Monday, May 03, 2004

The South African Canon
In response to this I had thought to compile my own list of canonical books. I've since thought better of it, not least because I doubt that my reading is sufficiently wide to have exposed me to enough of the great authors. Instead, I'm going to try and compile the definitive South African Canon. Before doing that though, I need to register a few qualifications.

Firstly, I haven't actually read everything on the list but I do feel that I have a passing familiarity with most of it by a process of immersion. Which is to say that I've read about them, watched them performed as plays, participated in discussions in which they were mentioned etc. Nevertheless, it's likely that I've missed people who should be there and included some who shouldn't.

Second, I've only included books which are available in English. This has the peculiar effect of allowing me to include black writers but having to exclude most Afrikaans writers. I'm fairly sanguine about this since, and I realise this is controversial, I don't think that Afrikaners have produced a literature that compares to their English speaking compatriots. Not terribly surprising this. Good literature often stands in opposition to the prevailing political and socio-economic order. The most fecund creative spaces exist on the margin of mainstream society and the writer as revolutionary, appropriating such spaces and using them to invert or interrogate the natural order of things, is a powerful figure in the collective mind. This seems to have been easier for English writers since they were less emotionally committed to apartheid.

Finally, its worth noting the most glaring omission on the list. Not the lack of Afrikaans writers but the scarcity of black writers. The reasons for this should be obvious. Literacy was confined initially to a mission educated elite and then expanded but dumbed down under Bantu Education. The task of surviving in the townships and homelands must also have taken its toll on the creative energy of aspiring black writers. It's also worth re-iterating a point that I once heard Martin Amis make with reference to women writers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Successful writing requires the self-confidence that stems from believing that you have the right to express yourself. I don't doubt that there were numerous cases in the past of aspiring black writers who did possess the necessary literary confidence but the point is that the occasions when the number of such people were sufficient to constitute a self-conscious literary community are few and far between. It's certainly not true that good writing only emerges when a certain critical mass of writers has been reached but it does seem to facilitate the process. Think of the Bloomsbury movement (whose effects we can still detect on today's writers), the incredible number of great novels that came out of inter war Paris etc etc. Black writing in SA has had a few such moments, think of the writers and writing associated with Drum magazine in the 50s (the so-called Drum decade) but the apartheid state hardly viewed these blossomings with equanimity and they were usually squeezed out of existence. What this all means of course is that SA is still awaiting its great black novel and, by extension, its great novel. South African literature will not have overcome the legacies of apartheid until it is able to claim a black writer to match or exceed the likes of Coetzee. I'm looking forward to watching a new generation of black writers strive for that title. So without any further delay, I present an arbitrary list of canonical South African writing.

Olive Schreiner - The Story of an African Farm (The first great novel to come out of South Africa and also one of the first overtly feminist novels.)
H Rider Hagard - King Solomon's Mines (Not usually classed as a South African novel, I include it because Rider Hagard lived for many years in South Africa - in Newcastle where I grew up).
Sarah Millin - God's Stepchildren
Alan Paton - Cry the Beloved Country
Roy Campbell - Various collected works of poetry (Possibly the first South African poet to achieve international recognition)
Herman Charles Bosman - Collected Works
Es'kia Mphahlele - Down Second Avenue, Voices in the Whirlwind (One of a number of writers who got started at Drum magazine)
Jack Cope - Short stories
Guy Butler - Karoo Morning, Selected Poems (I had the pleasure of meeting Prof Butler several years ago and was incredibly impressed by his sense of humour and humility whilst surrounded by a bunch of fawning young acolytes)
Bessie Head - Maru
Alex La Guma - Time of the Butcherbird
Laurens van der Post - A Story Like the Wind (van der Post is one of the most extraordinary figures to come out of South Africa. Chronicler of the Kalahari Bushmen, friend of Carl Jung, godfather to Prince Charles, farmer, soldier, prisoner of war etc etc)
Athol Fugard - Boesman and Lena, Master Harold and the Boys
Miriam Tlali - Between Two Worlds
Nadine Gordimer - The Conservationist, July's People
Andre Brink - A Dry White Season (Brink is a lecturer at UCT and I once had the good fortune of having him lecture my English class on Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians)
Breyten Breytenbach - The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist
Dalene Matthee - Kringe in die Bos (Translated as Circles in the Forest)
Richard Rive - Buckingham Palace District Six
J. M. Coetzee - Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K, Disgrace
Rian Malan - My Traitor's Heart (Malan is the finest chronicler of white anxiety in SA but I wonder whether we'll laugh at this book in 20 years time)
Zakes Mda - Ways of Dying
Zoe Wicomb - You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town

This is by no means comprehensive and I'll add authors as the mood takes me. Feel free to comment if you disagree or feel that I've made any egregious errors.


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