Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

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

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

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

Article excerpt


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). …

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