me a while to stop thinking about writing fiction as playing rather than work.

“At first, I felt terribly guilty about making up stories but now I embrace the playfulness of it.”

When Haw is not writing, she runs and hikes every day, “also called walking the dogs" on the Karbonkelberg in Hout Bay near where she lives.

  • The Wilderness Between Us

The Independent on Saturday

Share this article: