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André Brink at the Man Hong Kong Literary Festival says literature in South Africa is “exuberant“ March 14, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Literature.
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“Language,” André Brink says, “is the starting point of literature, an invention in and through language.”  As someone who writes in both English and Afrikaans, he should know.  He tells me that since the transition to multi-racial democracy in South Africa, more literature is written in Afrikaans, often seen to be the language of racial oppression.  It is perhaps not so surprising, since Afrikaans was, in the words of Brink, “shaped in the mouths of slaves” which in a process of “creolisation” became the language of the bourgeoisie in the 19th century.

In a wide-ranging, erudite and stimulating lecture at the 2010 Man Hong Kong International Festival, held recently at the University of Hong Kong, Brink talks about South African fiction after apartheid.

He begins by observing that apartheid  has not been eliminated, but is “receding”.  “The road to freedom for the creation of literature,” he says, “still has to be walked.”

According to him, the most obvious characteristic of post-apartheid literature is probably its more “inward” nature, a perceptible shift away from engagement in the political field during apartheid when the urgency of politics “necessitated a direct response”.

Themes relegated to the background during the apartheid years emerge into prominence after the transition, bringing “electricity to the scene”.  However, this does not mean a rejection of politics, but rather a “re-imaging” of the political.  Brink cites the works of J.M. Coetzee as examples in which politics features but its personal interpretation gives it substance.

For Brink, however, the private and the political do not constitute a dichotomy, but are rather “positions on a sliding scale.”

Brink attributes the state of South Africa today to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) , which held a number of public hearings into atrocities committed during the apartheid years.  “Testifying in public about private horrors,” Brink says, “pushed the limits of storytelling.”  Historiography, which had been monopolised and usurped by the ruling government for political ends, has been liberated – many histories are now possible.

Another aspect of the post-apartheid literary world in South Africa is the withdrawal of writers into themselves in a way more typical of their solitary profession in other countries.  While during years of apartheid, writers got used to working together, they now work more alone, although the memory of that “closeness and solidarity” still remains.

Feminism, or more generally the female experience of the country, offers a domain for the new South Africa.  Affirmation of femininity in many works denotes a shift in consciousness and awareness.  Call Me Woman by Ellen Kuzwayo, Call me not a man by Mtutuzeli Matshoba and The Cry of Winnie Mandela by Njabulo Ndebele are fine examples.

At the same time, there appears to be an “appropriation of voice” – the fictional impersonation of man as woman or white as black.  Brink refers to his own work in which he as a male author “poses” as a female narrator.  He calls this “appropriation” as he wonders aloud about the difference between “speaking on behalf of” and “speaking in solidarity with”.  In the re-interpretation of history, the master narrative devised by white male historians gives way to the re-discovery or re-definition of “an infinity of South African histories”.

It may appear to some that the notion of “magical realism” is new to literature in the post-apartheid era, but according to Brink this has always been a key element in the oral narrative tradition in African folklore – ancestors have always interfered with the present.  As an example of magical realism, Brink recounts the story (apparently told by Justice Goldstone) of a black worker for the opera house whose job it was to lead some camels from the zoo to the theatre during performances of Aïda.  Stopped en route by a white constable one day, and in response to the question what he was doing, he said, “I’m taking the camels to the opera”.

In conclusion, Brink uses the word “exuberance” repeatedly to describe the state of South African literature, which he says is “on the verge of an explosion in creativity”.  This exuberance is an expression of joy in the “rediscovery of literature and its possibilities” – literature as “indomitable energy of the human spirit”.

Thus spoke the master, and baie dankie.