South African Author Dalene Matthee: A Daughter’s Tribute

Fiela's Child by Dalene Matthee

South African author Dalene Matthee (1938 – 2005) was best known for her four “Forest novels” presenting stories of the Cape Knysna Forest and its inhabitants. In 2023, I had the good fortune of interviewing Hilary Matthee, one of Dalene Matthee’s three daughters, for an issue of the Afrikaans magazine Taalgenoot.

Matthee’s writings have been translated into multiple languages, including French, German, Icelandic, and English. Matthee would usually translate the first versions of her work into English, believing that it was important to make sure the emotion came across in a “reserved” language.

In 1970, Matthee published her debut children’s novel The Twelve o’ Clock Stick. She published a collection of short stories next, The Judas Goat, in 1982. Several of her works have been adapted to film, including Circles in a Forest (1989), Fiela’s Child (1988 and 2019), and Dreamforest.

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Dalene Matthee

Dalene Matthee

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An interview with Hilary Matthee, daughter of Dalene Matthee

Parts of this interview were translated into English, and then kept in the original language for the piece. Presented here is a reworked version of the original interview.

Dalene Matthee began writing children’s stories for broadcast on radio, sometime after getting married at 18, says Hilary. “Later, she started writing short stories for Sarie and Huisgenoot to fill in the family’s income.”

“She wanted to write a short story like Jack London’s To Build a Fire. Charles Kingsley’s Water-babies also had a large impact on her, and she considered it a large metaphysical work.”

Dalene wrote a series for the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), but it was rejected by the television network. “She reworked the two series’ into books, which became Petronella van Aarde, Mayor and A House for Nadia.”

At this time, Matthee found a tree in the middle of the forest – here, the Circles in a Forest that would form the inspiration for the first of four Forest Novels. According to Hilary, Matthee would call the first Forest novel her attempt to write a “glorified fairy tale.”

Hilary remembers sitting around the kitchen table, asking her mother what her favorite characters might have gotten up to today. For 15 years, Hilary joined Matthee assisting in research and odd jobs.

“Dalene always said that writing is an incredibly lonely job; nobody can help you, and you have to be very disciplined,” says Hilary. “Her study had to be organized and clean.”

Matthee also refused the presence of alcohol anywhere near her study. “She used to say that she doesn’t get driven by whims like many other writers, getting up to write in the middle of the night with a glass of wine in hand.”

She wrote her first three forest books by hand, says Hilary. “It had to be a yellow pencil, inlined classroom books. After this, she typed out the manuscript.”

The manuscript for Circles in a Forest was typed on a portable Olivetti typewriter in the days before computers, Hilary notes.

After publishers rejected the original title (Where the Loerie Cries), they settled on Circles in a Forest instead. Loeries, for their call, are also named “go-away birds” — the Knysna Lourie is a prominent feature in the forest that formed much of her inspiration. The Circles in a Forest hiking trail is named in Matthee’s honor, with a memorial to her located at one of her favorite spots in the forest.

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The Mulberry Forest by Dalene Matthee

Dalene Matthee’s “Forest Novels”
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Dalene Matthee had once studied music; at Graaff-Reinet she spent time as a music teacher. She also happened to be an avid golfer. Hilary says that her mother never touched a piano again after writing Circles in a Forest – the association between ivory keys and elephants, one would guess.

“Dalene’s research would take an incredible amount of time, up to three years for one book,” Hilary explained.

Fiela’s Child published in 1985, tells the story of Benjamin Koemoetie, an Afrikaner boy adopted by a coloured woman from the Cape, first portrayed by actress Shaleen Surtie-Richards for the 1988 film.

Hilary remembers the process would start with interviews. The interviews would be recorded, after which Dalene would start making notes.

“She spent a lot of time in the Cape Archives, museums, old newspaper clippings, ship records, and letters.” Some of her research took her abroad, such as a trip to Italy (for The Mulberry Forest), or Mauritius (for Pieternella, Daughter of Eva).

The Mulberry Forest (1987) is set in the 1800s, when immigrants from Italy settle in the Knysna Forest in what soon becomes a struggle for their survival against very unfamiliar elements.

“She said research is like gambling: you just can’t stop. Because you never know quite when you’ll find the piece of information that’s worth gold.”

Facts mattered: “Dalene wanted to be known as a responsible researcher. She checked all sources to make sure, because if someone could doubt one fact, they could easily cast doubt on the entire novel.”

The same opinion carried into her personal life. “She could handle a lot, but you could never lie to her. She would always say truth is stronger than lies – and the truth plays a huge role in her stories.”

She never considered herself “famous,” even though her work sold millions of copies internationally. According to Hilary, she once remarked when asked about her fame: “What does it help having the world at my feet, but losing my soul – when my soul is what I’m writing with?”

Dalene donated her life’s work and notes to the National Afrikaans Literary Museum and Research Centre (NALN) in Bloemfontein.

Today, the Circles in a Forest Hiking Trail is a monument to her memory – one of Dalene’s favourite places, and the creative spring that gave rise to many of her thoughts. “It takes you to the heart of the indigenous forest, going past Outeniqua–yellowwood trees that are hundreds of years old.”

Further reading

Contributed by Alex Jansen, a journalist, author, and proofreader. He has written for a variety of publications and websites, with a radar calibrated for gothic, gonzo and the weird. His features, posts, articles and interviews have been published in People MagazineATKV Taalgenoot, LitNet, The Citizen, Funds for Writers, and The South African, among other publications.

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