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South African Literature

ENGL 572.401
instructor(s):

The struggle to establish a non-racial democracy in South Africa was not the bloodiest anti-colonial struggle of the twentieth century, but it was the one that captured the global imagination most powerfully.  Upon his release from prison, Nelson Mandela emerged as one of the world’s most revered political figures.  The process of negotiation that led to the transition was seen, all over the world, as a hopeful sign that protracted conflicts could be peacefully resolved. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s inquiry into the human rights abuses of the apartheid era became a model for truth commissions in several other countries. South African writers like Fugard, Gordimer, Coetzee, and Mda have earned international renown for their literary response to this compelling historical transformation. But what is the future of South Africa and South African literature?  Has the new democracy lived up to its promise? Has it generated new forms of cultural expression?  How do the concerns of South African writers relate to postcolonial theory as it has been institutionalized over the past two decades?  Has “South African literature” as a category perhaps ceased to exist in our era of cultural globalization, when many major writers publish and live abroad? These are the questions that animate this seminar.  

We will start out by considering a few films and plays about the last years of the antiapartheid struggle (including a documentary about Mandela), before turning to three novels (Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying, Ivan Vladislavic’s The Restless Supermarket and Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf), which capture the broad social transformation from a racist to a democratic state in terms of its impact on urban space. Next, we will look at the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and sample some of the films, poems, novels, and memoirs it inspired. The key texts here will be Antjie Krog’s County of My Skull, and the films Forgivenness and Long Night’s Journey into Day. We will then read two excellent novels that respond in a more generalized way to the TRC’s work of excavating the past: Zoë Wicomb’s Playing in the Dark (which deals with the repressed legacy of racial passing) and Mark Behr’s The Smell of Apples (which deals with the dark secrets of the apartheid regime in the domain of the white family). We will then attend to a number of persistent issues that plague South Africa, as well as other postcolonial nations. These issues include the AIDS pandemic; land reform; poverty and crime; and, finally, migration and xenophobia. Our focal texts here will be J. M. Coetzee’s famous and controversial novel Disgrace, Jonny Steinberg’s fascinating investigation into a real crime in Midlands, the academy award-winning gangster film Tsotsi, and the moving AIDS film Yesterday (the first internationally successful feature film to be made in isiZulu).  We will end with recent writing by young black South Africans and some science fiction: the popular film District 9 and Lauren Beukes’s cult novel Moxyland.  These texts will enable us to speculate about the future of South Africa and other postcolonial democracies.

Readings will also include a fairly extensive set of secondary and theoretical readings.  Requirements for the course will include in-class presentations on an assigned (but negotiated) topic, as well as a final paper which demonstrates some original research.