What does SA’s literary soul look like?
Diaspora and Identity in South African Fiction by JU Jacobs
University of KwaZulu-Natal Press 384 pages R385
The idea of there being a “true” South African with a greater claim to the land is one that’s heavily driven by the demographic power of the African majority in the country. Politicians with a so-called nativist bent are quick to reach for clichés and platitudes, such as “being born in a stable doesn’t make you a horse”, to dismiss the rights of lighter-skinned natives.
This is what makes JU Jacobs’ academic collection, Diaspora and Identity in South African Fiction, a subtle and necessary challenge to the essentialist ways of thinking that so dominate our discourse. His exploration of literary works by 12 of our most celebrated novelists Breyten Breytenbach, JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Aziz Hassim, Michiel Heyns, Elsa Joubert, Zakes Mda, Njabulo S Ndebele, Karel Schoeman, Patricia Schonstein Pinnock, Ivan Vladislavic and Zoë Wicomb brings to light the truth that the South African identity is highly multifaceted, and full of fractures and conflicts.
Whether one is African, Afrikaner, coloured, English, Indian or something else entirely, there is nothing “pure” about any of these identities. And why would one want there to be?
The touch of a great novelist is often in noticing the subtle distinctions and complexities that set the individual apart from the general, and why sweeping racial and cultural statements will always fall to pieces once probed deeply enough.
As the book’s publicity note says: “Diasporic displacement, migration and relocation, from the colonial, African and Indian diasporas to present-day migrations into and out of South Africa, as well as diasporic dislocations within Africa, [have contributed to the nation we have become].”
South Africa is a place that always was, and always will be, in flux, and this academic exploration of that fact in many of the country’s fictional masterworks shows that art is often just as valuable, if not more so, in uncovering a nation’s soul than sociological studies can be. An important and necessary book.
Charles Cilliers –