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Sa Lit: Beyond 2000 - Preface

This book offers new essays on the current literary scene in South Africa. The titles are self-explanatory; the arrangement is broadly generic with contributions on fiction, drama, poetry and autobiography preceded by Leon Kock’s essay which, as pursued in the Introduction, poses the challenging question of what beyond 2000 – rhetorically, beyond J M Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) – might constitute “South African Literature”. The generic essays, in turn, precede contributions on thematic/conceptual topics such as the African diaspora, postcolonial ‘pomosexuality’, oral performance, and literature and ecology. To devote separate entries to South African 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 more complex: given a history of division, many writers continue to draw on the experiences of group affiliation as a spur to their literary imaginings. The intention is to broaden interest and involvement.

Recurrent preoccupations or patterns identify relationships between the local and the global, or the national and the transnational. A specific community – say, the Indian community – is alert to both its ‘settler’ presence and its histories of migration. Given the differences, however, between indentured (mainly Hindu) and passenger (mainly Muslim) Indians, is, or was ever, the conceptualisation of a singular community appropriate? Similarly, Afrikaans poetry reaches beyond any single ‘class’ of accent while previously silent, or silenced, minorities – for example, gays, descendants of Malay slaves, street children, border-crossers both legal and illegal from the rest of Africa – are given voices. An increasing number of women writers cover a spectrum of concerns, including those of a heterogeneous middle class. Older journeys from rural innocence to urban experience are erased as the AIDS pandemic travels its destructive path. (See the essay “On the Street” as well as the essay on Zulu literature.)

These are some of the critical surveys, a term that wishes to suggest both reasonable coverage while avoiding claims of comprehensiveness. With writing in English enjoying most attention, there are lacunae: major Afrikaans novelists such as André Brink and Etienne van Heerden, to name only two, do not figure in the contents; African-language literature is not widely represented; the essays on poetry grant greater prominence to written forms than to the city-wise oral voices of slams and festivals.

The contraction of South African Literature to SA Lit plays, ironically, on the authority once lent to designations like Eng. Lit. Here, categories are regarded as provisional. (The References to the essays, nonetheless, point to the scope of the literary output in the period of focus.) Commenting on an upsurge of ‘writing crime’ in South Africa, Anthony Egan at the M&G Literary Festival (3-5 September, 2010) asks, “Is crime the new South African political literature?” The question awaits deliberation elsewhere. What is apparent, though, is that the ‘political’ is no longer easily separable from the civic, the ecological, or the spiritual dimension. (The essay on Nadine Gordimer explores such interconnections in the Nobel laureate’s more recent work.) Generally, the State has retreated as antagonist, ‘post-apartheid’.

The term post-apartheid is of course problematic. A sociological analysis might question whether, in economic consequence, apartheid has actually ended for many who, in a vastly unequal society, continue to live in poverty. The subjective, experiential terrain, the terrain of literary expression, then is distinct, nonetheless, from its counterpart now. Even the now requires its own gradations, not only after the unbannings of 1990 (signalling a ‘new South Africa’), but also after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1996). Perhaps surprisingly, it is theatre, the stage, which, beyond 2000, is the heir of the initial output of TRC writings, Antjie Krog’s Country of my Skull (1998) remaining the exemplar. (See Blumberg’s essay as well as Van Vuuren on Krog.)

In this vein, a retrospective overview of the contributions gives rise to the observation that, as suggested in the Introduction, a critical concern with difference in the 1990s has shifted to a concern with connection. If indeed this is so, it is appropriate that attention shift from Coetzee’s refusal to impose the Self on the Other (that is how several influential critics, initially responding to Coetzee in the 1990s, interpret his fiction) to Krog’s pursuit of what Helize van Vuuren refers to here as a “syncretic identity”.

Such tentative turns point if not post-apartheid, or even post-postapartheid, then at least beyond 2000.

Michael Chapman & Margaret Lenta

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