Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Reading against Race: J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, Justin Cartwright's White Lightning and Ivan Vladislavic's the Restless Supermarket (1)

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Reading against Race: J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, Justin Cartwright's White Lightning and Ivan Vladislavic's the Restless Supermarket (1)

Article excerpt


In this essay, I argue that the treatment of race that one finds in J.M Coetzee's Disgrace (1999), Justin Cartwright's White Lightning (2002) and Ivan Vladislavic's The Restless Supermarket (2001), is premised on a recognition of the discursive inscription of the category of race in culture. These novels ponder the implications of the cultural basis of this trope by asking, for instance, whether nonracialism is a possibility that is open to the individual in a social context in which discourses of race prevail and, if not, how the individual may counter them. My essay examines not only the ways in which the novels under consideration articulate these questions, but also how they respond to them through a foregrounding of the culturally determined nature of reading.


In hierdie artikel voer ek aan dat die behandeling van ras wat aangetref word in J.M. Coetzee se Disgrace (1999), Justin Cartwright se White Lightning (2002) en Vladislavic se The Restless Supermaket (2001) van die vooronderstelling van 'n erkenning van die diskursiewe inskripsie van die kategorie ras in kultuur uitgaan. Hierdie romans oorweeg die implikasies van die kulturele basis van hierdie troop deur byvoorbeeld te vra of nierassehaat 'n moontlikheid is wat oop is vir die individu in 'n sosiale konteks waarin diskoers oor ras algemeen is, en indien nie, hoe die individu dit kan teenwerk. My artikel ondersoek nie slegs die wyses waarop tersaaklike romans hierdie vrae artikuleer nie, maar ook hoe hulle reageer op hierdie vrae deur die kultureel bepaalde aard van interpretasie op die voorgrond te bring.


In 1987, J.M. Coetzee described South African literature as a literature written in "bondage":

   South African literature is a literature in bondage, as it reveals
   in even its highest moments, shot through as they are with
   feelings of homelessness and yearnings for a nameless liberation.
   It is a less than fully human literature, unnaturally preoccupied
   with power and the torsions of power, unable to move from
   elementary relations of contestation, domination, and subjugation
   to the vast and complex human world that lies beyond them. It is
   exactly the kind of literature you would expect people to write
   from a prison.

   (Coetzee 1992: 98)

Almost a decade after the first democratic elections in South Africa, it is perhaps cogent to ask whether or not the situation which Coetzee described in his Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech has changed. Have South African writers begun to explore the deeper human concerns of which Coetzee speaks, or are they still obsessed with "power and the torsions of power"?

In some ways, the opposition that this question sets up is simplistic. I am not simply referring to the rather ingenuous antinomies between human and inhuman, natural and unnatural, contained in Coetzee's description of apartheid literature--a description which projects a time and a literature after apartheid--but more specifically to the assumption implicit in my question, that "deeper human concerns" may somehow be divorced from issues of power or that discourses of power will somehow summarily be suspended upon the end of an era. In my view, the old preoccupation with power and its torsions, as it manifests itself in race politics, is still very much in evidence in post-apartheid writing and, more to the point, it could not be otherwise. After all, although some of the material realities of apartheid have been, and are being, addressed in the postapartheid period, it would simply be naive to assume that the discursive a priori of these realities has altogether disappeared. Not surprisingly, then, in a recent article on the ideal of non-racialism in South African fiction, Shaun Viljoen arrives at the following conclusion:

   While the legacy of non-racialism as propounded by [Richard] Rive
   has infiltrated the contemporary in policy formulations, in the
   minds of a new generation of South Africans it exists by and large
   in uneven, dissipated fragments. … 
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