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SA Lit Beyond 2000 PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 30 November 2011 00:00
Edited by Michael Chapman and Margaret Lenta (UKZN Press)
Reviewed by Margaret Daymond


This survey of recent South African literature has 17 chapters in which the contributors consider how the new dispensation in SA is being represented by the country’s writers and received by its critics.   The inquiry into whether, since the momentous changes of the 1990s, South African writing has turned a corner, is inaugurated by Leon de Kock who asks whether fiction’s once urgent focus on questions of national identity is changing by, for example, expanding into the ‘transnational’.  Chapman, in the Introduction, glosses this term as “the nation caught in movement – possibly transformational movement – ‘in-between’ local and global demands”.


Responses to this question are mostly given via writing in English, but there is also a chapter on recent writing in Zulu and Louise Viljoen writes on Afrikaans poetry.  Other chapters focus on writing by Indian South Africans, by black and white women (Eva Hunter and Siphokazi Jonas), by debut novelists (Margaret Lenta) and the familiar genres of written literature are represented: Michael Chapman on poetry, Annie Gagiano on autobiography, and Marcia Blumberg and Miki Flockemann each have a chapter on drama.


Devarakshanam Govinden, in attending to recent writing about indenture, provides one of the collection’s most direct answers to de Kock’s question in her thesis that “the emphasis on indenture in recent literary and historical works … connects South Africa …. [to] investigations of an Indian Ocean map of South/South interaction as well as to other Indian diasporic sites.”  Another but less direct response comes from Cheryl Stobie who places her account of “expressions of queer beyond separatist or essentialist notions of sexual orientation” both as a local response to the white nationalism of the past and as part of a “global picture”.  Dan Wylie, discussing the development of ecological criticism in the region, provides another when he celebrates a steady move away from seeing ‘a bioregion’ as a “container-like entity” to treating it as a “more fluid concept which eschews national and similar political borders.”  In what may stand as a summation of the generally felt need for literature and criticism to move beyond the mind-set inculcated by the white nationalism of apartheid and by black resistance to it, he suggests that the eco-critic’s endeavour must be to examine “how ecological dynamics affects all beings, above and beyond colour or ideology.”


It is interesting that in a volume such as this, two writers should be given a chapter to themselves: Nadine Gordimer and Antjie Krog.   As Gordimer has devoted herself to the ‘necessary gesture’ of writing against apartheid, her choice of subject matter now that racial separation has officially ended is indeed symptomatic for ‘SA Lit’.  Ileana Dimitriu demonstrates that Gordimer’s concerns have expanded, particularly in the most recent novel Get a Life, to include ecology, or “the hesitant spiritual pursuits of a suburban people”. In her chapter, Helize van Vuuren takes up another key question – that of language – in the light of the Afrikaans poet Antjie Krog’s realization that for her as a minority writer “translation [has become] … one of the key strategies for survival” (Change of Tongue).  Translation, “also an act of restitution” or “homage”, extends in Krog’s poetry from language itself into finding new modes of writing and new ways of dreaming in order that a new “syncretic … identity” may be imagined.


Other writers who might well have been given a chapter to themselves – J M Coetzee and Ivan Vladislavic for example – are represented but as part of a critic’s thematic choice.   Thus J M Coetzee’s recent fictional reflections on the migrant subject are central to J U Jacobs’s account of writing the African diaspora, as is Breyten Breytenbach’s life-long concern with the issue; and the “canonical heavyweight” Vladislavic is an elder statesman-like presence in Sally-Ann Murray’s lively account of the often disturbing representation of life in today’s city streets by young black writers.


The generally excellent essays in this collection will be invaluable to anyone (including readers here as well as abroad) wanting to know about current developments in many facets of the SA literary scene. Of particular interest in this regard is the chapter by Nhlanhla Mathonsi and Gugu Mazibuko.  They chart the emergence in Zulu fiction and poetry of subject matter crucial to a recently urbanized population, matters such as HIV/AIDS, xenophobia, sexual relationships that involve fidelity as well as betrayal, socio-political conflict, unemployment, gender and gay relationships, and child abuse.   Describing a national effort to create a readership for this “truly adult literature” in Zulu, they also observe that the language itself has been liberated to reflect modern realities (“new technical terminology … instances of multilingual borrowing, code switching and code mixing”).   Interesting too are observations by Russell Kaschula, writing about orality:  cellular phones are one of the new technologies by which “contemporary [and traditional] orality can be captured, stored, disseminated and aesthetically appreciated,” and at literary festivals around the country, “the digital, the literary, the spoken word and visual art all come together” and often in several of South Africa’s languages.   This indicates that an internal cultural re-mix is occurring; it can be seen as complementary to the volume’s delineation of how “SA Lit” is also reaching out, to move beyond the limits of the national.