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Reviewed by:
  • Of Land, Bones, and Money: Toward a South African Ecopoetics by Emily McGiffin
  • Benjamin Klein
Of Land, Bones, and Money: Toward a South African Ecopoetics
U of Virginia P, 2019.
xi + 249 pp. ISBN 9780813942766 paper.

African oral literatures offer a rich repository of ecological knowledge expressed through words, idioms, and metaphors that emphasize human imbrication with land, animals, and the wider “more-than-human” world. Yet ecocritical scholarship has been slow to pick up on the value of African orality to environmental debate, despite a bourgeoning postcolonial turn within the field of ecocriticism over the last two decades. Emily McGiffin’s recent book makes a fresh and urgent intervention into this paucity of research, bringing an insightful postcolonial ecocritical perspective to bear on one particular oral form endemic to South Africa, namely the izibongo (praise poetry) tradition of the amaXhosa in the country’s Eastern Cape province. The objectives of the book are twofold: to open new avenues for ecocritical scholarship, which has tended to focus on written forms such as the novel along with Eurocentric ideologies of nature and wilderness, and to “offer a new perspective on the figure and literature of the imbongi” (the Xhosa praise poet) (175).

While McGiffin’s expansion on more conventional forms of ecocriticism is evident in her broader treatment of social justice as pivotal to (rather that separate from) environmental concerns, it is her compelling portrait of the izibongo tradition’s complex relationship to land, economy, and history that stands out as a significant contribution to ongoing research in African literatures. Through critical readings of transcribed and translated versions of Xhosa izibongo (many of these obtained through fieldwork in the Eastern Cape), as well as interviews with iimbongi and residents in the region’s rural areas and townships, McGiffin charts the ways this highly versatile and resilient oral form has registered key shifts in the evolving political landscape of South African colonialism and apartheid, from proliferating mining and industrialization in the late nineteenth century and the systems of dispossession, displacement, and migrant labor this resulted in (chapter 1), through to the political corruption, neoliberal development, and undermining of meaningful land reform that challenges the nation’s post-apartheid democracy (chapters 4, 5, and 6). Through a consideration of iimbongi, such as Nontsizi Mgqwetho (the first female poet to have produced substantial work in isiX-hosa), the two trade union poets Alfred Qabula and Nise Malange, Zolani Mkiva (who performed at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as president in 1994), David Livingstone Phakamile Yali-Manisi, and Thukela Poswayo, McGiffin articulates the ways their poetry underscores the entanglement of capitalism, race, gender, and environment in the southern African context. In an equally significant light, she considers how these poets articulate alternative ecological lifeways in South Africa, that is, “an alternative political economy of land that extends beyond narrowly defined market relations to acknowledge other values—symbolic and [End Page 224] spiritual, for example—that land holds” (16). McGiffin’s readings of izibongo are thus at once critical and recuperative, observant of their poetic engagements with history and of the promises they hold for the task of socio-ecological reworlding.

Although McGiffin’s reappraisal of the izibongo tradition unlocks the genre’s value to contemporary ecocritical scholarship, two broad methodological problems raise concern over the alternative environmental ethic it proposes, namely the problems of primitivism and indigenous nationalism. It is difficult at times to reconcile McGiffin’s portrayal of izibongo as a dynamically evolving cultural form with her frequent romanticization of the genre through its associations with the past; for McGiffin, izibongo makes “present and visible more ancient ways of relating to time, language and landscape” (8). The fine line she at times treads between critical reappraisal and primitivist romanticism is augmented by her rigid reliance on a Western/indigenous binary, in terms of which the amaXhosa’s spiritual and ancestral relations with the land refute the more instrumental relationships of the West. One should note that notions of spiritual connection, ancestry, and lineage were just as significant to the white Afrikaner nationalist (and capitalist) imaginary, something observed by J. M. Coetzee in his essay collection White Writing. The rigid distinction...


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