Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Traumas and Transformations: Fictions Which Play with What "They Say", by Zakes Mda and Lindsey Collen

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Traumas and Transformations: Fictions Which Play with What "They Say", by Zakes Mda and Lindsey Collen

Article excerpt

They say things like foetuses haven't got a place in stories. You never know what might happen if they got into stories.

(Lindsey Collen, Getting Rid of It, 1997: 54)

They say our mothers no longer want to talk about these things. Our mothers have learnt to live with themselves.

(Zakes Mda, The Madonna of Excelsior, 2002: 217)

Summary

There has been an ongoing debate on attempts to translate traumatic experiences, both personal and public, into a variety of cultural forms. In fictional accounts, particularly, this has involved a focus on redefined selfhoods, which can be linked to the fluidity of identities during times of acute social transition. Through a comparative study of the strategies used in Zakes Mda's The Madonna of Excelsior (2002) and Lindsey Collen's Getting Rid of It (1997), I will explore how these texts raise questions about the relationship between the violence and renewal in provocative ways. However, the focus on re-invention through narrative raises further questions concerning the shift from realism and the so-called new aesthetic in recent fiction: how does one avoid trivialising trauma through fictionalising it, or counter readings which co-opt the texts into a variety of conservative public discourses around reconciliation or rainbow-nationhood? Finally, to what extent can these fictions point to the possibilities of new ways of "being" in a world which seems to be testing received notions of what it means to be human?

Opsomming

Daar bestaan 'n voortdurende debat oor pogings om traumatiese ervarings, van persoonlike sowel as publieke aard, in 'n verskeidenheid kultuurvorms te vertaal. In fiktiewe verhale behels dit dikwels dat daar op herdefiniering van selfhede gefokus word, wat in verband gebring kan word met die vloeibaarheid van identiteite gedurende tye van akute sosiale oorgang. Met behulp van 'n vergelykende studie van die strategiee wat in Zakes Mda se The Madonna of Excelsior (2002) en Lindsey Collen se Getting Rid of It (1997) gebruik word, gaan ek ondersoek instel na hoe hierdie tekste op prikkelende wyse aanleiding gee tot vrae oor die verhouding tussen geweld en vernuwing. Die fokus op heruitvinding deur vertelling gee egter verder aanleiding tot vrae oor die verskuiwing van realisme en die sogenaamde nuwe estetiek in onlangse fiksie: hoe vermy 'n mens die trivialisering van trauma deur die fiksionalisering daarvan, of hoe vorm 'n mens 'n teenwig vir voorlesings wat die tekste by 'n verskeidenheid konserwatiewe openbare diskoerse oor versoening of "reenboognasieskap" betrek? Ten slotte, in watter mate kan hierdie fiksie dui op moontlike nuwe maniere van "wees" in 'n wereld wat die indruk skep dat dit besig is om aanvaarde begrippe van wat dit beteken om menslik te wees, te toets?

One of the legacies of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been an ongoing debate on attempts to translate traumatic experiences, both personal and public, into a variety of cultural forms. In his discussion of the TRC process Christoph Marx claims that by personalising rather than analysing the causes of apartheid, "it was possible to stage spectacular, televised, scenes of reconciliation, while for the most part sparing the white population from having to confront the system it had supported" (2002: 51). He cautions that despite all efforts to pursue an integrated process of truth and reconciliation, we are likely to see something similar to what happened in postwar Germany, namely decades of public silence. (1) However, as suggested by the epigraphs above, secrets or taboo subjects do find their way into texts in an attempt to translate traumatic histories into palatable stories which serve to counter what "they say". My focus here is on how the works play with what they say by attempting to textualise the experiences of those who fall through the cracks of public discourses. At the same time, there are of course dangers involved here: on the one hand, how does one avoid trivialising trauma through fictionalising it, or counter readings which co-opt the text into a variety of conservative public discourses? …

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