Etienne van Heerden was born 3 December 1954 six years after the official advent of apartheid. He is a South African author. His mother was an English speaking mathematics teacher. His father, an Afrikaans speaking merino stud breeder, farmed the family farm in the Karoo. Van was reared Afrikaans, with English reserved for use at home on Tuesdays, and learned from comics ordered from London.
Van Heerden is married to Kaia, a practicing doctor, and lives in Stellenbosch. The couple has two daughters, Imke and Menán.
Due to being born blind in the right eye, he was not called up for combat duty, but served as a dog handler, playing his alsatian at major festivals.
Etienne initially studied law, and was admitted to the South African Side Bar as attorney. He freelanced as deputy sheriff for the Civil Court, and moved about in the townships around Cape Town, dispensing civil summonses and learning a great deal about life in these suppressed communities. As a young practitioner, his clients were mostly from the black and colored crime-ridden communities around Cape Town.
Heerden also lectured Legal Practice at the Peninsula Technikon and spent two years in advertising. At age thirty, with the birth of his eldest daughter, Van Heerden left the routine of a budding Cape Town advertising agency. He and his family relocated to northern Natal where he started out on his academic career in Literature at the University of Zululand. His PhD was a study on engagement and postmodernism.
During the 1980s he was member of a group of Afrikaans writers secretly meeting the banned ANC of Mandela and exiled writers at the (now famous) Victoria Falls Writers’ Conference, held in Zimbabwe.
Van is seen as member of a generation of Afrikaans artists who contributed significantly to opening up the Afrikaner psyche to change. He regularly teaches at universities in Europe, and has been Writer in Residence at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, and the University of Antwerp in Belgium.
He was a member of the University of Iowa’s prestigious International Writing Program in 1990, and has been back on visits to this university, of which he is an Honorary Fellow in Writing. He regularly reads his fiction at events such as the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, the Winter Nights Festival in the Hague, Netherlands, the Time of the Writer Festival in Berlin, Germany, the Zimbabwe Book Fair and other festivals and events internationally.
Despite at times at odds with the apartheid government, Heerden never left South Africa permanently, and now teaches at the University of Cape Town, where he is the Hofmeyr Professor in the School of Languages and Literatures, and chairs the Afrikaans and Netherlandic Studies Section. His current activities at the University of Cape Town include the supervision of Creative Writing, where he has led a generation of young Afrikaans authors to published status, and the lecturing of courses in Literary Theory, Media Studies, and South African and Dutch Literature.
Although he lives in the Western Cape, Van returns, in his writing, to the Karoo of his childhood. He describes this arid and mythological part of South Africa’s deep interior is his own “landscape of the mind”. He serves on the board of directors of NB Publishers, which includes, among others, Kwela, Tafelberg, Best Books and Human and Rousseau publishers.