Finding my way: Reflections on South African literature
Date of publication: 2020
Publisher: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press
As a student in a South African literary studies department, my laptop is filled with PDFs of texts that lecturers, supervisors, fellow students and friends have recommended as essential reading. Rarely do I read beyond their introductions. I find blame in the fact that academic texts seem dry, verbose, jargon-filled or never as exciting as the fiction that they discuss. My own blaming has habituated itself to the point where I’ve grown sceptical of spending what little time and money I have on reading and buying academic texts. So, I decided that Duncan Brown’s latest text, Finding my way: Reflections on South African literature, would be the deciding purchase as to whether I buy academic texts in the future. It thankfully proved to be a worthwhile, reinvigorating text.
Brown’s text offers his own reflections on the field of study that has been defined as South African literature, or SA Lit, from a 2020 perspective. It moves beyond the usual questions of whether South African literature exists after apartheid and what this literature might be, and instead focuses on the mechanism through which one can read, write, know and think about SA Lit in the contemporary, or now, moment. The reflections are explicitly those of Brown, the current dean of humanities at the University of the Western Cape. Through reading Brown’s own reflections on how to approach literary studies in a South African university, the reader is able to reflect on the ways in which they currently approach SA Lit. Such reflections allow for an insight into how they might continue their studies in the future. Brown shows you his approach and allows for you to do as you choose with it.
Questions of how one might approach SA Lit studies are expanded towards how one might approach "The Literary" beyond the confines of the South African national borders. Acutely aware of the various criticisms that humanities studies are under worldwide, Brown reflects on what literary studies as a genre can continue to provide for students. He notes that "literature is a way of knowing, and we need to read, teach and write about it as such". As a literary student myself, I’m naturally biased towards the continuation of the study. His note that literary studies provides one of the many ways of knowing the world struck me: literary studies are obviously necessary.
Brown portrays such means and ways to discuss literary texts, figures and genres throughout the rest of the text. The third chapter provides a study of the 1920s Xhosa praise poet, Nontsizi Mgqwetho. It is specifically her religious allusions that Brown writes about. They seem to exist as both traditionally Xhosa and colonially Christian. This liminality in her writing allows Brown to view her work both as an ascension from her material surroundings, and as that which writes for both church and traditional African religions, or the very materiality that presumably led to her salvation. It is a bind that still persists in contemporary spaces, and Brown highlights how her work sheds light on the issue.
The next chapter continues to reflect on the issues of writing religion and spirituality in the contemporary moment. Brown offers a review of the works of Adam Ashforth. He notes that Ashforth’s work "limns new ways of thinking and writing about belief". Brown reflects on the disjunction, and therefore the challenge, of writing belief systems, as they are based in the material yet simultaneously seek ascension. This imperative of writing the transcendental, the spiritual, without basing too much on the material – where the writer is inevitably found – proves as necessary for reflection as the questions of the spaces of spirituality and belief in the contemporary moment.
Questions on how to write the moment when one is inevitably removed from it are carried on in an interview with South African writer Antjie Krog. Brown questions Krog on her work being categorised as "creative nonfiction", a vogue genre in South African literature exemplified in her book Country of my skull. Both Krog and Brown show scepticism toward the genre’s classification, which is to say, they show scepticism toward how writing can be, and is, written about. Brown admits that the interview began its life with his intention to have it published in an academic journal. When no journal wanted to publish a piece as difficult to define, Brown found its place within his text.
Similarly, the next chapter began its life as a keynote address at the conference "Orature in South Africa: An Arc to the Future" in 2015. Brown makes the point that while orature has existed as a literary genre for centuries, writing about the genre from within South African literary circles remains a fairly new phenomenon. Borrowing from JM Coetzee’s famous analogy of literature being like a continuously existing cockroach, Brown notes that orature shall continue to find its own life, regardless of literary interest. It’s not so much that a place for orature needs to be found in literary circles, as it already has a place beyond them. As such, approaching the field needs to be done through a lens where its always-already presence is accounted for.
If I had to choose, the final chapter – on Alan Paton’s Cry, the beloved country – would be my favourite. Not just because it continues in the vein of personal reflections whereby the reader can see a way of knowing, but also because Brown extends and shares the personal towards a reflection on his relationship with his father. It begins with a cursory glance at what has been written, and moves towards a reflective space where Brown offers new insights into the already existing. It exists as an exemplary piece on the type of work that Brown seems attuned towards. While sentimental at times, this chapter brings forth Brown’s ability to write both personally and academically in a space where both shine to shed insight on the literature in question.
Brown’s text reminds one of the special and continuous role that literature plays when one seeks to relate to the world one exists in. The book highlights how literature is that which is continuously imagining, connecting, exposing, blurring and knowing. Writing, knowing and thinking about literary studies raise similar concerns. Within the bustling and complex global space in which South Africa exists, reflection is always an aid to help one re-examine oneself and where one is going. Brown’s text offers one such reflective way of knowing, and is a great read for it.