Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Transculturation, Postcolonial Literature, and the Global Literary Market: The Case of Yvonne Vera's American Literary Career

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Transculturation, Postcolonial Literature, and the Global Literary Market: The Case of Yvonne Vera's American Literary Career

Article excerpt

Southern African Literature on the Global Literary Market

Several scholars in recent years have brought postcolonial and transcultural literary study into contact with developments in world literary studies and book history. The result has been analyses of how the commercialization of cultures, the globalization of the publishing world, and the position of postcolonial and transcultural studies as academic fields affect or should affect literary study.1 This article looks at the exchange from the point of view of Southern African literature. I trace some of the central issues by comparing two readings of contemporary black South African literature before relating them to arguments made by Graham Huggan and Sarah Brouillette on the relationship between commercial global publishing and postcolonial (or transcultural) literary study. By way of contribution to the exchange - and as a means to test some of its assumptions - I then employ a book-historical approach to discuss some aspects of the marketing and reception of Yvonne Vera, arguably Zimbabwe's greatest writer in the last decade, on the US literary market.

In his book on transculturation in South African literary culture, David Attwell devotes the last chapter to a discussion of the experimental, and partly post-apartheid, writing of Njabulo Ndebele and Zakes Mda. He contextualizes his argument in terms of a South African cultural debate on literary experimentalism (by which he means a self-reflexive literature often associated with European modernism) in which it has been taken for granted that experimental prose is foreign to black South African literature and that it undercuts the social value of literature at any rate. Attwell challenges both these views. Ndebele and Mda are distinctly experimental writers, he states, and can be placed in a long but neglected line of black literary experimenters. Their style is of a particularly South African blend, which does not mean that they are not in touch with European or 'Western' developments. On the contrary, they draw on various foreign and indigenous sources, moulding them into something capable of both reflection on and response to South African conditions:

What we find in Ndebele and Mda is indeed an attempt to develop a transformative fictional practice answering to the specific situation of black South African subjectivity under the conditions of modernity defined by the apartheid city.2

The conclusion in the chapter on contemporary literature is in line with the overall project of his book. Rewriting Modernity, Attwell explains, is a study of the ways black authors have sought to "establish [...] themselves as modern subjects, in direct opposition to the identities ascribed to them in colonial and apartheid ideology" through writing.3

Attwell's readings are exemplary in their sophistication and evocation of specific historical contexts, but his attention to transcultural flows is also ultimately national in scope. He claims that, just like the earlier authors discussed in the foregoing chapters of his book, Ndebele and Mda address address specifically South African conditions, and their texts assert and refashion black subjectivity in and against a South Africa dominated by whites. Whereas the author and the literary text express a transcultural confluence of themes and formal elements, literary value (which Attwell defines partly in cultural political terms) is tied to its potential role for the nation. This delimitation of space is not without significance, nor is his assumption that authors respond to nationally defined conditions. His focus, to be sure, is literary and not sociological; it centres on texts rather than audiences and actual reading practices. Nevertheless, the value of the literature under discussion depends upon his somewhat under-articulated assumption that the texts find, and are able to affect, their readers. While these readers need not necessarily be South African by birth or residence, Attwell undoubtedly implies a connection between them. …

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