- South African Textual Cultures – white, black, read all over
This book, deliberately transnational in focus, is an excellent introduction to the complex history of South African literature and to the role played by writings from Schreiner, Paton, Coetzee, Campbell, Plomer, La Guma and Mda in the construction of post-colonial national identities and literature. Offering a mix of studies on novels and poetry presented in a chronological order and placed in the context of the development of South African literature, it considers the effect local and global networks had on the publication, promotion, circulation and censorship, reviews, reception and educational institutionalization of those books in the 120 years between 1883 and 2005, and how these affected their authors’ status. It sheds light on the complex role played by publishers such as Macmillan, Bentley, Chapman, Hutchinson and Heinemann in the history of books and questions some of their judgements [End Page 339] and prohibitions on non-English subject matter. It highlights the writers’ engagement with languages and translation, their difficulties in getting their works published, their determination to bypass political bans and the effects of censorship, and their uneasy relationship with England – where they often sought a ‘metropolitan’ validation. The book also reveals the close links between literature and politics and the way apartheid affected publications, examines concepts such as those of book, nation and marginality, and discusses issues of names and pseudonyms, hybrid national affiliations and post-religion ethics.
After an introduction (Chapter 1), six chapters – presented by the author as ‘tentative instalments in a history of reading in and of South Africa’ (p. 15) – focus on different case studies, tracking the movement of texts, their cultural matrices and manifestations, the way they were received or contested as South African or as literature, and how they fit in a complex transnational and international network. Chapters 2 and 6, on Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm (1883) and Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country (1977), are constructed as farming stories which exerted a greater influence on Britain, yet are now part of the South African literary canon, and whose writers engaged with the idea of a national literature. Chapter 3 compares two well-known poets of the 1920s and 1930s, both considered as pivotal in the development of an indigenous Anglophone literature – Campbell and Plomer – reflecting on issues of national identity, imperial affiliation, language policy and racial segregation. Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), a literary icon almost entirely made outside South Africa, condensed, abridged, put on school curricula and turned into ‘a multimedia phenomenon unparalleled in the history of the country’s literary production’ (p. 73), is the focus of Chapter 4. The study of La Guma’s Walk in the Night (1962) offers the unique case of a work first published in Nigeria, whose author was regarded as a threat to national security until the 1990s. The last chapter opens the post-apartheid era with Mda, heralded as the most promising black South African novelist, raising issues of cultural production, of identification in local and global contexts, and the impact of Englishes in the publication and circulation of South African literature.
Van der Vlies’s book is a pertinent study of writers turned ‘expatriates with hybrid cultural identities’ (p. 66), a journey into the complexity of their publications – a well-informed, warm and illuminating study that projects a sharp yet kindly light on the authors and books studied.