Beyond Rivalry: Fact | Fiction, Literature | History

Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies.Special issue on literary non-fiction in South Africa | Vol. 13:1-2 (2012).

Introduction by Rita Barnard.

‘In a Country Where You Couldn’t Make this Shit Up? Literary non-fiction in South Africa.’

The countryside clattered with the noise of its cruel politics, each new scene a micro-world of stubborn memories and pernicious games. I remembered my trip through the plantations with Jude Fowler. I had remarked on their beauty, he on their ugliness. I was looking at the blend of colours, as an outsider does; he understood things by their history and their function. For a brief moment as I drove back to the Benfield farm, I imbibed the landscape as a native does; everything marked by a thousand particulars; the history of power and people engraved in every mutation.

Jonny Steinberg, Midlands, (2002).

Cambridge History of South African Literature


“For the reader in Benoni, and the reader in Beijing” | UK launch of the The Cambridge History of South African Literature | Friday 3 February 2012 | University of York(LitNet).

Speaking with Many Voices | The Cambridge History of South African Literature Cape Town launch | Tuesday 13 March 2012 | Book Lounge (LitNet).

Transcript of opening address by Njabulo Ndebele.

The Many Voices of South Africa's Past David Attwell, Mail & Guardian (2 March 2012).

...As the editors, we hope that readers will be able to trace a path through the book, following experts in the field, and build a respectable impression of a particular literature but also that they will find many useful distractions along the way. Canonised figures such as Herbert Dhlomo, NP van Wyk Louw and Roy Campbell are juxtaposed as modernists of the same period. Commercially successful imperial adventure fiction published in London is placed alongside the painstaking growth of Afrikaans and African-language literatures. And so on, with many more examples: continuity is challenged and invigorated by contiguity. In this perspective, the blind spots and failures of mutual influence are as ­telling as the successes.

For some years now literary historiography has flourished in the relative absence of literary history. Which is to say, the question of how to do literary history and whether it could or should be done at all seemed more interesting than actually rolling up the sleeves. This is not surprising: theory always flourishes when empirical research loses its way, or loses confidence. But who was the historiography reaching?...Instead of more historiography, what the field needs now is narrative... [Continue reading]


‘Anodyne’ Cambridge history still hits the mark - Graham Riach | 23 July 2012 (SLiPnet).

Many literatures, few readers: The end of SA literary culture? - Nedine Moonsamy | Mail and Guardian Literary Festival | 2 September 2012 (SLiPnet).

Toward an inclusive literary history: Three scholars review The Cambridge History of South African Literature - Helize van Vuuren, Andries Oliphant and Linda Kwatsha | 26 September 2012 (LitNet).

From ‘Kipling of the Malay Archipelago’... Conrad of the Karoo: The making and unmaking of literary reputation in the late 19th century.


Outposts of Progress: Joseph Conrad, Modernism and (Post)colonialism. International Conference in Cape Town, December 2011.

...I sort of drifted up country looking at hospitals and wounded men and guns and generals and wondering as I have never wondered before at the huge size of the country. Try to imagine a railway journey (on a 3 ’6’’ track) of seven and eight hundred miles before you can get within spotting distance of your enemy. It was like a journey in a nightmare...

Kipling to James Conland, 24 July 1900.

Wilhelm Bleek and The Origin of Language

Subtitle here

Review of Representing Bushmen: South Africa and the Origin of Language, by Shane Moran. (Rochester NY: University of Rochester Press, 2009).

 Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History(Winter 2010). Full text here.

“We move upon a giddy height when we attempt to know the direction of the world’s development” – so runs the opening line of an 1868 monograph by the Prussian-born philologist Wilhelm Bleek, Über den Ursprung der Sprache (On the Origin of Language).  With a preface by the fervent Darwinist Ernst Haeckel (Bleek’s cousin), it was just one of a flood of nineteenth-century exercises in comparative philology which attempted to map evolutionary theory onto the study of language, and to divine linguistic origins as a master-key to human history: “the living and speaking witness of the whole history of our race”, as Friedrich Max Müller put it in 1862, “an unbroken chain of speech” carrying one back beyond cuneiform and hieroglyphics to “the first utterances of the human mind.” But Bleek’s unusual career would take him from the universities of Bonn and Berlin to southern Africa and from such rarefied (and now obsolete) theorising to a much more practical encounter with a specific language community... (Continue reading.)

Making the Changes

Marabi Nights, Merry Blackbirds, Epistles and Exiles: Jazz in South African Literature 1950-1970. Review article surveying works by Gwen Ansell, David Coplan, Michael Titlestad and others. English in Africa (October 2010). Full text here (PDF). At the end of But Beautiful – a 1991 collection of imaginative improvisations on the lives of great mid-20th century American jazzmen - Geoff Dyer quotes a thought experiment by George Steiner.  In his book Real Presences (1989)the intellectual asks us to “imagine a society in which all talk about the arts, music and literature is prohibited,” where only the real thing, the act of creation itself, is permitted. In this “republic for writers and readers,” there would be no secondary, parasitic discussion about the latest exhibitions or concerts, no more essays debating the finer points of Hamlet’s madness. Instead, in Steiner’s vision this would constitute an ideal artistic climate where the columns of reviewers and professional opinion makers would be abandoned in favour of listings of coming events, all other commentary rendered redundant since, Steiner maintains, the experience of any genuine work of art also constitutes the best critique in and of itself, and the continuum of which it is part. Yet while he dismisses this utopia and moves on – “the fantasy I have sketched is only that” – Dyer uses it as a starting point to explore a real place that for much of the century “has provided a global home for millions of people: It is a republic with a simple name: jazz” (183-4). (Continue reading...)