What does SA’s lit­er­ary soul look like?

CityPress - - Voices -

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 –

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