Women Who Broke Literary Barriers

In honour of International Women’s Day (March 8th) here is a list of extraordinary women writers who blazed a trail for the rest of us.

Enheduanna: First woman writer (possibly the first writer of any gender).

The Akkadian poet and high priestess lived two thousand years BCE and is thought to be the first writer known by name. She was responsible for creating poetry and prayers that might have influenced the psalms and hymns of ancient Greece and the Hebrew Bible. Her work (see image on the left) was discovered in 1927.

Flora Nwapa: First African woman to publish a novel.

Ogbuefi Florence Nwanzuruahu Nkira Nwapa Nwakuche, otherwise known as Flora Nwapa, was the first African woman to have a novel published. In 1966 her book Efuru was published under the Heinemann African Writer’s Series.

Phillis Wheatley: First published African-American poet.

Phillis Wheatley (1753 – 1784) was born in West Africa and sold into slavery at age seven. The family that bought her taught her to read and write. She was the first slave to have a book of poetry published, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773.

Mary Shelley: Mother of science fiction.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797 – 1851) is known for writing the classic novel Frankenstein. Published in 1818, it was one of the earliest, if not the earliest, science fiction novel.

Agatha Christie: Best-selling novelist in history.

Agatha Christie (1890 -1976) was a British author best-known for her crime novels featuring the detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. She still holds the record of bestselling novelist. (The title of bestselling fiction author overall goes to Shakespeare.)

Ann Petry: First bestselling black woman writer.

Ann Petry’s novel The Street (published in 1946) was the first novel by a black woman writer to sell over a million copies. She also wrote Country Place and The Narrows.

J.K. Rowling: First billionaire writer.

J.K. Rowling rose to fame as the author of the much-beloved Harry Potter books, and was widely credited with helping to create a shift in children’s literature that encouraged kids to enjoy reading again.

And last but definitely not least:

Botswana Women Write: First anthology of women’s fiction in Botswana.

This ambitious anthology, featuring everything from fiction and poetry to court documents, was co-edited by Dr. Mary Lederer, Professor Maitseo Bolane, Dr. Leloba Molema and Dr. Connie Rapoo and published in 2019.


Honouring the mighty pen: Barolong Seboni

What inspired you to found Petlo Literary Arts?

The Writers Association was formed in 1980. It’s been 40 years, so we were looking for something that could fit in and change with the times, as well as provide continuity and sustainability. The objective now is to be more proactive as well as just ACTIVE. We also wanted to focus a bit more on the publishing aspect and prospect. And actually write, workshop and publish books! I also felt it was time to partner the writer with the corporate world. That’s how we managed to publish the majority of our books.

What has been the highlight of your work with Petlo?

It’s definitely the workshops where we worked with new and talented writers and produced Sechele I, the play. The acquisition of land along the Okavango to build a retreat for writers and artists was another milestone. And, of course, Petlwana the journal.

What is the most vital ingredient of a thriving creative writing culture?

The energy, ability and space to keep on writing. A culture is the end product of certain habits over a long period of time. Batswana must develop those habits of writing and sustain them. The duty of all governments is to make the environment conducive for writers, incentivize them to produce their best works. A good poem or novel makes the whole nation feel good about itself and look good to the rest of the world! These incentives could include :

  • Mandatory acquisition of new titles for all libraries in Botswana. Maybe 100 copies of each title, but they must be good!
  • Funding and administration of the arts.
  • Nurturing young writers from secondary school level, and introducing creative writing courses at higher levels.
  • Introducing an annual prize for writers and the national position of Poet Laureate.
  • Giving tax incentives to corporates and individuals who support writers and artists.

How would you like to see the creative writing landscape in Botswana change over the next decade?

We need more partnerships between writers’ organizations and the private sector. Petlo has shown that this can work through the sponsorship of our workshops and publications by Investec, Falcon Crest Suites, THC Trust, Oasis Motel, Meg Skinner, Thuso Dikgaka and others.

What is your favourite poem of all time, and why?

Digging” by Seamus Heaney. It weaponises, revolutionizes and technologises the mighty pen!  From my own collection I quite enjoyed penning “Holding Hands”.

“Holding Hands” from Ceremony of the Word

Learn more about Barolong Seboni here or connect with him here.



You languish lethargically
Like a crocodile stuck deep
In the dark clay and cracking mud
Of drying rivers and empty dams.

Your rough and ridged back
Is the undulating terrain of rock,
As you lie rapt in reptilian slumber
Basking atop Stacken Hill
While you lie listlessly yawning
Sunning on sandy stretches
Between desert and town,
Parasitic birds feed from your teeth
Then fly out again to distant lands
Where rivers roll into lushness of lakes.

Your teeth are arrayed
Like ivory pillars of the Kgotla
Carved and splendidly sculptured
By the cultured hand of a craftsman
As totemlike you sprawl
On your stomach of slate

Your tough leathery hide
Is saddled with ribs of rock
That weigh you down as you crawl
Sluggishly towards Mapharangwane and Gaborone
Under the scorching sun

Molepolole, spread across the west
Like buffalo hide left dry,
Seldom you shine except
After the rains have rinsed you
Of the desert dust,
Then you gleam illusively like a python
Or a fat calloused woman smeared with Vaseline

O how I wish I could feel
The appraising touch of your scaly hands
How I long to rub against the quarry of your body
Like a stray cat against its master,
Until I find that tender flank
Along the pelvic haunches protecting your womb,
And there crouch, ensconced in the folds
Of your amphibian flesh, listening to the warmth
In the thawing of your blood.