Thursday, 28 March 2013

This Book Betrays my Brother

By Rob Gaylard

Kagiso Lesego Molope's This Book Betrays my Brother (Oxford University Press) engages and convinces the reader, and does so with consummate skill.
It is a coming-of-age novel that depicts the growth pains of the narrator and her friends - early-teenage girls who are coming to terms with their sexuality. It describes the excitement of dating, going to your first social, the matric dance.
The need to be attractive to the opposite sex and to conform to social expectations is overwhelming. These scenes create a convincing familial and social context, and the intimate, local feel of the narrative is greatly enhanced by the frequent resort to Setswana words or expressions (a glossary is provided).
The protagonist and narrator, Naledi, is part of a well-to-do family. Her father owns a grocery shop, Tshwene's General Store. They have moved from the township (ko motseng or kasi) up to "diEx", the extension, where upwardly mobile middle-class families live.
The narrative explores these two worlds, and depicts the social and psychological realities that shape Naledi. She and her brother experience the tension between wanting to belong to their own township-based peer groups and of being part of a privileged group that attends private schools, plays rugby (rather than soccer) and speaks English much of the time.
Naledi's mother insists, "We are not the same". In this way the novel recalls the themes so memorably explored by Njabulo Ndebele in Fools and Other Stories.

SA evoked through rural battle: For the Mercy of Water

By Konstantin Sofianos

Karen Jayes's For the Mercy of Water (Penguin) is a strange, challenging novel, and a revelation. It makes much post-apartheid literature look banal, in its concerns, and amateurish, in execution.
At a time of severe water-crisis and drought, administration over this essential resource has been handed to the corporate control of "the company", which oversees the marketised supply of water in the big cities, and ruthlessly safeguards its dwindling sources in the parched, rural hinterland. The countryside has been largely abandoned following the imposition of ferocious tariffs on water-use, left to the silent transit of convoy-trucks, and to the rule of corporate militias, the "company men".
The absolute predominance of the company, guaranteed by the extension of executive powers in the national interest, is contested only by women, those too young or too old to make the harried trek into the cities, who launch daring night-raids on the reservoirs, or re-route the life-bearing corporate pipes and conduits. In this context of a simmering conflict, an unexpected rainfall brings the company soldiers to a desolate valley-town, where they confront a group of girls in the care of an aged school-teacher, known simply as Mother.
The narrative circles around the "unfortunate incidents" that ensue from this encounter, that will leave most of the girls dead, one soldier blinded, one girl, Eve, in flight, and the apparently traumatised schoolteacher under the ambiguous protection of NGOs and aid workers. A brief online report will draw Jayes's writer-protagonist and narrator to the valley, who arrives there in the novel's opening chapter, to be followed soon after by the company's organised effort to secure the area, and establish the official narrative of events.
All of this is to say precious little about the actual experience of reading Jayes's novel. The book opens with an epigraph by the aestheticist poet Rilke, and concludes with a citation from the Qur'an, and by acknowledging the support of, amongst others, André Brink. Between those unlikely coordinates a remarkable writerly capacity unfolds, which perhaps owes something to each, and it is through this finely-wrought instrument of style that the novel's actions and scenes are relayed.

Balanced meditation on Citizenship: Becoming Worthy Ancestors

By Aghogho Akpome

At a recent academic writing retreat, a prolific researcher advised a group of budding writers that it helps for an article to have a "sexy", attractive title. The appeal of Dr Xolela Mangcu's book Becoming Worthy Ancestors: Archive, Public Deliberation and Identity in South Africa (Wits University Press) goes beyond its catchy title.
For those with an interest in public debates on contemporary South African nationalism, democracy, history and group identity, Becoming Worthy Ancestors is a worthy read. And as one of the blurbs on the book's cover says, the informative analyses it contains enable productive "rethinking of what it means to have an inclusive conception of citizenship in South Africa" today.
The book is a collection of eight essays each dealing with either one or more of the social and political issues mentioned above. Mangcu brings together views from eight distinguished academics, six of whom are South Africans. The South Africans, in addition to Mangcu, are the late Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, Mtongela Masilela, Pumla Dineo Gqola and Carolyn Hamilton. The others are US-based Ghanaian Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Benedict Anderson and Martin Bernal, both of whom have British origins.
The contributions from the non-South Africans are particularly important due to their distance from the events and historical issues discussed in the book. The main effect of their international, "view from the edge", is that readers are offered a broad trans-regional and historical context within which local concerns may be considered. Potentially, this enables a more objective and balanced meditation on issues often distorted by recalcitrant emotions and prejudice.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Does 'SA Literature' matter?

By Leon de Kock

"Now, 10 years after JM Coetzee left the country ... South African literature in English does not matter very much any more.”
This sweeping – and to many, potentially devastating – comment, was uttered just a few weeks ago by veteran UCT-based critic Ian Glenn during his public spat with Imraan Coovadia.
In the context of his intra-UCT wrangle with Coovadia, Glenn’s judgement serves to diminish Coovadia’s importance as a South African author, but in a more general sense the statement deserves wider consideration.
Is it true that South African literature doesn’t matter “very much any more”?
A few years ago, I published an academic article under the title, Does South African Literature Still Exist? In that piece, I asked whether the anti-apartheid imperative of “landlocked”, special-case struggle literature had not fatally overdetermined what we used to call “SA Lit”.
Not only did the symbolic and legislative conditions for such a literature disappear after 1990 (though not the material ones), but the world also became “post-national”. It is a globalising world in which success as a writer increasingly demands readership – and content – beyond determinate borders.
 Simply put, “national” struggles such as apartheid – and national “exceptionalism” – no longer capture the world’s attention. As a writer, you now need to speak to larger issues, breaching terrestrial boundaries.
In the wake of apartheid’s end, the SA Lit “home industry” – built up at SA universities over about three decades by figures like Stephen Gray, Tim Couzens, Michael Chapman, Ian Glenn and others – quickly began to lose its steam.
Critical theory and cultural studies gradually eclipsed academic interest in SA Lit. It became a lot sexier in academia to write in one’s own name on discursive trends relating to cities and subcultures, for example, than to opine boringly about the qualities of yet another Gordimer novel.
At the same time, “creative nonfiction” authors like Jonny Steinberg and Antony Altbeker stole much of the limelight from the novelists who were trying to outdo Coetzee and Gordimer, and failing. “Reality” seemed to be getting the better of “imagination”.