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Reviewed by:
  • The Cambridge History of South African Literature ed. David Attwell and Derek Attridge
  • Abdul Samed Bemath, Llibrarian, Bibliographer, and Indexer
The Cambridge History of South African Literature Ed. David Attwell and Derek Attridge Cambridge; Cape Town: Cambridge UP, 2012. xvii + 877877 pp. ISBN 9780521199285 cloth.

The aim of The Cambridge History of South African Literature is to provide a comprehensive picture of South African literature from its beginnings to the present in all nine South African languages. To this end, the text is purposefully multilingual and multivoiced in its effort to create a common South African identity through the medium of literature. The uniqueness of the text lies in the breadth of the topics discussed by a wide range of scholars in the field. For example, Tlhalo Raditlhalo, in his essay “Writing in Exile,” examines Nat Nakasa (who died in exile and was assistant editor of Drum magazine) and Lewis Nkosi (literary editor of The New African Magazine) as well other exile writers, such as Dennis Brutus and Bloke Modisane, to name but a few, whereas Peter D. McDonald, in “The Book in South Africa,” reflects on reclaiming publishing from Afrikaner-dominated publishers, using Skotaville’s revival of Nakasa’s The Classic as an example (813). In addition, Loren Kruger, in “Theatre: Regulation, Resistance, and Recovery,” writes on Nkosi as theater critic and his criticism of Athol Fugard’s play Blood Knot for replicating stereotypes (568).

The Cambridge History is organized according to historical period and theme, with each section including an introduction by the editors providing historical context, identifying major trends, and locating points of comparison. Sections one through four discuss writing up through 1948, including subjects such as Bushmen letters, Xhosa iimbongi and their izibongo, natural history and travel writing, the rise of black journalism, black writers and the historical novel, new African modernity, and perspectives on Afrikaans literature.

Section five, “Apartheid and Its Aftermath,” is the lengthiest and carries the reader from 1948 to present. It includes Dorothy Driver’s examination of short fiction authors in the 1950s, such as Herman Charles Bosman, Nadine Gordimer, Lewis Nkosi, Can Themba, Es’Kia Mphahlele, Alex La Guma, and James Matthews and Hein Willemse’s study of the “Sestigers” and the prohibition of the first Afrikaans novel. Reflecting the breadth of topics covered in this volume, Daniel Roux explores prison writing by Michael Dingake, Ruth First, Albie Sachs, Dennis Brutus, Hugh Lewin, and Indres Naidoo, among others, and Christiaan Swanepoel provides a detailed analysis of writing and publishing in African languages. [End Page 190]

The Cambridge History closes with a final section, “South African Literature: Continuities and Contrasts,” which traces topics throughout South Africa’s literary history and incorporates a more comparative approach. Essays include Meg Samuelson’s “Writing Women,” which examines authors ranging from Olive Schreiner, Nontsizi Mgqwetho, and Bessie Head, to Miriam Tlali and Antjie Krog; Leon De Kock’s “ ‘A Change of Tongue’: Questions of Translation”; and “The Book in South Africa” by Peter D. Mcdonald.

A discerning feature of the Cambridge History is its narrative style, which presents more than a mere literary historiography of South African literature. Contributing to its strength is that writers and their works are examined in different contexts by the contributors, which is reflected in the volume’s detailed index. Contemporary South Africa is in search of a common national identity cutting across race, class, and cultural divides and this collection is reflective of that same quest in literature and the role writers can play in forging this.

Abdul Samed Bemath, Llibrarian, Bibliographer, and Indexer


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