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IMAGINED PASTS, SUSPENDED PRESENTS: SOUTH AFRICAN LITERATURE IN THE CONTEMPORARY MOMENT
A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of
MASTER OF ARTS
DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH
FACULTY OF HUMANITIES
Supervisor: SJ MARAIS
Scholarship on Post-Apartheid South African literature has engaged in various ways with the politics of identity, but its dominant mode has been to understand the literature through an anxious rupture-continuation paradigm in which the Apartheid past manifests itself in the present. However, in the contemporary moment, there are writers whose texts attempt to forge new paths in their depictions of identities both individual and collective. These texts are useful in contemplating how South Africans experience belonging and dislocation in various contexts.
In this thesis, I consider a range of contemporary South African texts via the figure of life-writing. My analysis demonstrates that, while many texts in the contemporary moment have displayed new and more complex registers of perception concerning the issue of ‘race’, there is a need for more expansive and fluid conceptions of crafting identity, as regards the politics of space and how this intersects with issues of belonging and identity. That is, much South African literature still continues along familiar trajectories of meaning, ones which are not well-equipped to understand issues that bedevil the country at this particular historical moment, which are grounded in the political compromises that came to pass during the ‘time of transition’. These issues include the recent spate of xenophobia attacks, which have yet to be comprehensively and critically analysed in the critical domain, despite the work of theorists such as David Coplan. Such events indicate the need for more layered and intricate understandings of how our national identity is structured: Who may belong? Who is excluded? In what situations? This thesis engages with these questions in order to determine how systems of power are constructed, reified, mediated, reproduced and/or resisted in the country’s literature.
To do this, I perform an attentive reading of the mosaic image of South African culture that emerges through a selection of contemporary works of literature. The texts I have selected are notable for the ways in which they engage with the epistemic protocol of coming to know the Other and the self through the lens of the Apartheid past. That engagement may take the form of a reassertion, reclamation, displacement, or complication of selfhood. Given that South African identities are overinscribed in paradigms in which the Apartheid past is primary, what potentials and limits are presently encountered when writing of the self/selves is attempted?
My study goes beyond simply asserting that not all groups have equal access to representation. Rather, I demonstrate that the linear shaping of the South African culture of letters imposes certain restrictions on who may work within it. Here, the politics of publishing and the increasing focus on urban spaces (such that other spaces become marginalized in ways that reflect the proclivities of the reading public) are subjected to close scrutiny. Overall, my thesis aims to promote a rethinking of South African culture, and how that culture is represented in, and defined through, our literature.
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Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
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