“A postcolonial Umwelt cabinet”: questions about a transnational poetics in Afrikaans with reference to Marlene van Niekerk’s Kaar

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This article asks the question whether one can speak of a transnational poetics in the case of poets who write in a local and minor language such as Afrikaans. In his book A transnational poetics Jahan Ramazani challenges the idea that poetry’s formal qualities make it less able to facilitate cross-cultural movement and to articulate global concerns than other genres and forms of mediation. Even though poetry is often seen as “the most provincial of the arts” (T.S. Eliot) and deemed stubbornly local, regional or national, Ramazani (2009:3) insists that poetry is a genre that “can mediate seemingly irresolvable contradictions between the local and the global, native and foreign”. He thus argues for a reconceptualisation of poetry studies and proposes a variety of ways to study the “circuits of poetic connection and dialogue across political and geographic borders and even hemispheres”, in order to transform existing critical approaches and methodologies as well as develop a new vocabulary and terminology to discuss transnational poetry. Underlying his project is an idealistic view of the role that literary transnationalism (and thus transnational poetry) can play in the establishment of a transnational and intercultural imaginary. He even speaks of an “interstitial citizenship” (established in the space between nations) which poets create for themselves by their adaptation of forms, sounds, tropes and ideas that they gather from across the world. For him the value of a transnational poetics lies in the fact that it transcends the limitations imposed by the nation and that it will be able to create an alternative to the reigning mononationalistic paradigm in US literary scholarship. Maxwell (2006:362) writes in a review that Ramazani’s argument is against the “reclosing of the American mind” in the period after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001.

This article also looks into the arguments of those critical of Ramazani’s project. Romana Huk (2009) argues that it would be premature to abandon the national or local as a means of demarcation or as a hermeneutic instrument. She questions whether Ramazani’s notion of the transnational in poetry is really new in the light of the worldwide impact of Russian Formalism and Futurism on modernist aesthetics and the impact of French Structuralism and the Frankfurter Schule on literary studies across the globe. She is also sceptical about the notion of a “postnational” future in which national languages will be replaced by idiolects and national identities will be replaced by collective identities that function across national borders. Although she appreciates attempts by critics like Ramazani as well as Charles Bernstein to widen the range of texts discussed by scholars of poetry in the US, she feels that it would be dishonest to discount the impact of the local and national in literature and literary studies.

It is against the background of these discussions about the possibility of a transnational poetics that this article asks the following questions about poetry written in Afrikaans: Can Afrikaans writers be “citizens” of a transnational, even postnational imaginary? Can one speak of a transnational poetics in the case of Afrikaans poets, and if so, what would the content of this poetics be? Do the national and local necessarily represent narrow-mindedness and parochialism as opposed to the transnational, which is deemed to embody greater imaginativeness and a more enlightened mindset?

The article tries to answer these questions by referring to the fact that Afrikaans authors work within a context that has suffered the impact of the transnational movements resulting from colonisation. Friedman (2006:433) writes that the spread of modernity, and modernism as its expressive and creative dimension, can be linked to the Western colonisation of Asia, the Americas and Africa. She also argues that modernity is often associated with intercultural contact zones, “whether produced through conquest, vast migrations of people (voluntary or forced), or relatively peaceful commercial traffic or cultural exchange”. Her idea of modernity as a polycentric and planetary concept that will be able to describe the manifestations of modernity in a variety of geohistorical locations, not only the West, is especially pertinent to the question whether one can speak of a transnational poetics in the case of Afrikaans poets. The article goes on to argue that the transnational elements to be found in Afrikaans literature (in this case poetry) originate from the specifically South African and Afrikaans modernism that developed in the cultural contact zone created by the colonisation of South Africa. This idea is then explored in the second and third sections of the article by means of a reading of the Afrikaans author Marlene van Niekerk’s volume of poetry Kaar, published in 2013.

The second section gives a summary of Van Niekerk’s poetics, based on interviews and essays in which she expressed her indebtedness as a poet to the ideas associated with the transnational movements of Formalism and Modernism. In describing the intellectual and philosophical foundations of her work she mentions the names of Nietzche, Gadamer, Ricoeur, Blanchot, Ciorian, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, writers whose work also circulates transnationally. The second section of the article devotes attention to Van Niekerk’s choice to write in Afrikaans and the way in which she engages with the language’s compromised history as well as its transnational origins (having developed from the Dutch spoken by the early colonisers of South Africa and influenced by a variety of other languages).

The third section of the article focuses on an analysis of four poems in Kaar. The choice of these poems was determined by the fact that they refer to the colonisation of South Africa by officials of the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century. These poems explore the relationship between the local and the global by juxtaposing South Africa with the Netherlands and focusing on the lyric subject’s complex relationship with her fatherland, South Africa.

The first of the four poems, “Heavy metal in Bagdad” (this is the actual title, not an English translation from an Afrikaans title), represents the cynical self-reflection of a lyric subject who gives up the comforts of Europe because she craves the artistic challenges provided by the complexities of South Africa. The analysis of the second and third poems, “Etologie” (Etology) and “Sorry suide” (Sorry south), highlights colonialism’s enduring impact on South Africa and the lyric subject’s assessment of her own position as a descendant of the erstwhile colonisers. In “Etologie” she expresses feelings of historical complicity as well as current irrelevance in the postcolonial context. In contrast with this, “Sorry suide” highlights the inequalities between South Africans of different races and classes, but also describes the feelings of solidarity that transcend the racial and class divide when South Africans are confronted by outsiders. The fourth poem, “Teorie en praktyk van die digkuns in ’n era van aardgas” (Theory and practice of poetry in an era of natural gas) has its origins in a protest against the Dutch oil company Shell’s exploration for shale gas in South Africa. The analysis of this poem centres on the way in which poetry is seen as a means of contesting global capitalism’s exploitation of the planet (which is then linked to the colonisation of South Africa). The author of the article maintains that this poem can be read as an example of petropoetry (analogous to petrofiction) that argues for a transnational solidarity among poets who want to resist the exploitation of the planet by large transnational corporations. In this sense a transnational poetics is rooted not only in the worldwide circulation of forms, techniques, tropes, images and allusions, but also in a transnational recognition of the urgent need for poets (and by implication all artists) to respond to the environmental challenges that face the planet.

Keywords: Afrikaans poetry; Anthropocene; colonisation; environmental issues; global capitalism; global south; minority language; modernism; modernity; petrofiction; petropoetry; transnational capital; transnational poetics; Van Niekerk, Marlene

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: “’n Postkoloniale Umweltkas”: die vraag na ’n transnasionale poëtika in Afrikaans aan die hand van Marlene van Niekerk se Kaar

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