A Gesture of Defiance: Selected Texts by Black South African Women Writers

By Mphahlele, Mante | Journal of Literary Studies, June 2002 | Go to article overview

A Gesture of Defiance: Selected Texts by Black South African Women Writers


Mphahlele, Mante, Journal of Literary Studies


Summary

The emergence of a tradition of autobiographical writing by Black South African women accentuates the contributions of an alternative, matrilineal line of heroes and women writers to an alternative history of the country. In shaping their own identities and in countering the prescriptions of the authorities with alternative scripts, these women engage in a gesture of defiance. One aspect of this defiance in texts which thematise the imperative for nation-building within the context of political oppression is the emphasis they place on the continuity between the self and her community.

Opsomming

Die ontwikkeling van 'n tradisie van outobiografiese tekste deur Swart Suid-Afrikaanse vroue beklemtoon die bydrae van 'n alternatiewe matriliniere lyn van heldinne en vroueskrywers tot'n alternatiewe geskiedenis van die land. Deur hulle vormgewing aan hulle identiteite en daardeur dat hulle die voorskrifte van gesagsinstellings met alternatiewe tekste teestaan, voer vroue 'n handeling van verset uit. Een aspek van hierdie verset in tekste wat die noodwendigheid van nasiebou in die konteks van politieke onderdrukking tematiseer, is die klem wat hulle op die kontinufteit van die self en die gemeenskap plaas.

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This colloquium (1) provides us with another platform from which we can add more colour and character to an often neglected piece of the literary portrait of one of the youngest democracies in the world. Whichever way we view this portrait before us, we cannot help but envisage the emergence of a very rich and colourful picture. What joy and pride it will be for us all one day, to realise that we also seized a moment, and, so lovingly, and ever so dedicatedly, stretched our hands, dipped our brushes into the gourd of the rainbow paint, and added a line or two on this celebrated picture of the South African literary historiography. (2) The colloquium is therefore more than a literary affair. It is a celebration of ideas and voices which forces of darkness had connived to keep hushed forever. Let us thus not tire to reminisce on these his-tories and her-stories in this and other forums. As we grapple with the continuous challenges of defining our self-identity and becoming speech, let us not forget to return to the lessons our literary ancestors taught us about telling our stories in ways that more than affirm us.

The corpus of black South African women's writings of the sixties to the nineties is a recollection of different facets of a displaced people. These were people striving to have their stories told within a political milieu which legislated against, not only their survival, but their very being. Most of the women who contributed to this body of literature, wrote without the benefit of being formally schooled in any aspects of the novel as postulated by E.M. Forster. (3) Neither did they bring to the existing body of literature any learned appreciation of what a good poem is, or what it should look or sound like. They also lacked instruction on the structural rigours of a tight cohesion of ideas in writing their short stories. To add to that, nobody had told them about Aristotle's (1994) prescription for plays or drama, namely, that a play has to observe the three unities of time, place and action. That most of the women writers making up the corpus of black South African women writers wrote without any of these benefits attests to their determination to rise above the ashes of their circumstances. These women simply wrote out of a passion and sensitivity to communicate what was before them, behind them, and in some cases, what was still to pass.

They brought to light lives interlaced with hardship, misery, and pain, all of which jockeyed for position with an insatiable hunger and zest for life. Whatever their lot was, they also celebrated life. Their narratives are a recording of song and dance, a touch of humour and at other times, downright jollity and frivolity, all the while bearing the cross of abuse, poverty, oppression, humiliation, detention, exile and finally, death. …

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