The Post-Apartheid Novel and the Social Construction of Citizenship in South Africa
The thesis project I propose is an inquiry into the ways in which to the post-Apartheid South African novel functions, has functioned, and will likely function in the near future as a form of social record. The backbone of the project will consist of both pre-coordinated and extemporaneous recorded interviews with South African authors, publishers, and critics at three of Sub-Saharan Africa’s most prominent literary festivals over the course of six weeks in South Africa in June and July, 2009. These activities will be supported by supplementary interviews outside of festivals, most significantly with professors and lecturers on recent South African literature at Rhodes University, The University of Cape Town, University of Johannesburg, and the University of Witwatersrand. Additional interviews with writers who were contacted but not interviewed during festivals will take place in Johannesburg at the end of the project, at which time I will conduct interviews with publishers at several significant South African firms, including Penguin South Africa, Heinemann, and Jonathan Ball Publishers. Social records help create and control the ways in which cultures view social conflicts and perhaps no other social record is as pliable and all-encompassing in this function as is the novel. My thesis will examine the novel from two complementary directions: the literary and the sociological. Thus, the project has two core questions: First, “How does the post-apartheid South African novel interpret social conflict?” And second, “What effect do such novels have on the ways in which South Africans in different spheres of social and individual activity understand and engage with these conflicts?”
Social conflict, especially in South Africa today, spans a diverse field of interwoven issues. To consider how each of these pressing social issues individually functions— in relation to the aesthetic and sociological strategies of the post-Apartheid novel— would be a greater project than my time or current expertise allows. Further, such a fragmented approach threatens to overlook the central and unique way in which the novel serves to unify fragmented societies and identify areas of common social concern and activity. Along these lines, I propose to consider the diversity of social issues interpreted by the post- Apartheid novel through a single, common lens: the lens of citizenship. “Citizen” has an important legal meaning, existing as one end of a spectrum that includes such other labels as, “temporary residents”, “illegal aliens”, and, “refugees”. Citizenship also has a corollary, functional sense: all nations, to some extent have, “first class”, “second class” and, “third class citizens” of different grades and degrees. Class, gender, and race have been three major ways citizenship has been ordered in the West, historically, however, all social conflict influences in some manner the status of a society’s various citizens. In the issue of legal and functional citizenship, therefore, all of a society’s social conflicts interrelate. This space and the issue of citizenship is of central importance to post- apartheid novelists as various as Zakes Mda, J.M. Coetzee, and Phaswane Mpe. How do novelistic analyses of citizenship differ or complement sociological analyses? What do these differences and similarities tell us about South African society, and the nature of the novel as aesthetic and social text?
My research would require travel to South Africa and stays in Cape Town, Grahamstown (Eastern Cape), and Johannesburg. The arc of my journey is shaped by three major literary festivals: the Cape Town Book Fair (June 13-16), Grahamstown’s South African Wordfest (June 30 – July 6), and The National Arts Festival, also centered in Grahamstown (July 2-11). These festivals will serve both as means and ends for my research.
My time in South Africa will serve a variety of ends, as does the novel itself. The festivals serve as ends for understanding artistic and topical trends of the South African novel, the ways that the publication process in South Africa influences the ways novels are produced, understood, and consumed, and identifying nascent patterns in the study and critique of the novels. These festivals also serve as unique spaces for conversations that cross social boundaries, by bringing together black, coloured, white, and Indian novelists, urban and rural writers, novelists whose works span the apartheid and post-apartheid eras. Thus, my research project, which seeks to understand how specific social issues are constructed, and refracted in recent South African literature, cannot but base itself around these events, which serve to collect the disparate social perspectives of South Africa’s novelists and set those complex perspectives into conversation. The festivals will be useful above all in carrying out one of my main research tasks: interviews. Interviews with South African novelists about the representation of contemporary South African society and social issues in their own fiction and the fiction of their contemporaries will be central to my mission. General questions concerning the novel will include: “Is there a common set of social concerns that helps to define and guide South African literature?”, “How do you understand the role of the novel in South Africa in relation to other media of social record, such as theatre, music, academic social research, or news media?”, “How does your identity as a post-apartheid novelist interact with other identities, as a South African, a novelist, or Zulu, Xhosa, etc.?”, “How do the novelistic techniques you employ influence your portrayal of social issues?” “How has the post-apartheid novel influenced social discourses and practices in other spheres of society (e.g. politics and law, news-media, common social practices, or popular culture)?”. Further questions will narrow in from these general queries to more detailed questions concerning citizenship in South Africa, in general, and as it is depicted in various cultural contexts, especially the post-Apartheid novel.
The final crucial activity I will engage in during my research period in South Africa is a series of interviews with South African intellectuals (some of whom are novelists themselves), concerning the post-apartheid South African novel as social record. Many of the topics I will discuss in these interviews overlap significantly with the issues around which my interviews with South African novelist will center. In conversations with these intellectuals (who are critics, commentators, and interpreters of South African literature), however, the questions will often center around the interviewee’s particular studies on the subject, their experiences working with students studying post-apartheid literature, and, perhaps most importantly, their thoughts on the current and future direction of the critical study of South African literature and the effects of that study on the status and influence of the South African novel as social record. These interviews will be conducted both at the three literary festivals and outside the festivals during my stays in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The University of Cape Town, University of Johannesburg, and the University of Witwatersrand (also in Johannesburg) house some of the foremost thinkers on issues as varied and interconnected as South African literature in its African and international contexts, South African youth literature, post-apartheid literature and identity construction, and the relationship between aesthetics and politics in the South African novel. These interviews will act to guide and inform my own studies on the novel and “citizenship” in the South African context.
Following my research in South Africa, I will continue my studies in the United States, following up on analytic leads produced during my research in South Africa. This means the thoughtful deepening of my knowledge of post-apartheid literature and its roots in the South African past. Beyond reading novels themselves, however, I will spend the remainder of my summer vacation in the U.S. studying the recent social science literature on social conflict and questions of citizenship in South Africa and in the abstract. The resulting thesis will be a synthesis of literary and sociological analysis, wherein the tools and knowledge of sociology are put to the task of interpreting literature in a new way, while the tools and knowledge of literary criticism are considered from an equally new, sociological perspective.
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