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Reviewed by:
  • Bushman Letters: Interpreting /Xam Narrative
  • Annie Gagiano
Bushman Letters: Interpreting /Xam Narrative BY Michael Wessels Johannesburg: Wits UP, 2010. xiii + 330 pp. ISBN 978-1-86814-506-5 paper.

The “/Xam narrative” referred to in the title of Michael Wessels’s path-breaking work is found in the famous archive recorded by the German philologist Wilhelm Bleek and his English sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd in colonial Cape Town during the 1870s, when the British Governor of the time, Sir George Grey, allowed a small group of (mainly male) /Xam prisoners kept in the Breakwater Prison to go and live in the Bleek household, so that they could teach their language to the two Europeans and dictate what became several thousands of pages of /Xam cultural testimony, to which the two researchers appended their rather stilted literal English translations. A fascinating addition to the many existing engagements [End Page 205] with what is considered one of the world’s richest recordings of an oral culture, Wessels’s book steps into the opening left by the fact that, with few and partial exceptions, most contemporary researchers have not engaged deeply with the verbal semiology of the Bleek/Lloyd texts. Today there are no living speakers of /Xam, one of several languages spoken by the various San or Bushmen peoples of Southern Africa.

Since contemporary researchers (presumably, including Wessels) do not speak or read /Xam, his “contention that the narratives should be read in the context of an intertextual /Xam discursive field” (19) is a bold one, even as this is a timely reminder that so many pronouncements on the archive of the /Xam rely only on the most frequently published extracts from (or versions of) Bleek/Lloyd’s English translations, whereas the Notebooks contain a much larger number of narratives, analyses, and pronouncements than the widely known citations. Nevertheless, it bears remembering not only that the /Xam informants (i.e., the five men, /A!kunta; //Kabbo; Dia!kwain; /Han#kasso; and #Kasin, and one woman, !Kweiten-ta-//ken) who provided their testimonies did so under circumstances very unlike the way they would have conversed among their own people–doing so at a time when their people and culture were already severely depleted by the colonial incursion–but that these six informants’ talents and knowledge could hardly encompass the whole “/Xam discursive field” that had been built up over centuries.

My point is that Wessels, while validly criticizing the tendency among previous researchers to generalize about the /Xam archive in ways that take us away from their “verbal surface” (195) or from this specific culture, does often implicitly ascribe adequacy to the available material, allowing himself generalizing expressions such as “/Xam discourse in general” (209), resembling “assumptions about essentialised subaltern collectivities” (43). While criticizing (in terms of a Derridean framework) former investigators for their implicit “nostalgia for a lost origin” (69) in readings of the Bleek/Lloyd records, he perhaps gives insufficient recognition to the fact that the available /Xam archive cannot represent more than a diluted fraction of this culture in its fullness.

Having raised these points I must conclude by emphasizing how very valuable and timely a publication this is–meticulously researched; lucidly engaging with former researchers’ work and convincingly demonstrating the fruitfulness of the sophisticated yet verbally attentive readings yielded by Wessels’s preferred alternative strategies of reading the /Xam archival material in conjunction with contemporary theories of textuality and reading methodology. [End Page 206]

Annie Gagiano
University of Stellenbosch, South Africa


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