Established in 2013 with the primary mandate of promoting international dialogue on South African literature and culture, the Writing South Africa Now (WSAN) collective held its third colloquium in conjunction with the South African Poetry Project (ZAPP) at the University of Cambridge on 26 and 27 June 2015. Also launched in 2013, ZAPP is a collaboration between Cambridge’s Centre for Commonwealth Education and the University of the Witwatersrand in an effort to “develop research on South African poetry and support its teaching in secondary schools”. This partnership resulted in fruitful discussions on scholarship, literary practice, performance, publication, and criticism in South Africa.
The colloquium consisted of four panels: Testimony and Truth, Politics and Aesthetics, The Global and the Transcultural, and Identity and Representation. Interspersed between these panels were guest talks by scholars, Rita Barnard and Kelwyn Sole, as well as readings and performances by the renowned writers and poets: Lyndall Gordon, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Denis Hirson, Toni Stuart, Malika Ndlovu, Isobel Dixon, and Kate Kilalea. Amongst questions raised during the Testimony and Truth panel session were the impact of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on literary production, representation, and the types of metaphors which its legacy has brought to the fore in post-liberation writing. Panelists concentrated on Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull, Ruth First’s 117 Days, Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter, Njabulo Ndebele’s The Cry of Winnie Mandela, Yvette Christiansë’s Unconfessed, and Lauren Buekes’ Zoo City – to name but a few.
Thereafter, the celebrated biographer of T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Brontë, Henry James, and Mary Wollstonecraft, Lyndall Gordon provided a reading from her own memoir, Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter (2015). Alongside Gordon, the prize-winning novelist and short story writer, Henrietta Rose-Innes also read from her latest novel, Green Lion (2015). Shortly after the readings, the Politics and Aesthetics panel examined narrative form and interpersonal violence, “the shadow of the past in the post” in the late work of Gordimer, and rethinking the relationship between the politics and aesthetics in contemporary South African poetry slam in order to “recalibrate standards of value”. Some of the texts analysed by the panelists included Lesego Rampolokeng’s whiteheart: prologue to hysteria, Gordimer’s short story collections, Jump and Beethoven Was One-sixteenth Black, and the poetry slams performed by artists involved in the Word N Sound Live Literature Company based in Johannesburg. This panel was followed by a lecture by Rita Barnard (University of Pennsylvania) who described the conflicting forms of temporality that have come to characterise the post-apartheid period.
In discussing South African literature within a broader geographical scope, The Global and Transcultural panel explored its translatability and position in global literatures, connections between print and visual art in experimental forms, and how Indian writing on indentured labour complicates the distinction between settler and native. The works referred to in this panel included, but were not limited to, Ivan Vladislavić’s The Loss Library, Wokpo Jensma’s I must show you my clippings, and Ansuyah R. Singh’s Behold the Earth Mourns.
The first day concluded with vivacious performances and readings by Hirson, Stuart, and Ndlovu who captivated the audience with selected poems. The second day of the colloquium opened with a panel on the theme of Identity and Representation involved deliberation of readings of skin in stand-up comedian, Trevor Noah’s Daywalker, the “political utility of the queer” in Ashraf Jamal’s Love Themes for the Wilderness, and representations of Johannesburg as a space in which the “pursuit of hegemonic masculinity”plays itself out in Vladislavić’s The Exploded View, Gavin Hood’s film adaptation of Athol Fugard’s Tsotsi and the rap song, “Run Jozi” by A.K.A and K.O.
Kelwyn Sole (University of Cape Town) then gave a lecture on “The Endless Deferral of Value” in which he argued that South African poetry has been evaluated on universalist terms despite the fact that there is “no consensus on what we mean by poetry”. As such, he posited, this poetry “poses a challenge and tests critics’ competence”.
Alongside the panels, WSAN also included a roundtable discussion comprised of the practitioners who, in addition to providing nuanced readings from their selected poems, also deliberated on poetry and anthologies in South Africa. Dixon, Hirson, Kate Kilalea, and Stuart spoke about the functions, rewards, and shortcomings of compiling and submitting work to be published in anthologies. One of many concerns raised during the roundtable was the shortage of multi-lingual and multi-modal forms of anthologising. Stuart, in particular, stressed the importance of mother-tongue poetry and its publication for the consumption of young people.
Overall, diverse interests and insights emanated from the dialogues at both the formal and the informal gatherings at the colloquium. The presence, voices, and interventions of the poets and novelists who attended also drew into sharp focus the practicality of literary production as well as some of the political concerns inherent in it.
For the programme, abstracts, biographies, and gallery of the event, visit Writing South Africa Now’s site here.
– Thando Njovane