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History, Fiction, Narrative Form: South African Literature

ENGL 775.401
crosslisted as: COML 700
R 12-3:00

Recent critical interventions in the US have revived an interest in literary realism and, more broadly, the ways in which literature represents historical processes. They have questioned how the valuation of realism (as opposed to modernism) has affected recent canon formation, not least the construction of the field of postcolonial literature.  In South African literary studies, these issues have often been treated as a kind of contest between the two Nobel Prize winners, Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee: the former seen as developing a “history from the inside” and the latter refusing to have literature serve as a mere supplement to history (which itself, of course, already assumes narrative forms).  But new work by South African theorists and critics has begun to raise other questions. For example: Is realism even possible in a polity (and a world) where the state has assumed the character of a criminal enterprise, where mediated information has become radically untrustworthy, where societies are dizzyingly heterogeneous, polycultural, and multilingual, and where the expected plot (our teleological sense of past, present, and future) has been derailed--where knowledge, in sum, has become difficult to acquire and occulted?

This seminar will allow students (also non-specialists) to probe these and other questions in conversations about the following writers and texts: Nadine Gordimer, Something Out There and selected stories, J. M. Coetzee, Life and Times of Michael K. and Disgrace, Jonny Steinberg, Midlands, Henk van Woerden, The Assassin, Antjie Krog, Begging to be Black, Imraan Coovadia, Tales of the Metric System, Jacob Dlamini, Native Nostalgia and Askari: A Story of Collaboration and Betrayal in the Anti-Apartheid Struggle, Damon Galgut, The Imposter, Ivan Vladislavic, The Exploded View and Double Negative, Songeziwe Mahlangu, Penumbra, Lesego Rampolokeng, Bird-Monk Seding, and Hedley Twidle, Firepool.  (The list will probably be shortened and refined.) The fact that some of these are works of non-fiction (we may also see relevant films and read relevant political writings) is entirely to the point.  Students will be given a critical context for each text, and will be expected to offer an conference-like presentation in class, as well as an innovative final paper.