Remarkable Writers over 50: Shirley Deane’s Story

I’m not sure where this new blog is going, but how I want to begin is with stories, the stories of remarkable writers over 50. I’ve always been an observer—watching, listening to people I see in bus stations or on the street, and making up stories about what I see. Then, four years ago, I moved to North Carolina where I found that people were willing to tell me their stories. While we looked over the meat section at Harris Teeter, a woman told me about butchering on the farm where she grew up; waiting at a Kinko’s counter, another woman told me about establishing a foundation after the death of her child from SIDS; I heard two generations of stories from a woman I met at a museum.

My first story is about my friend Shirley Deane. (Shirley is her birth and authorial name, but her friends know her as Dalia, a name she acquired while in India.) In 1956, at the age of 27, she was a young jazz accordionist in New York. She had a recording contract and the offer of her own television show, but then one night, after a nightclub appearance, she decided she would rather tour the world. Shortly after, she packed and set sail. She played her way through Europe and Africa, and then decided she wanted to see India. Why not go by car? Never mind that no one had yet driven from Europe to Asia alone, and that no woman had been included in the two previous groups. She had a Land Rover modified to her specifications, went to mechanic school, and began another of her amazing journeys. She was kidnapped and questioned by the Turkish police; the Shah insisted on arranging an escort for her through a dangerous area of Iran; alone in the desert, her engine became clogged with sand, but she pulled out her notes from her mechanic’s training, and was off again.

While she was living and teaching in South Africa, she saw that the Who’s Who of South Africa had no entries for blacks. She set out to right that wrong. Despite death threats, despite the theft of her recorded interviews and notes, she persevered and published, through Oxford, the first ever Who’s Who of Black South Africans. 

When she attempted to publish her memoir, no agents or editors believed that her story wasn’t fantasy. So when Kevin Watson, of Press 53, contacted her after hearing her interviewed on our local public radio station, the manuscript she sent him was accompanied by scrapbooks, newspaper clippings from around the world, and photos. The result is An Unreasonable Woman. (Go to

When I asked Dalia for a quote for this story, she said, “I’ve always believed in living from the inside out.”

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