South African writing in transition, edited by Rita Barnard and Andrew van der Vlies: a review

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South African writing in transition
Edited by Rita Barnard and Andrew van der Vlies
Bloomsbury Academic, 2019
ISBN: 9781350086883

It has been a while since I’ve read, edited or contributed to an anthology of theoretical essays on South African literature. But, occasionally, I still have academic longings; therefore, I approached South African writing in transition, edited by Rita Barnard and Andrew van der Vlies, with great anticipation, and found the collection most engrossing. The individual contributions focus on a fascinating and relevant selection of primary sources, mostly novels and short stories, reaching as far back as Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi (1930) and incorporating contemporary texts into the diverse readings of the South African literary canon. The work of other South African literary greats – Njabulo S Ndebele, Zakes Mda, Mongane Wally Serote, Nadine Gordimer, Marlene van Niekerk and Ivan Vladislavić among them – is discussed along with an array of new, equally exciting voices, exposing striking continuities and departures.

By its very nature, theoretical writing takes time to compose and publish. South African writing in transition is the result of several international conferences which took place between 2012 and 2017 in South Africa and overseas. Most contributors are not based locally, which perhaps limits the scope of the inquiry as a whole, but the collection testifies to South African literature’s continuous appeal to international scholars. Also, the anthology’s topics are pertinent to our present in highly productive and sometimes uncanny ways. As Barnard writes in the introduction to the book: “[I]t is now time to consider the many loops and twists, the stasis and acceleration, the paralysis and hope of postapartheid experience.” We find ourselves in an unprecedented global reality in which the interest in world literature, its contributions and theories, will become more significant than ever, and understanding the South African experience, past and present, socio-historical and literary, as part of it could be of notable value.

The anthology opens with an essay by Monica Popescu, discussing Mongane Wally Serote’s To every birth its blood (1981) in the context of revolution writing. As the author notes, Serote believed in “literature as a form of social commitment”, and he saw writers as “cultural workers”. Responding to the 1976 Soweto uprising, Serote incorporated in his novel “ideas of social transformation” that he found essential for the time and shaped the aesthetics of such committed writing.

The discussions in the collection return repeatedly to seminal periods and phases in South African history – colonialism, slavery, apartheid, Sharpeville, armed struggle, the TRC, the Marikana massacre – through the prism of literature, in order to evaluate their ramifications on the present and the future. In this respect, I found Annel Helena Pieterse’s observations about “secrets”, the concept of “betrayal” and the “figure of the traitor” in “After Marikana: The temporalities of betrayal” most illuminating. Pieterse focuses on the massacre and its betrayals, but also on the origins of the challenges encountered in bringing such betrayals to light, as portrayed in Niq Mhlongo’s novel, Way back home. “The act of betrayal affects our lived experience of time: our sense of temporality,” Pieterse writes, and continues: “While not all acts of betrayal are necessarily violent, the temporal consequences of the act of betrayal appear similar to those of the act of violence. Betrayal and violence both cause a rupture or interruption in our lived experience.” Betrayal and violence shrouded in secrecy register an additional layer of hurt: “It is only by confronting these secrets that we might reenter, or perhaps reroute, the flow of time.” Now, when it is becoming increasingly more urgent to face up to the uncomfortable truths about the armed struggle’s violence that cut both ways, these considerations are crucial. The experience of trauma, of course, has a comparable effect, and features prominently among the concerns of South African writing in transition. In her contribution, “Storying trauma: Unconfessed as a site of political possibility”, Erica Still talks about Yvette Christiansë’s powerful neo-slave narrative and reveals how her protagonist’s story can guide us with its “political effort” towards healing and restoration, “how a person and a people might bear the weight of a history of oppression”. It is not always a matter of “completion”, she argues, “but a momentary resting”. The phrase “momentary resting” embodies a lot of the work in progress – “transition” – that the entire collection showcases in an intriguing manner.

Erica Lombard quotes Anne Landsman’s The rowing lesson (2008) in the title of her piece, “‘Reach forward, into the past’: Nostalgia as post-transitional mode”, and explores the different possibilities for “nostalgia” to be instrumental in constructing the present in relation to a fraught past: “In a literature that has historically found itself constrained within tight political and ideological bounds, where trauma has overshadowed narratives about the past, what is at stake in nostalgia is the issue of freedom, which Svetlana Boym notes [in The future of nostalgia, 2001] is ‘not a freedom from memory but a freedom to remember, to choose the narratives of the past and remake them’.” Nostalgia is closely linked with another prominent theme in South African literature, South Africans returning home after periods of living abroad – which resurfaces in Andrew van der Vlies’s incisive chapter, “Queer returns in postapartheid short fiction: SJ Naudé’s The alphabet of birds”.

In her “Precarious time and aesthetics of community”, Sarah Lincoln discusses two modern classics, Nadine Gordimer’s July’s people (1981) and Zakes Mda’s Ways of dying (1995), in terms of the intimate and special frontiers of imagined futures, including “the risks and the lyrical potential of a life lived in common”. Another modern classic, Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat (2004), is the subject of Lily Saint’s chapter on “History and the genre of modernity”, in which she shows the complexities and failures of the attempts at a “life lived in common”, to use Lincoln’s words, and at the same time how Agaat is “preoccupied with the overlap between narrating the history and the present of twentieth-century South Africa and the construction and deconstruction of narrative genres”. Saint ends with a telling quote by Iris Murdoch, urging us not to be “too afraid of incompleteness”.

Central to the collection are two terms, temporality and transition. Barnard calls the latter “unsatisfactory and slippery … and ambiguous in terms of periodization”, but both evade exact definitions. They are more ideas in the making than concrete entities. It is precisely because of the “slippery” and “ambiguous” nature of academic terminology in the humanities that many readers turn away from engaging with such writing, but with the exception of a few short lapses, the essays in South African writing in transition eschew unnecessary obfuscation.

The contributions to the book are “thematically paired”, Barnard says in her introduction, and apart from the acutely inappropriate titular pairing of “On criminals and queers”, the coupled chapters inform each other in enlightening terms. Throughout, the collection gives voice to the experience of waiting, whether it is rooted in the particular experience of an individual – best chronicled in Njabulo S Ndebele’s The cry of Winnie Mandela (2003) – or in a much larger communal weariness, felt by most awaiting the fulfilment of the new South Africa’s promises; both are succinctly discussed in Katherine Hallemeier’s “Still waiting? Writing futurity after apartheid”. The iconic image on the cover of South African writing in transition of the unfinished foreshore freeway bridge in Cape Town is a fitting illustration of this state of unfulfilled anticipation. It is also expressed in what Lauren Beukes termed muti noir, a genre Brenna M Munro analyses in the captivating chapter, “Crime fiction in a time of AIDS: South African muti noir”, reading Beukes’s Zoo city (2010), along with Deon Meyer’s Blood safari (2007), Diale Tlholwe’s Ancient rites (2008), Kgebetli Moele’s The book of the dead (2009) and Sifiso Mzobe’s Young blood (2010). Munro’s conclusion points to other texts exploring the same territory, like the recently published Knucklebone by Nechama Brodie (2018): “These South African ‘muti noir’ texts remake crime fiction – and many of them also transform magical realism, disorientating the ways in which the ‘magical’ is usually situated outside ‘modernity’ and within its own genre. The formation also begins to write the AIDS epidemic [as in Moele’s The book of the dead, where HIV itself narrates part of the story].”

The state of incompleteness finds a different expression in Vladislavić’s The loss library (2011), as analysed by Christopher Holmes in “Transition and democratic work: The unfinished work of Ivan Vladislavić”. Holmes writes “against the drive to contextualize transition as a failure of democracy”, and rather sees value in “literature’s embracing the uncertainty and incompletion of transition”. He reminds us: “Even the briefest periods of transitional amorphousness are adjudged according to a framework of interpretation that prescribes a categorical and speedy resolution of uncertainty – with democracy inevitably coded as Western, secular, capitalist and completable. Forgetful of the fact that democracies have all historically emerged in fits and starts, have broken and refashioned themselves, and are constantly in a state of tension and dialogue in Europe and the United States, Western appraisals of democracy in the global South dismiss anything other than recognizable structures and tropes of capitalist democracy.” Instead of categorising transition as “democracy yet-to-come”, Holmes prefers to describe it more optimistically as “work of ongoing democracy”. He presents The loss library also in these terms, as something “not yet formed, but capable of meaning nevertheless”. There are lessons to be learned here that might have far-reaching consequences as we enter a period of global transitioning that will not necessarily be led by Western ideas and standards.

In her “Conclusion: Reading in transition”, Tsitsi Jaji suggests another shift of perspectives by claiming Plaatje “as a father of a regional, rather than only South African, literature”, and his Mhudi as a southern African novel, as well as reading “against the enduring exceptionalism of South Africa”, which allows us “to rediscover the ordinariness of its borders and suture South Africa back into a body of continental African literature”. Jaji demonstrates how Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to our Hillbrow (2001) and Gordimer’s The pickup (2001) can also be read fruitfully along these lines. She encourages engagement with “the reading and writing of South African literature in the presence of all languages of the continent” to unlock its “potential to offer an alternative vision of cross-border, pan-Africanist solidarity, a site from which to project the future memory of a truly continental commitment to human rights, dignity, and openness”. She continues on an inspirational note: “This, to my mind, is the final frontier across which South African literature is in transit.” One can hope that the global crisis we are facing will eventually enforce and not hinder this worthwhile trajectory.

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