- Race, Nation, Translation: South African Essays 1990–2013 by Zoë Wicomb, and; Present Imperfect: Contemporary South African Writing by Andrew van der Vlies
By Zoë Wicomb. Edited by Andrew van der Vlies
Yale UP, 2018.
ix + 352pp. ISBN 9780300226171 cloth.
By Andrew van der Vlies
Oxford UP, 2017.
xv + 245pp. ISBN 9780198793762 cloth.
As several writers have noted, 21st-century South Africa seems stuck in an indefinite "interregnum" whose "morbid symptoms" (Gramsci 276) of blocked birth express citizen frustration at the "suspended" revolution (Habib) or, more ominously, the "betrayal of the promise" (Bhorat et al.) of freedom in a country marred by state violence, increasing inequality, and the impunity and indifference of the newly powerful. Andrew van der Vlies probes the affect rather than the political action or inaction of the "present imperfect" but he locates the origins of "stasis anxiety" (151) in collective "disappointment" (vii) with the post-apartheid state. For the investigation of affect and its literary elaborations, he draws inspiration from Zoë Wicomb, whose essays on fiction, life writing, race, gender, national identities, and cosmopolitan trajectories inform his chapters on J. M. Coetzee and Ivan Vladislavic as well as on Wicomb. Coetzee's long residence in Australia and longer preoccupation with European and American literature, and Wicomb's engagement with historical and intimate ties between South Africa and Scotland, especially Glasgow in several essays and in the linked stories in The One That Got Away, may stretch the "South African" boundaries of these titles but invite investigation of the impact of personal and literary migration on post-apartheid writing. [End Page 218]
I highlight gender, an essential term in Wicomb's essays absent from Van der Vlies's title, not—respecting her caution—to equate the author with those fictional protagonists who are also coloured women but rather to show how her writing reenacts gendered agency at the level of the sentence and in the creation of fictional selves.1 In a characteristically skeptical essay on "Culture beyond Colo[u]r?" (1993) she observes that "our new society remains umbilically linked to apartheid so that parturition is a slow affair" (59). Wicomb does more than merely translate Gramsci's view of the interregnum; her visceral translation of his metaphor in the pain of a pathologically slow birth of the new and in the "protracted and bewildering weaning from the old" (59) anticipated our imperfect present. She finds in the experience of giving birth the line of inquiry that runs through her writing, inquiry that insists on the significance of women's subjectivity in literature and life against the persistent patriarchy that former Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs ironically calls one of South Africa's "few non-racial institutions" (53) for its toxic expression in the behavior of black and white men. Even as she critiques the manipulation of mother figures such as "Mama Africa" or Mother of the Nation" (93) by the state and other stand-ins for "Father Culture" (53), she highlights the violence behind this ideology in the rapes of women and children by neighbors as well as "jackrollers" (273) that have given the country one of the highest rape rates in the world.
Whatever the weight of this fact, Wicomb and her editor rightly demand that readers look to her writing rather than to her identity, but close reading reveals the indispensable role of gender in the fictional imagination and the harm done to the integrity of that fiction by ignoring the gender of power as well as perception. Wicomb's writing plumbs the everyday experience of patriarchal violence as well as its literary figuration. You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town, the title of the linked narratives that make up her first book, is uttered in the central chapter as a cheerfully cruel cliché by the white boyfriend who leaves the protagonist to find her way alone to a back-street abortionist. Frieda is not Zoë—unlike her author she passes for white—but the sentence exemplifies Wicomb's oblique, ironic, but vividly precise dramatization of the protagonist's shame and aspiration, her interlocutor...