The Politics of Identity: South Africa, Story-Telling, and Literary History

By Chapman, Michael | Journal of Literary Studies, December 2002 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Politics of Identity: South Africa, Story-Telling, and Literary History

Chapman, Michael, Journal of Literary Studies


The publication of Michael Chapman's Southern African Literatures (1996) occasioned lively debate, in South Africa responses involved matters of identity: whose language, culture, or story would retain purchase in a new South Africa? In North America and Europe related questions were cast--less emotively--as enquiries into the possibility of writing literary history at a time of postmodernist "discontinuity". Using such responses as a staffing point, the paper considers the value of literary history's retention, amid discontinuity, of an ethics of narrative.


'n Lewendige debat bet gevolg op die publikasie van Michael Chapman se Southern African Literatures (1996). In Suid-Afrika was die meeste reaksies gerig op vraagstellings oor identiteit: wie se taal, kultuur en storie sou stand hou in 'n nuwe Suid-Afrika? In Noord-Amerika en Europa is soortgelyke sake geopper--met minder emosie--as ondersoeksvrae na die moontlikheid daarvan om 'n literatuurgeskiedenis te skryf in 'n tyd van postmodernistiese "diskontinuiteit". Met soortgelyke reaksies as 'n vertrekpunt, word dear in hierdie artikel besin oor die waarde van die literatuurgeskiedenis se behoud van 'n narratiewe etiek te midde van diskontinuiteit.

My study Southern African Literatures (1) has since its publication in May 1996 occasioned heated responses in South Africa. Briefly, arguments involve the matter of identity politics: whose language, culture, or story can be said to have authority in South Africa when the end of apartheid has raised challenging questions as to what it is to be a South African, what it is to live in a new South Africa, whether South Africa is a nation, and, if so, what its mythos is, what requires to be forgotten and what remembered as we scour the past in order to understand the present and seek a path forward into an unknown future. What is our story when story-telling in its most harrowing form occupied the attention of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with families and friends recollecting those who were bludgeoned to death by the forces of the racist state?

A single-authored literary history, Southern African Literatures, covers work from the expression of stone-age Bushmen to that of writers such as Gordimer, Brink, Breytenbach, and Coetzee. In considering the questions of what constitutes a usable past, what value may be assigned to traditional, elite, and popular forms, generally how after apartheid one might understand the linguistic and cultural complexity of the southern African region, the study inherited a literary culture that had been constructed upon assumptions of linguistic-racial exclusivities. I use the term "assumptions" rather than "principles": although a few critics have consistently, called for "integrative study", the practice--a practice very short on theory--has favoured surveys, anthologies, and histories delineated according to the several languages and races of the region. There are in consequence separate studies of Afrikaans literature, South African English literature, Zulu literature, Xhosa literature, Sotho literature, a few on white writing, and a few on black writing. (2) Southern African Literatures, in contrast, presents a single though multivocal narrative based on principles of comparison and translation. In crossing language and race barriers it asks questions such as: would Xhosa expression have developed the way it did had it not encountered a British settler presence on its ancient land? Conversely, would South African English literature have taken its particular course had it not encountered indigenous people around its early settlements? The aim--"after apartheid"--is to retain respect for the epistemological autonomy of the cultures between which interchange is taking place while seeking to make the insights of one culture accessible to the other. A reviewer in the United States has seen in the approach a valuable "multiculturalism" which--we are told--Americans espouse but seldom practise (Nemoianu 1997: 182).

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Politics of Identity: South Africa, Story-Telling, and Literary History


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?