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  • Redefining Shared Narrative in Lisa Fugard’s Skinner’s Drift and Zoë Wicomb’s Playing in the Light
  • Lisa Propst

Questions of ownership occupy a central place in recent South African fiction. On one hand, novelists seek ways to develop a new sense of ownership for those dispossessed by racism and poverty. Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow (2001), K. Sello Duiker’s The Quiet Violence of Dreams (2001), Kgebetli Moele’s Room 207 (2006), Kopano Matlwa’s Coconut (2007), and Sifiso Mzobe’s Young Blood (2010) exemplify this concern. On the other hand, numerous writers struggle to own up to the history of apartheid in the face of the denials that characterized the apartheid system. Thus, while literary critics have celebrated the freedom to explore a broader range of subjects than apartheid and its legacies (see, for example, Chapman; Frenkel and MacKenzie), a dominant strain in the fiction of the past fifteen years has nevertheless returned to the violence of the past in order to analyze the nuances of guilt and responsibility. Yet paradoxically, such efforts to confront a history of violence often end in reinscribing a desire for control over that history. Emphasizing a commonality of experience, many of these novels deflect attention from different ways of experiencing the same events and ongoing inequalities that underlie such differences. In 2000, Michiel Heyns analyzed how several confessional narratives by white writers, including Mark Behr’s The Smell of Apples (1993) and Jo-Anne Richards’s The Innocence of Roast Chicken (1998), exculpated their protagonists—and by extension the white beneficiaries of apartheid—while seemingly acknowledging the varied forms of complicity apartheid had engendered. Novels with more complex approaches to guilt and responsibility have sometimes left the same blind spots. Published in the first decade of the new millennium, Jann Turner’s Southern Cross (2002), Sarah Penny’s The Beneficiaries (2002), which was well reviewed by Heyns, and Rachel Zadok’s highly praised debut Gem Squash Tokoloshe (2005) explore the interconnections [End Page 197] between privilege, oppression, and culpability as a means of taking ownership for the authors’ own complicities. But each ultimately relegates questions of responsibility to the past. These texts illustrate a pervasive desire to reclaim individual and collective feelings of belonging through shared narratives of the past and its implications; yet they also reveal how that desire for belonging can entrench further divisions.

Lisa Fugard’s Skinner’s Drift and Zoë Wicomb’s Playing in the Light, both published in 2006 by expatriate South African writers, explore alternatives to this quandary. This is not to suggest that Fugard and Wicomb are the only South African writers to grapple with the importance and risks of shared narrative as a foundation for reconciliation. Their approaches to this issue position them within a literary community that includes authors such as J. M. Coetzee and Achmat Dangor, who interrogate “the idea that past trauma may be wrapped up and put to rest” and acknowledge that “remembered violence does not necessarily lead to reconciliation” (Barnard 659-60). Like their contemporaries, Fugard and Wicomb insist on the importance of excavating traces of the past in order to create new narratives for the future. But they consider how predicating reconciliations on shared accounts of the past can oversimplify the complexities of the present. Taken together, the novels intimate that shared narratives with the power to build new relationships require ceding control over the limits of one’s story in a necessarily incomplete responsibility for the voices of others—the stories they have to tell, the experiences they have undergone, and the conditions in which they live. At the same time, Wicomb complicates this vision. She explores the ways in which an ethics of self-dispropriation, whereby a person is dispossessed of his or her identity in order to enact hospitality toward someone else, wars with the need for those who still face unequal opportunities to reappropriate their identities and surroundings.

The Legacy of the TRC and the Struggle for New Narratives

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, held from 1996 to 2001, and the resulting seven-volume report did incalculable work unearthing information about human rights violations and enabling previously silenced people...


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