In-Depth Look at SA Literature

Cape Times (South Africa), February 3, 2012 | Go to article overview
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In-Depth Look at SA Literature


Edited by Michael Chapman and Margaret Lenta

University of KwaZulu-Natal Press

In 2005, Leon de Kock - respected academic, poet, novelist and translator - published an article that explored ways of understanding SA literature one decade after the end of apartheid.

SA writing, he argued, had been "a mood, a way of feeling about mustering all the symbolic capital we could against those bent on keeping us in the grey chambers of racial governance, censorship and neo-colonial lordship. In some senses, it really was as simple as that.

"But we no longer have such clear and simple urgencies, such absolute contests - the space for dialogue and exploration has become infinitely more diffuse."

SA Lit: Beyond 2000 is a collection of 17 critical essays that examine and give substance to that "infinitely more diffuse space" now inhabited and exploited by SA writers.

This is a timely exercise, in view of the publication boom that has marked the past decade.

Perhaps a surprising achievement in itself because, according to figures quoted in her essay by Sally-Ann Murray, a prize-winning novelist in her own right, "(i)n this country of nearly fifty million people, the general book-buying public is numbered between 800 000 and 1 000 000".

I can only provide a sketchy overview in the space available, but it will suggest how rich our small literary field has become, and how comprehensively this collection of essays attends to its diversity.

De Kock's opening piece revisits his earlier question in different terms. Can one talk of a national literature, he asks, where the globalisation of public space, dispersed global audiences, and boundary-dissolving media break the borders of a literature based on national identity?

The essays that follow respond to the question, demonstrating a positive answer not only in their breadth and substance, but in their concentration on how SA writers assert multiple local identities.

Margaret Lenta provides a typology of new directions that writers have recently explored, selecting only debut novels as her material.

Murray gives a textured analysis of the literary exploitation of urban spaces (think, for example, Ivan Vladislavic or Niq Mhlongo), thereby accounting for new qualities of voice and expression that have emerged.

Some essays are defined by issue, such as the emergence of previously suppressed voices in black and white women's writing (Eva Hunter and Siphokazi Jonas); the African diaspora (JU Jacobs) focusing on Coetzee, Breytenbach, Gordimer, Mda and Pinnock; postcolonial gay literature (Cheryl Stobie); and the intersection of ecology and literature (Dan Wylie).

Some are driven by genre, such as an essay on poetry and politics by Michael Chapman, or the research and documentation of African oral performance (Russel Kaschula), and autobiographical writing (Annie Gagiano).

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