SD: Your book Art Talk, Politics Talk (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2006) was recently awarded the University Book Prize in the categories Humanities, Management and Law.
MC: Yes, this is an honour. The Book Prize was instituted as an encouragement to researchers to pursue what in the humanities, at least, is still the internationally recognised benchmark: not the article, but the monograph. The National Department of Education research system doesn't give much encouragement to the book-length study. It is heartening, therefore, that UKZN acknowledges the book.
SD: The subtitle is "A Consideration of Categories". Why?
MC: The book -- a collection of interrelated essays -- offers perspectives on how we talk about art in a politically demanding society. In the years of struggle -- the 1970s and 80s -- the society and its art were mostly constructed, interpreted and evaluated within strongly opposing categories: oppression versus liberation; white versus black, and so on. This collection looks at key points in our literary culture from a 'post-apartheid' perspective. It interprets literature through a more flexible, I think more complex set of categories. Is South Africa, Africa or the West? How do we turn the ancient Zulu praise poem to contemporary significance? Is Mandela an African? Of course he is, but his intellectual understandings encompass several categories from Western Marxism to African ubuntu. So, yes, a consideration, or reconsideration, of categories of sense-making for the challenges of a so-called new South Africa.
SD: The blurb points to both local interest and an approach that is "a model for the world".
MC: The comment is by Professor Ted Chamberlin, the respected Canadian academic. What I tried to respond to was a situation not only 'after apartheid', but also after the fall of the Berlin wall. The essays range from our Nobel Prize winners, Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee, to Indian postcolonial writers such as Salman Rushdie and the Polish Nobel Prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska. To use current globalspeak, the book asks how the South and North may enter into challenging conversation. To turn the challenge to the role of the University, how does UKZN attend simultaneously to national development in Africa and the universal ideals of enquiry as encapsulated in the Bologna Agreement?
SD: This is the second Book Prize that you have won. The first was for your book, Southern African Literatures (1996; 2003). Besides being an NRF A-rated researcher, you have also been a Dean and a Head of School. Your advice to young academics?
MC: I've been called a workaholic. But my research is also my pleasure. I suppose I'd say, let your work find you, or you find satisfaction in your work. Transfer your research insights into curriculum revision. Here distinguish between the simplifications of ideology and challenging paths to the truth -- truth is usually more challenging than politics will admit. It's difficult to get started as a published academic. Time management is crucial. Also, don't despair at the loneliness. Don't be discouraged by the jealousies of your peers. The academic world is full of big egos. But there are colleagues with whom I've formed enriching friendships. Value the insights of your colleagues, nurture their collegiality.
SD: Where to now in your research?
MC: You know, South Africa presents a conundrum. We have a relatively small reading public yet books are appearing at an enormous rate. The question was raised: has the Academy kept abreast of new developments in literature? Together with a colleague I'm compiling and editing a special 21st anniversary issue of the journal Current Writing. Its theme is "Beyond 2000: South African Literature Today". Fifteen essays by colleagues around the country and abroad. That's what I mean by nurturing collegiality. It's synonymous with nurturing new knowledge, new insights into where we are, where we might be going.