Conjectures on South African Literature
The Introduction pursues the question of what constitutes South African literature
‘beyond 2000’. If the 1990s identified the challenge of ‘difference’, the
challenge now might be ‘connection’. Is literature in South Africa today post-apartheid or
My title alludes
of course to Franco Moretti’s influential article, “Conjectures on World
Literature” (2000), in which he makes the point that world literature is not so
much an object as a problem: a problem that asks for new perspectives and
critical method. His point is germane to this 21st anniversary issue of Current
Writing, thematically entitled “Beyond 2000: South African Literature
Our impulse to look beyond 2000 was spurred
by Leon de Kock’s article, “Does South African Literature Still Exist..?”
(2005). It is a question that is applicable not only to the essays in this
double issue, but also to several of the critical works and articles of the last
decade to which I shall refer in this Introduction. How do we delineate a
field, ‘South African Literature’, in relation to descriptive and definitional
terms that have begun to be used with some persistence: post-apartheid
literature; South African literature in/after the transition; South African
literary culture ‘now’ as distinct from ‘then’; South African literature in the
transnational moment, the “transnational” being the formulation of Bill Ashford (2007) and others before him to
denote the nation caught in movement – possibly transformational movement –
“in-between” local and global demands. If post-apartheid usually means after
the unbannings of 1990, or after the first democratic elections of 1994, or
in/after the transition, then beyond 2000 begins to mark a quantitative and
qualitative shift from the immediate ‘post’ years of the 1990s to another
‘phase’.1 It is a phase in which books tangential to
heavy politics, or even to local interest, have begun to receive national
recognition. An example is the double prize-winning novel, The Rowing Lesson
(US 2007; SA 2008),2 by Anne Landsman, in which a father-daughter
relationship exceeds the shaping force of any local scene. There is also,
prominent on the shortlists, Michiel Heyns’s Bodies Politic (2008),3 a novel
set in early 20th-century suffragette England.
It is a phase in which the dominant figure of the 1990s, J M Coetzee, in his
quieter, suburban Australian novels (2005; 2007), appears to have gone beyond
his traumatised vision of his home country: that is, beyond Disgrace
(1999). As I place Coetzee beyond Disgrace, however, the film version of
his novel is about to be released on the South African cinema circuit (August
2009). If Landsman or Heyns inhabits a landscape outside of any apartheid/anti-apartheid
narrative, the winning book in the Sunday Times-Alan Paton Prize category for
non-fiction, Peter Harris’s In a Different Time (2008), returns us to
the trial of the Delmas Four: ANC Mkhonto we Sizwe operatives who, in the late
1980s, militarily opposed the apartheid state. As the lawyer who defended the
Four – at times against their own reluctance to grant the charges or the court
even a modicum of legitimacy – Harris’s vivid ‘translation’ of legalities into
human drama alerts us not only to a recurrent feature of literature from this
country – its genre-crossing potential – but also to the fact that ‘then ‘ and
‘now’ retain a power of symbiotic memory. Phases of chronology are ordering
conveniences rather than neatly separable entities.
In posing the question, does South African
Literature still exist? – the question supersedes its rhetorical provocation –
De Kock reminds us that he himself is a key contributor to conjectures on our
literature. His Introduction to the special 2001 issue of Poetics Today (subsequently
published in book form – see De Kock et al. 2004) developed the metaphor of the
“seam”. This is taken from Noël Mostert’s monumental historical novel Frontiers,
in which it is posited that “if there is a hemispheric seam to the world
between Occident and Orient, it must be along the eastern seaboard of Africa”
(1992: xv). For De Kock the seam – a stitching instrument which seeks to suture
the incommensurate – illustrates the problem of defining not only a South
African national imaginary (the question of identity recurs in post-1990
fictional and critical response), but – more to the point here – a field of
South African Literature. We inhabit a culture of largely “unresolved
difference”; of “radical heterogeneity”; a site where “difference and sameness
are hitched together, always uneasily” (De Kock 2001: 272-6). Such a conundrum
of interstitial identities, of “identities caught between stasis and change”
(Attwell and Harlow 2000:3), of “cultural
bastardization” (Breytenbach 1998:263), or “creolisation” (Nuttall 2009:21) –
all typified as the creativity of our many differences – simultaneously
suggests its own negation: the perverse difference of apartheid, its enforced
separations. In contrast, sameness as the cohesion of multiple groups and
languages in the single geographical space called South Africa (our ‘bodies politic’?) may signal, again simultaneously, a
negative corollary: the erasure of local distinctiveness, of difference. In the
master narratives of Western provenance, the current is neoliberal
In short, a key pursuit since the 1990s has
been how to cope with the concept and practice of ‘difference’. It is a
conundrum at the heart of the ‘post-’ debate (post-apartheid, postcolonialism,
postmodernism)4 not only in South Africa, but also in northern institutions of society and culture. How does
Western Europe, which still wishes to see itself as predominantly white and
bourgeois, as does the US, cope with its own increasing and heterogeneous
‘minorities’? Whereas De Kock’s summarising metaphor is the seam, David Attwell
adopts Fernando Ortiz’s (1995) Cuban-inspired notion of transculturation,
formulated in the late 1940s: “multiple processes, a dialogue in both
directions [centre to periphery, periphery to centre] and, most importantly,
processes of cultural destruction followed by reconstruction on entirely new
terms” (Attwell 2005:17-19). In illustration, Attwell demonstrates that black
modernity in South
Africa has never
constituted a linear path from oppression to liberation, whether cultural or
political, but has poached from both the West and Africa to fashion its own
temporal habitations. Isabel Hofmeyr– looking first at John Bunyan’s The
Pilgrim’s Progress as a missionary text (2004), then at the Indian Ocean seam (2008) –
unravels the binaries of centre/periphery and coloniser/colonised as she charts
new transnational circuits of texts and identities. Michael Titlestad (2004)
utilises jazz as metaphor to disrupt fixed categories of sense-making, and it
is the notion of complicity which, in the light of TRC testimony, Mark Sanders
(2002) uses to dislodge any simple alternatives of conviction and challenge. He
explores, among other cases, that of the major Afrikaans poet N P van Wyk Louw
whose commitment to Afrikaner identity led him at the same time to project an
ethical commitment beyond the apartheid system in which he was complicit.
“Entanglement” is Sarah Nuttall’s shorthand for a condition of the “now”: “So
often the story of post-apartheid has been told within the register of
difference – frequently for good reasons, but often, too, ignoring the
intricate overlaps that mark the present and, at times, and in important ways,
the past as well” (2009:1). Like Sanders, Nuttall seeks “human foldedness” (6).
What might such foldedness invoke? My own
literary history, Southern African Literatures (2003 ), provoked
debate on whose story shapes our literature and identity.5 My
collection of essays, Art Talk, Politics Talk (2006), is subtitled “A
Consideration of Categories”. Attwell argues for “rewriting modernity” and for
a “more heterogeneous and cosmopolitan dialogue” (2005:14). Hofmeyr, Loren
Kruger (2002) and others open outwards to Indian
Ocean transculturation. Achille Mbembe
(2001) turns his analytical lens on what he terms as the two major
historiographical traditions in decolonised Africa of nationalist Marxism and
nativism, neither of which he believes retains explanatory persuasion in the
time-space compression of global circulation. It is by returning to and
repositioning ‘minor’ stories that Kruger seeks human foldedness in the now.
Achmat Dangor’s protagonists, she argues, elude the grasp of the reader looking
to identify with the certainties of anti-apartheid feeling: his protagonists
the bastardised progeny of Indian-Malay slaves at the Cape, of indigenised Cape Muslims, are
not suitable anti-apartheid subjects; they are neither the victims of apartheid
violence nor activists against it. Accordingly, Dangor’s stories (1981; 1997)
are neither anti-apartheid nor post-apartheid, but “post-anti-apartheid”
(Kruger 2002:35). (The same appellation may be applied to Yvette Christiansë’s
new collection of poetry, Imprendehora, 2009.)
Human foldedness, then, does not denote a
comfort zone. Out of its sutured folds – in Titlestad’s study (2004) – emerges
the stranger who jolts our habitual awareness. Here Titlestad returns to a
Levinasian ethical path: respect the radical Otherness of the other, which in
the 1990s lent general direction to criticism on Coetzee.6 InTitlestad, however, the stranger has shed
its Levinasian ambiguity as either human or deity to become a more tangible
character in the ordinary, but marginalised, life of the South African city: a
stranger because, as in Dangor’s fiction, neglected in apartheid/liberation
narratives. Out of human foldedness Ashraf Jamal (2005) plucks neither heroes
nor victims; neither Njabulo S Ndebele’s (2006) return to the ordinary
nor Titlestad’s stranger, but an ethical ‘extraordinariness’. Recollecting Albie
Sachs’s (1990) desire for culture beyond the weapons of struggle, Jamal gathers
together theorists of ‘play’ (Homi Bhabha, for one, is put to the service of
his argument) in, some might say, a new romantic need to be free of all
constraining categories. Citing Brett Bailey’s theatre as a daring exploration
of “unresolved heterogeneity” (150) – De Kock is marshalled to Jamal’s side –
Jamal urges us all to revel in our category explosions. He wishes us to abolish
vanity and self-possession, to break whatever the “sage wisdom” that would be
an excuse to keep the imagination in thrall and, in a psychic rupture of our
systems, begin to love the South Africa that has too often been characterised as an unlovable place
(159-62). Tying commitment to place with a greater measure of groundedness than
Jamal, both Ari Sitas (2004) and Brenda Cooper (2008) energise the value of
people’s ordinary agency in African socio-scapes of difficult transition, while
for Meg Samuelson (2008) our home beyond the threshold of transition may begin
to lay the foundation of a new national culture, a signal being bold voices
among young black women. In this vein and eschewing the demeaning
categorisation of ‘coconut’ or ‘cheese girl’ (white inside), Asandi Phewa
(2009) in her play A Face Like Mine (first performed at the Grahamstown
National Arts Festival, 2009) agrees with Mbali Kgosidintsi of the theatre
company Right 2 Speak, a company which focuses its performances on the
struggles of a new generation of South African women to redefine blackness:
I know where I’m going but not what or who I
am leaving behind and that is where the search for identity comes in. There is
this trend for those of us living in Sandton to still go back to the township
every Sunday to reconnect. But when you know who you are you don’t have to hold
onto anything. (Kgosidintsi 2009:27)
Beyond a politics of exclusion (Samuelson
reminds us of the deathly face of xenophobia in the new South Africa), we hear
voices that in the liberal-Marxist culture wars of the 1980s would have been
ignored, voices that are not prominent either in international postcolonial
criticism’s fixation on big names (Soyinka, Rushdie, Coetzee, etc). In
elevating as ‘national marker’ not Athol Fugard’s intricate moral explorations
but Brett Bailey’s spectacular disruptions (the Xhosa past, Shakespeare’s Macbeth,
whatever or whoever can be stirred into the witches’ brew, or the inyanga’s
muthi)7 Jamal (2005:161) has it that Ndebele – and the
generation of mainly white academics who embraced his return to the ordinary –
got it all wrong. Rather, South Africa is a country of chaotic intervention. Ndebele (2007), for his part,
has limited truck with endless exhortations of difference, endless deferrals of
mimetic consequence. Seeking instead “fine lines from the box” he declares that
“[T]he challenge of the future in South Africa is nation building: no more, no less. It is the massive task of
creating one nation out of the institutional divisions that currently beset it”
(24). Ndebele does not entertain the question as to whether South Africa has a national imaginary, or whether South African Literature still
* * *
notwithstanding, let me pursue a recent study that focuses on the issues I have
somewhat brutally summarised so far. But focuses on the issues through a shift
in paradigm from both literary criticism and cultural criticism: the former
values the force of the imaginative text in the shaping of the culture; the
latter, depending upon the interpreter’s ideological predisposition, identifies
the imaginative text as either a significant constituent or just one of the
many constituents in the shaping of the culture, the culture being, at base, a
political economy. In similar vein to Hofmeyr, Sanders and (in his meticulously
sourced interpretative history of South African literary censorship) Peter D
McDonald (2009), Andrew van der Vlies in South African Textual Cultures:
White, Black and Read All Over (2007) turns to textual cultures or, as
nowadays more commonly denoted, book history. His by now familiar
‘post-’-inspired conclusion is that a singular delineation of South Africa or South African (see Chipkin 2007) is
defeated by a history of radical heterogeneity (that is, De Kock’s “seam”). In
the same way the category South African Literature and, by extension, its
equivalent national literature remains problematic in a country in which
territorial borders were colonial conveniences and politics was inhospitable to
fundamental requirements of converting groups into a nation. These include the
pursuit of widespread, multiclass literacy in a common language and the
example, or the pursuit of a common, functioning society.
Most critics would concur with Van der
Vlies’s conclusion that in South Africa (in fact, in the colonies or postcolonies,
wherever the particular periphery) the ‘literary’, as a category, has been
authorised not entirely by the local response, but by “complex, multipolar,
fragmented, often inconsistent and at best self-interested [usually] Anglophone
metropolitan (both British and North American) fields of publishers, reviewers
and readers” (175). The character of a national cultural identity, whether in South Africa, Nigeria, Africa, Australia, etc, is, accordingly, ambivalent. “Whose language, culture or
story can be said to have authority in South Africa,” I asked in the Preface to Southern African Literatures,
“when the end of apartheid has raised challenging questions as to what it is to
be a South African, whether South Africa is a nation, and, if so, what is its mythos?” (2003: xiv).
The value of Van der Vlies’s study is not
to be found in his introductory rehearsal of arguments as to whether or not it
is possible satisfactorily to write literary history. Whether it is or is not,
literary histories of different persuasions will continue to be written. (See
not only Chapman, but also Heywood (2004), Van Coller (2006), and, in
preparation, Attridge and Attwell.) Rather, the value of South African
Textual Cultures is to be found in its contribution to book history. This
relatively new field of enquiry has its roots in sociology, social history and,
closer to the literary domain, in reception theory. Pierre Bourdieu (1993) is
an influential figure: how to conceive of the operation of literary texts in
the multiple spheres in which they are produced and circulated? To which we
must add Hans Robert Jauss’s key concept: the reader’s ‘horizon of
expectation’, a concept that bears on Jerome K McGann’s earlier insights
(consolidated and expanded in his book, The Textual Condition, 1991), in
which he attempted to position in illuminating interaction text, context and
reception. We ought to consider not only the historical context of the work,
said McGann (1985:9), but also the “history of its embodiment in successive
texts (its textualisations) and its circulation and reception (its
socialisations)”. Whereas literary criticism is concerned primarily with the
‘meaning’ of the text, with its narrative, its poetic, its dramatic shape, book
history explores how these meanings, these aesthetic configurations, are
influenced by factors beyond the control of authors themselves: by publishing
pressures, the ruling discourse of reviewing, censorship, educational
institutionalisation, the literary-prize culture.
In the case of South African Literature –
as Van der Vlies argues in several case studies – South African writers have
often had their achievement sanctioned in zones of reception between the
metropole and the colony. How did British reviewers initially receive Olive
Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883)? Originally published in
England the book would have had to satisfy several 19th-century British
expectations. How did colonials receive the book? African Farm at its
outset was considered at least by one reviewer to be of interest to colonists
because it was about farming! Interesting, that is, if colonists actually
bought books! As literature, African Farm was deemed by some to be
second-rate. But, then again, by others in Britain African
Farm was identified as what today we would call a proto-feminist text. More
surprisingly (in anticipation of postcolonialism?), Schreiner’s book was seen
as typical of the colonies where margins produce not the central, but the
hybrid, subject. (Van der Vlies 2007: 21-45)
Or to turn to Coetzee’s In the Heart of
the Country (1976), we are reminded that there was a significant
difference between the edition of this novel published in Johannesburg (Ravan
Press) and the editions published abroad. In the local edition Magda’s stream
of consciousness is filtered into Afrikaans (her mother tongue); in the
international editions, totally in English, the reader if the claustrophobic
Afrikaner Calvinist mental landscape is to be permitted its full effect must
make a linguistic leap from the English on the page to an imaginatively
transliterated Afrikaans syntax and rhythm. Reception abroad emphasised the
universality of a tortured soul; local reception spoke of religious and sexual
trauma according to which Magda’s anguish is partly provoked by the ‘sin’ of
her father’s fucking his ‘non-white’ servant. To accentuate the local in
Coetzee in the 1970s helped English departments in South Africa wean syllabuses from the Leavisian Great Tradition. Ironically,
English departments today, having to justify the study of literature within a
so-called developmental state where literacy training is a prerogative,
probably prefer the international Coetzee. Such shifts of reception in Van der
Vlies’s conclusion to his case study of Coetzee neatly summarise his own ‘book
history’ purpose: Coetzee in the 1970s tacitly recognised (in his
English/Afrikaans Ravan Press text) that he was contributing to a South African
Literature even as In the Heart of the Country contributed to his
project of rendering such a category problematic. (2007:134-54)
Does such a project lead us to a situation
– familiar to the postcolonies – in which the ‘locality’ is once again subsumed
by a global imperative or, to revert to an older discourse, by an ongoing
‘colonisation’? The problematic is suggested in Scrutiny2 (13(1), 2008),
edited by Flanery and Van der Vlies. As the editors say in their Introduction
to this special issue entitled “South African Cultural Texts and the Global
Why do the stories South Africa tells itself about itself, the people who act as its formal and
informal and ever self-effacing international ambassadors, have such peculiar
resonance globally? Is it because (uncomfortable as the suggestion might be)
Northern/Western audiences find the formal and cultural influence (the incursion,
even) of European sensibilities and aesthetic traditions on and in an African
context more familiar, more accessible, perhaps even more palatable
(notwithstanding the legacy of apartheid), in the South African context, than
the kinds of cultural products and representatives offered by or exported from
other African countries? Or, equally problematically perhaps, might the
cultural hybridity, the nascent creolisation of South African culture, simply
be more successful aesthetically for Western audiences? (2008: 5-6)
We are prompted
here to ask, is South Africa, Africa or the West? Given its different races, languages,
cultures, religions, its economic inequalities, South Africa may be typified as Australia and Nigeria annexed – I avoid the term nation – to a
single demarcation. Indeed, the articles in the issue of Scrutiny2, to
which I have just referred, remind us of the global ‘circuit’ of South African
works: Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country;
international collaboration on films such as Cry Freedom (1987), Yesterday
(2004), Tsotsi (2006), and now Disgrace (2009). It is a
global circuit, however, in which endorsements are not without erasures. As
Sarah Brophy says of Yesterday:
At its best, the film creates a powerful
critical commentary on HIV-related discrimination and abuse. However, because
it uses maternal heroism as the basis for this critique, and particularly
because it positions a black woman’s suffering as transcendental, both the
extent of its critical commentary and the effectiveness of its address to an
audience at high risk for HIV are limited. (2008: 41)
Can a film that
ignores the personality-cult of heroes and villains (the ideology of
individualism, the anti-humanist would say) survive financially on the
mainstream, the ‘bourgeois’circuit? As Lucy Valerie Graham notes of Tsotsi (the
post-apartheid film adaptation of Athol Fugard’s novel, set in the apartheid
Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi … recuperates a
black man and woman as able parent-figures, but another form of erasure takes
place as the issue of rape in post-apartheid South Africa is for the most part elided.... (2008:117)
So are we to applaud the fact that books
outside of or tangential to South African localities show a resurgence of
prize-winning potential in South Africa? Or do we endorse what the Marxist-inclined commentator is likely
to say: know the ideological predispositions of the adjudicators to know to
what kind of book they will award a prize?
(For the comments of several 2009 adjudicators see in this issue the
Appendices to De Kock’s essay.) What all this suggests is the classificatory
instability that characterises debates not only on South African Literature,
but also on world literature: whose world, whose literature, literature from
where? Literature from somewhere, or from nowhere in particular? Like book
history, world literature is a new field not unconnected to the post-Cold War
condition. Eileen Julien (2004:124) makes the point that US funding agencies
have curtailed support for area studies while increasing support for
transnational, multiregional studies. Drawing on Bourdieu’s (1993) distinction
of social circuits, world literature seeks to refine its own unstable category
by identifying sub-categories in a circuit of mass literature, a circuit of
educational literature, and a circuit of prestige literature. As a Nobel
laureate J M Coetzee circulates in the domain of prestige, at both centre and
periphery, but in sales, reviews and acclaim more so in the North Atlantic sphere than in
that of his ex-home country South Africa, where the prestige circuit is uneven in terms of sales and
acknowledgement. (Shortly before receiving his Nobel Prize, Coetzee was
castigated by members of the ANC government for the supposedly white
Afro-pessimism of his novel Disgrace.) And Coetzee, even in South Africa, is eclipsed in his impact by the mass circulation of, for example,
Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003).
In the light of this, I return to De Kock’s
article “Does South African Literature Still Exist…” and complete his title,
“South African Literature is Dead, Long Live Literature in South Africa”. Change the designation “South African Literature” to “Literature
in South Africa” and we shall need to include alongside Coetzee, the postcolonial
Salman Rushdie, or, to shift from prestige to mass, we shall have to contend
with Dan Brown and the numerous other London and New York
bestselling authors whose works in South Africa commandeer the shelves of Exclusive Books. What has prompted
Coetzee’s international recognition? World literature identifies within the
prestige circuit the work of “like-but-unlike” provenance (Damrosch 2003: 12),
in which the local content, a critique of Communist East European kitsch
(Kundera), or a revelation of Latin American cultural hybridism (Márquez), has
to find consonance with North Atlantic fictional recognitions of character
portrayal, concerns and styles. Coetzee’s fiction may be classified,
accordingly, as like-but-unlike: the motif of scapegoating, or master and
slave, provoked the title (which alludes to C P Cavafy’s poem) of Waiting
for the Barbarians (1980). André Brink and Nadine Gordimer – among the most
globally travelled of South African writers – also offer like-but-unlike
identifications. Behind the ‘national question’ of apartheid, for example,
Gordimer’s protagonists (usually white English-speaking South Africans) occupy
private lives which, although influenced by local political demands, are in
their aspirations, disappointments, desires and conversations not entirely
alien to educated, middle-class readers in London, New York or Paris.
To pursue such considerations, or rather
reconsiderations, of category can be liberating. Tired of anti-apartheid
literary realism, for instance, De Kock (2005: 80) wishes to read what appeals
to him, whether it is politically correct or not, whether its references are
South African or not. (The tarnishing of the ‘rainbow nation’ – Coetzee’s Disgrace
is metonymic – is severely felt in prestige circuits.) Hofmeyr utilises
book history to suggest that Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in its
travels along the missionary circuits of Africa requires us to consider the
space of empire, both intellectually and economically, as a difficult
interrelationship, rather than a neat separation, of ‘metropole’ and
‘colonies’. Should The Pilgrim’s Progress – a “classic” of English
Literature, according to F R Leavis (1962: 206) – be included in a
classification, South African Literature, or Literature in South Africa?
As I have already suggested of De Kock’s
project,9 his questions are not meant to be merely
rhetorical. There remains a historical need to anchor literatures, whether from
South Africa, Africa, or any other peripheries of the North Atlantic circuit,
somewhere in the world: somewhere shaped by the priorities of particular
literary works. Whatever critics or reviewers in the metropole might have said
about Schreiner or say about Coetzee, reception from the South African focal
point cannot ignore the immediate context. There is in the literature of South Africa the shared experience of colonialism in its abrasive, economic form
attendant on a strong and permanent ‘settler’ population. As a result, the
racial theories, practices and values of Europe have featured prominently in the language and texts of literary
response. Transitions from traditional to modern loyalties in aggressive,
industrialising economies have led to swift, often desperate disjunctions in
both literature and life. In these, the challenge of urbanisation beyond the
middle-class suburbs has characterised forms of expression in several
languages, and in the oral and written mode: that is, in forms and voices that
do not necessarily fit the like-but-unlike model of world circulation. The consequence
is that any history of South African Literature, whatever the transnational
allure, cannot confine its field to those like-but-unlike books and films
which, as in the case of the film Tsotsi, adjust their local specificity
to a generic (individual, liberal, middle-class, whatever) international
horizon of expectation. This is not to deny Van der Vlies’s conclusion (2007:
175) that given South
amalgamation of the West in Africa, its literary output will continue both to invite and resist
description in national terms. It is to be cautious, however, of Van der
Vlies’s attendant conclusion that an ever-growing body of the writing will be
published both in South
Africa and abroad.
This will not be the case. Only those writers whose work meets the
international horizon of expectation – novelists in English, the novel being
the most accessible travelling form – are likely to be read worldwide.
Van der Vlies’s study is concerned with
writing which, if it is ‘South African’, has been read and written to be read
by a global Anglophone community. A complementary study might be concerned with
literary expression, written and oral, that is aimed primarily at a local
audience. Here we might ask: why has Zakes Mda been granted greater validation
abroad, and at home, than Ivan Vladislavić? – such is book history. Is the
validation deserved on the evidence of an evaluative reading of the actual
texts? – such is literary criticism. Another question: has South Africa produced no significant poet since Roy Campbell relocated abroad?
No poet who remained at home – eg Douglas Livingstone – has enjoyed sustained
international recognition. Thus the ‘transnational’ and the ‘national’– I use
the terms as nodes of debate – intersect in the relative perspectives of book
history (the institutionalisation of literature) and literary criticism (the
assessment of the work). If my conjecture here has avoided reducing a passage
of debate to a narrow lane of global travellers, then the category ‘South
African Literature’ continues to have value in its persistence.
* * *
It is a
persistence not really at odds with De Kock’s initial question as to whether
South African Literature still exists. As we should have understood by now, it
is a suitably qualified question which asks not for any emphatic yes or no.
Instead, it encourages the kind of interrogation of the category that has been
the purpose of this Introduction, indeed of this issue of Current Writing.
Where he differs from Moretti, whose article on conjectures I mentioned at the
outset, is that De Kock calls for the reading of the many new texts which have
appeared in the last decade. Yet his call for a stocktaking of what is being
written, of how literary criticism makes sense of what is being written, of a
possible return to a “descriptive-evaluative approach” (2008:117) is again not
necessarily at odds with Moretti’s comment that we cannot read every book on
the world map, but must master the art of “distant reading” (2000:57). Distant
reading, in Moretti’s conjectures, does not mean what it means to a bluffer’s
guide, where the aim is to impress the dinner party with throwaways on books
you haven’t read. Rather distant reading is a condition of knowledge: it allows
the critic to focus on units that are both “much smaller and much larger than
the text (devices, themes, tropes, or genres and systems)”(57). One perspective
follows the “waves” of text dissemination in global circuits of “geographical
continuity”; Moretti’s complementary metaphor to the waves is the “trees in the
plantation”, which provides a check on geographical continuity, in fact
identifies “geographical discontinuity” (66-8). The waves suggest the world;
the trees suggest the nation, or even the locality. Viewpoint is crucial and a
“variable” (64), in which the critic or reader is placed in comparative
consideration of the “problem” (55) under discussion, in this case as to
whether or not there is a South African Literature. As Simon Gikandi has it in
pursuing the question of a global imaginary: local identities might borrow
patterns and processes of self-definition from elsewhere, but they equally
reflect local concerns and problems. There is no discrete global model, neither
are there discrete national models, or indeed discrete local models. (Titlestad’s
study endorses Gikandi’s category reconsideration): “Global images might have a
certain salience for students of literature and culture [wherever their
particular plantation]”, Gikandi continues, [but] “this does not mean that such
global images are a substitute for material experiences” (2001: 632).
Where do variable perspectives leave us if
not in perpetual paradox? Louise Bethlehem probably summarises the ‘problem’ in
her two almost contradictory insights. She is concerned that a “rhetoric of urgency”
(the political imperative) has imposed a flat-earth “trope-of-truth” on South
African literature and criticism (2001: 368). Yet at the same time as she
herself favours an opposing disruption of signifier from signified (life is not
so much ‘out there’ as constructed in language), she notes with regret that the
swing to textuality in the 1990s led to the large abstractions of continental
philosophy being applied, too often without precision of adjustment, to the
subjective experience of the particular author’s texts. A consequence was that
J M Coetzee began to function “virtually by default, as a convenient point of
reference through which to hone by-now predictable aspects of postcolonial [one
might equally say, postmodern] theory in its metropolitan guises” (2000: 153).
(See also Bethlehem 2006)
Coetzee’s own critical essays, in contrast,
respect the particularity of each text, whether he is reviewing novels from
“Europe’s dark recent history” (the words are Derek Attridge’s (2007: xi) from
his Introduction to Coetzee’s Inner Workings) or whether he is posing to
Nadine Gordimer a question he has posed to himself: “[W]hat historical role is
available to a writer...born into a late colonial community?” (Coetzee 2007:
255). To label Coetzee or Gordimer a South African writer is constraining; not
to label them South African writers is to ignore in their work more than the
‘like but unlike’ nexus of metropole and periphery. It is to ignore, more
importantly, the troubled ‘colonial community’ in which they found their
distinctive voices. Without the waves, probably no Nobel Prize; without the
trees in the plantation perhaps no Coetzee or Gordimer, as we know them!
To pursue the matter of variable
perspectives, what got reviewers talking in South Africa – at least, in
newspaper columns – was not so much, ironically, the books that won the several
2009 literary awards (books published in South Africa in 2008) as a first novel
– actually a thinly disguised ‘life story’ – by Thando Mgqolozana, A Man Who
Is Not a Man (2009). The author tackles the taboo subject of circumcision
in the traditional Xhosa rite of manhood. (By July such practices in the veld
had led to the death in 2009 of 49 young men and the hospitalisation of 139,
thirteen of whom had to undergo an amputation of the penis.) Mgqolozana’s aim
is to “break the silence” (2009: 3), an action which at the launch of his book
at the 2009 Grahamstown National Arts Festival had an imposing man who
described himself as a “traditionalist” wanting to “smack” the author because
of his mentioning the unmentionable in front of women and the uninitiated. In
his story of Lumkile, who after a botched circumcision ends up in hospital,
Mgqolozana introduces several pressing contemporary issues in South Africa: tradition and modernity; patriarchy; gender; AIDS; and the
ongoing, emotive question of race. A cynical response might be that Man Who
Is Not a Man has excited the interest of the still predominantly white
chattering classes because it seems to confirm the prejudices and fears of a
dark heart of Africa in the middle of a democratic state. In fact, none of the
commentators to whom I refer reveals such prejudice, while there has been
support for Mgqolozana’s breaking the silence from several black South
Africans.10 As I suggested in my earlier reference to the
theatre group Right 2 Speak, African society is not monolithic: African society
being another category requiring new definition. South Africa is sufficiently stratified not to continue to be called a
My point is that if the 1990s sought to
cope with difference, the current priority might be how to connect in a society
which at the same time is alert to Anne Landsman The Rowing Lesson and
Thando Mgqolozana’s Man Who Is Not a Man. I am reminded here of Attwell’s key insight: it is not simply that
the post-apartheid society has heralded a “civil turn”; it is rather that a
civil turn has been with us all along, and that what is different now,
to then, is our “capacity to recognise more intricately the complex picture”
(2005: 9). It is a picture which reveals not only a civil, but also a literary
turn, or return, to a more nuanced relationship between the concreteness of the
imaginative work and the abstract language of criticism.11 Three
particular perspectives among others may also be mentioned. There is a widening
of the social/imaginative spectrum both ‘nationally’ and ‘transnationally’. South Africa may not yet be categorised easily as a single nation, but the space
begins to be populated by newer voices: for example, a ‘born-free’ generation
of different colours, or an Indian presence occupying almost simultaneously its
difficult location in-between its apartheid-enforced ‘separate’ community and
its diverse inheritance of diaspora and migration. At the same time there is a
variegated response to belonging to the middle class, in which the concept
‘middle class’ begins to reflect new and challenging race/class gradations.12 As Ian
Birrell notes of Africa as a whole, the time of the ‘Big Man’ is yielding to
the aspirations of “an emerging middle class which is educated, entrepreneurial
and empowered by technology [and] is leading calls for change across the
continent” (2009: 8). With change signalling both threat and emancipation there
have been turns – as in the world at large – from quotidian conditions to
metaphysical dimensions, the religious and spiritual as potent force in
postcolonies.13 These dimensions (both conservative and
progressive) have been almost entirely ignored in a postcolonial discourse
which arose out of secular metropolitan conflicts between liberalism and
Marxism, or capitalism and socialism. Indeed, if postcolonial categorisation is
to retain its purchase, then – as Robert J C Young (2001:7-9), Attwell, and
others have noted – the postcolonial can no longer be regarded as “the chimera
of a [single] position”, or even as a “common theoretical explanation”, but
must denote a naming of “those institutional spaces in which people from widely
different backgrounds and situations can at least talk to one another” (Attwell
2005:13). In such spaces we may begin to ask a question which in the political
emergency of the 1980s and in the post-apartheid phase of the 1990s was rarely
asked: is this a good book? Let me term such a conjecture on South African
Literature (or Literature in South Africa) not post-apartheid, but post-postapartheid.
* * *
As identified in
the Preface, the essays in this double issue have two interrelated purposes: to
survey and analyse the current South African literary field. It is hoped to
offer a pointer to what is being written and what critical commentary might
make of the work. The titles of the essays in conjunction with the abstracts
are self-explanatory. The arrangement is broadly generic: fiction, poetry,
autobiography and drama precede essays on conceptual/thematic topics. To devote
separate essays to Indian literature, Zulu literature, Afrikaans poetry, and
poetry in English could be interpreted as a return to pre-1990 race and
language classifications. The reality is however more complex: given a history
of race division in a country of multiple languages and beliefs, many writers
continue to draw on the experiences of group affiliation as a spur to their
literary imaginings. Our intention is to broaden the landscape of interest and
A retrospective overview of the
contributions reveals an interesting observation. It has been suggested in my
Introduction that a critical concern with difference in the 1990s has shifted
more recently to a concern with connection. If this is so, it is appropriate
that in this double issue attention has shifted from J M Coetzee’s refusal to
impose the Self on the Other (at least, that is how several influential critics
interpret Coetzee’s fiction) to Antjie Krog’s pursuit of a ‘syncretic
imagination’. Such tentative turns point this 21st issue of Current Writing
Bill. 2007. “Toward the Literary
Transnation.” Paper at the conference Rerouting the Postcolonial, University of Northampton
(3-5 July). http://ocs.sfu.ca/aclals/view abstract.php?id+425..
Derek. 2005. J M Coetzee and the
Ethics of Reading. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal
—————. 2007. “Introduction” to J M Coetzee’s Inner
Workings: Essays 2000 – 2005. London: Harvill Secker: ix-xiv.
Derek and David Attwell (eds). [In preparation]. The Cambridge
History of South African Literature. Cambridge: CUP.
David. 2005. Rewriting Modernity:
Studies in Black South African Literary History. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal
and Barbara Harlow. 2000. “Introduction: South African Fiction after
Apartheid.” Modern Fiction Studies 46(1):1-9.
2007. Apartheid and Beyond: South
African Writers and the Politics of Place. Oxford: OUP.
Bell, David and J U
Jacobs (eds). 2009. Ways of Writing: Critical Essays on Zakes Mda.
Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.
Bennum, Neil. 2004. The Broken String: The Last Words
of an Extinct People. New
Louise. 2000. “In the Between:
Time, Space, Text in Recent South African Literary Theory.” English in Africa 27(1): 140-58.
“‘A Primary Need As Strong As Hunger’: The Rhetoric of Urgency in South African
Literary Culture under Apartheid.” Poetics Today 22(2): 365-89.
Skin Tight: Apartheid Literary Culture and Its Aftermath. Pretoria: Unisa
Press; Leiden: Koninklijke Brill.
Birrell, Ian. 2009. “Big Men Who Have Pillaged a Continent.” The
Mercury (21 August): 8.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1993. A Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and
Literature. Cambridge: Polity.
Breytenbach, Breyten. 1998. Dog Heart:
A Travel Memoir. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.
Brophy, Sarah. 2008. “Troubled Heroism: Public-Health Pedagogies in South
African Films about HIV/AIDS.” In: Flanery, P and A van der Vlies (eds). Scrutiny
2 13(1): 33-46.
Brouard, Pierre W. 2009. “Becoming a Man.” Mail
& Guardian (17-23 July): 2-3.
Brown, Dan. 2003. The Da Vinci Code. New York:
Brown, Duncan. 2006. To Speak of This Land: Identity and Belonging in South Africa and Beyond. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal
Brown, Duncan (ed.). 2009. Religion and
Spirituality in South
Perspectives. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal
Chapman, Michael. 1998. “The Problem of Identity: South Africa, Storytelling and Literary History.” New Literary History
—————. 2003 . Southern African Literatures.
Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.
Art Talk, Politics Talk. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal
Postcolonialism: A Literary Turn.” In: Chapman, M (ed.). Postcolonialism:South/African
Pers-pectives. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars
Chapman, Michael (ed.) 2008. Postcolonialism:
South/African Perspectives. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Chipkin, Ivor. 2007. Do South Africans Exist: Nationalism, Democracy and
the Identity of ‘The People’. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
Christiansë, Yvette. 2009. Imprendehora. Cape Town: Kwela
Coetzee, J M. 1976. In the Heart of the Country. Johannesburg: Ravan
Press; 1977 In the Heart of the Country: A Novel. London: Secker and
Warburg; 1977 From the Heart of the Country: A Novel. New York: Harper
Waiting for the Barbarians. Johannesburg: Ravan
Disgrace. London: Secker and Warburg.
Slow Man. London: Secker and
Diary of a Bad Year. London: Harvill Secker.
“Nadine Gordimer.” Inner Workings: Essays 2000 – 2005. London: Harvill
Cooper, Brenda. 2008. A New Generation of African Writers: Migration, Material
Culture and Language. Woodbridge: James Currey; Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal
Coullie, Judith Lütge (ed.) 2001. The
Closest Strangers: South African Women’s Life Writing. Johannesburg: Wits University
Coullie, Judith Lütge and J U Jacobs
(eds). 2004. a.k.a. Breyten Breytenbach: Critical Approaches to His Writings
and Paintings. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi.
Coullie, Judith Lütge, Stephan Meyer,
Thengani H Ngwenya and Thomas Olver (eds). 2006. Selves in Question:
Interviews on Southern African Auto/biography. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Damrosch, David. 2003. What Is World Literature?. Princeton: Princeton University
Dangor, Achmat. 1981. Waiting for Leila. Johannesburg: Ravan
Kafka’s Curse: A Novella and Three Stories. Cape Town: Kwela
Daymond, M J et al. (eds). 2003. Women
Writing Africa: The Southern Region. New York: The
Feminist Press at the City University of New York.
De Kock, Leon. 2001. “South Africa in the Global Imaginary: An Introduction.” Poetics Today
“Splice of Life: Manipulations of the ‘Real’ in South African English Literary
Culture.” Journal of Literary Studies 19(1): 82-102.
“Does South African Literature Still Exist? Or: South African Literature Is
Dead, Long Live Literature in South Africa.” English in Africa 32(2): 69-83.
“A History of Restlessness: And Now for the Rest.” English Studies in Africa 51(1): 107-22.
De Kock, Leon, Louise Bethlehem and Sonia Laden (eds). 2004. South Africa in the Global Imaginary. Pretoria: Unisa
Press; Leiden: Koninklijke Brill.
Distiller, Natasha and Melissa Steyn
(eds). 2004. Under Construction: Race and Identity in South Africa Today. Johannesburg:
Driver, Dorothy. 2002. “Women Writing Africa: Southern Africa as a Post-apartheid Project.” Kunapipi XXIV(1&2):
Flanery, Patrick Denman and Andrew van der
Vlies. 2008. “Annexing the Global, Globalising the Local.” Scrutiny2
Gikandi, Simon. 2001. “Globalization and the Claims of Postcoloniality.” The
South Atlantic Quarterly 100(3): 627-58.
Graham, Lucy Valerie. 2008. “‘Save us
all’: ‘Baby Rape’ and Post-apartheid Narratives.” In: Flanery, P and A van der
Vlies (eds). Scrutiny2 13(1): 105-19.
Graham, James. 2009. Land and Nationalism in Fictions from Southern Africa. London: Routledge.
Green, Michael Cawood. 2008. For the
Sake of Silence. Cape Town: Umuzi.
Greig, Robert. 2002. “Horrific and Funny Product of a Darker Vision: Brett
Bailey’s Macbeth.” Sunday Independent (14 July):10.
Govinden, Devarakshanam Betty. 2008. A
Time of Memory: Reflections on Recent South African Writings. Durban: Solo
Gunner, Liz (ed.). 2004. The Man of Heaven and the Beautiful Ones of God/ Umuntu
waseZulwini nabantu abahle bukaNkulunkulu. Isaiah Shembe and the Nazarite Church.
Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.
Harris, Peter. 2008. In a Different Time. Cape Town: Umuzi.
Helgessen, Stefan. 2004. Writing in Crisis: Ethics and History in Gordimer,
Ndebele and Coetzee. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal
Heyns, Michiel. 2008. Bodies Politic. Johannesburg:
Heywood, Christopher. 2004. A History
of South African Literature. Cambridge: CUP.
Hofmeyr, Isabel. 2004. The Portable Bunyan: A Transnational History of The
Pilgrim’s Progress. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
“Indian Ocean Lives and Letters.” English in Africa 35(1): 11-25.
Isaacson, Maureen. 2009. “An Initiate Claiming His Space as a Man.” Mail
& Guardian (28 June): 17.
Jamal, Ashraf. 2005. Predicaments of Culture in South Africa. Pretoria: Unisa Press.
Jauss, Hans Robert. 1982. Toward an Aesthetic of Reception
.Trans. T Bahti. New Jersey: Harvester.
Julien, Eileen. 2004. “Arguments and Further Conjectures on World Literature.”
In: Lindberg-Wada, G (ed.). Studying Trans-cultural Literary History. Berlin: Walter de
Kearney, J A. 2003. Representing
Dissension: Riot, Rebellion and Resistance in the South African English Novel.
Pretoria: Unisa Press.
Kgosidintsi, Mbali. 2009. “The Great Black Hope.” Interview
with Mary Corrigall. Sunday Independent (9 August): 26-7.
Kruger, Loren. 2002. “‘Black Atlantics’, ‘White Indians’, and ‘Jews’:
Locations, Locutions and Syncretic Identities in the Fiction of Achmat Dangor
and Others.” Scrutiny2 7(2): 34-50.
Landsman, Anne. 2008. The Rowing Lesson. Cape Town: Kwela
Leavis, F R. 1962 . “Bunyan through Modern Eyes.” The Common
Pursuit. London: Penguin: 204-10.
Mathuray, Mark. 2009. On the Sacred in African Literature: Old Gods and New
Worlds. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Mbembe, Achille. 2002. “African Modes of Self-Writing: A Critique of Political
Economy and Nationalism.” Trans. S Randall. Paper presented at the Wits
Institute for Economic and Social Research, University of the Witwatersrand (February).
Quoted in Hofmeyr, Isabel and Liz Gunner, 2005. “Introduction.” Theme issue on
Transnationalism and African Literature. Scrutiny2 10(2): 4.
McDonald, Peter D. 2009. The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and Its Cultural
Consequences. Oxford: OUP.
McGann, Jerome J. 1985. The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations in
Historical Method and Theory. Oxford: Clarendon.
The Textual Condition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Mgqolozana, Thando. 2009. A Man Who Is Not a Man. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal
2009. “From the Mouth of the Author.” Mail & Guardian (17-23 July):
Moran, Shane. 2009. Representing Bushmen: South Africa and the Origin of Language. Rochester: University of Rochester
Moretti, Franco. 2000. “Conjectures on World Literature.” New Left Review 1:
Mostert, Noël. 1992. Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People. London: Jonathan Cape.
Ndebele, Njabulo S. 2006 . Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Essays on South
African Literature and Culture. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal
Fine Lines from the Box: Further Thoughts about Our Country. Cape Town: Umuzi.
Nuttall, Sarah. 2009. Entanglement: Literary and Cultural Reflections on
Post-apartheid. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
Ortiz, Fernando. 1995. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. Trans. H de
Onis. Durham: Duke University Press.
Phewa, Asandi. 2009. “The Great Black Hope.” Interview with Mary Corrigall. Sunday
Independent (9 August): 26-7.
Potts, Donna L and Amy D Unsworth (eds).
2008. Region, Nation, Frontiers. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars
Sachs, Albie. 1990. “Preparing Ourselves for Freedom.” In: De Kok, I and K
Press (eds). Spring Is Rebellious: Arguments about Cultural Freedom. Cape Town: Buchu
Samuelson, Meg. 2008. “Walking through the Door and Inhabiting the House: South
African Literary Culture and Criticism after the Transition.” English
Studies in Africa 51(1): 130-7.
Sanders, Mark. 2002. Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid. Durham: Duke
Schreiner, Olive. 1883. The Story of an African Farm. London: Chapman and
Steyn, Melissa. 2001. “Whiteness just isn’t what it used to be”: White
Identity in a Changing South Africa. Albany: State University of New York.
Stiebel, Lindy and Liz Gunner (eds). 2005.
Still Beating the Drum: Critical Perspectives on Lewis Nkosi. Amsterdam and New York: Rodope.
Sitas, Ari. 2004. Voices That Reason: Theoretical Parables. Pretoria: Unisa
Titlestad, Michael. 2004. Making the Changes: Jazz in
South African Literature and Reportage. Pretoria: Unisa
Press; Leiden: Koninklijke Brill.
Van Coller, H P (ed.). 2006. Perspektief en profiel: ’n Afrikaanse literatuur-geskiedenis. Pretoria: Van
Van der Vlies, Andrew. 2007. South
African Textual Cultures: White, Black, and Read All Over. Manchester: Manchester University
Viljoen, Hein and Chris N van der Merwe
(eds). 2004. Storyscapes: South African Perspectives on Literature, Space
and Identity. New York: Peter Lang.
————— (eds). 2007. Beyond the Threshold: Explorations of Liminality in
Literature. New York: Peter Lang.
Wenzel, Jennifer. 2009. Bulletproof: Afterlives and Anticolonial Prophecy in South Africa and Beyond. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Young, Robert J C. 2001. Postcolonialism: An Historical Perspective. Oxford: Blackwell
Zvomuya, Percy. 2009. “Tackling the Matter Head-On.” Mail & Guardian
(17-23 July): 2-3.