‘White obsession’ with ‘Black Peril’ makes for a grim history

Launch of State of Peril: Race and Rape in South African Literature by Lucy Valerie Graham, 29 August 2012, The Book Lounge, Cape Town.


Lucy Graham, author of State of Peril, was offered a publishing contract by OUP in New York even before she defended her Oxford PhD thesis, on which the book is based

The sun had lurched away rather suddenly from the city, replaced by an insistent wind of unwelcoming temperament, but the people who swirled and eddied between the stout piles of books in The Book Lounge’s pit-like lower level formed a more committed and attentive audience than is usually the case. They were there for the launch of Lucy Valerie Graham’s State of Peril: Race and Rape in South African Literature (Oxford 2012), a tome of compelling gloss and beguiling heft.

This solemn work is described on the inner lapel of its jacket as “the first sustained, scholarly examination of rape narratives in the literature of a country that has extremely high levels of sexual violence”. The blurbs on the back cover, by luminaries such as NYU’s Robert J.C. Young, fix State of Peril as “a radical alternative history of South African literature”, and “a highly original, stimulating, and intelligent book that breaks new ground in literary-cultural studies of South Africa”.

Helping us till this newly-turned soil on Wednesday night was Rita Barnard, who is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Barnard began her duty as discussant by pointing out that the book was honed from Graham’s PhD research at Oxford University. Barnard proffered that, more than simply being a marketing opportunity, a launch like this is a celebration of the work that goes into a dissertation.

“There’s something about a book that started out as a dissertation that I think is quite special,” she offers. She relates how Brendan O’Neill of Oxford Books in New York had read (at Barnard’s insistence) Graham’s book, confiding to us (with the author’s gracious confirmation) that Graham had been offered a publishing contract even before she defended the dissertation.

With the event taking on the hue of a Q&A session, Barnard quotes Robert Young, who describes State of Peril as “a new history of South African literature” in one of the book’s blurbs. Barnard counters this confident assertion by asking if “a history that has rape holding it together” isn’t a little grim. She breaks her question down further, asking whether it’s a case of the literature itself being obsessed with rape, or whether rape is such an important feature of South African life that so harsh a topic should, in fact, be natural for a literary history to be written with the subject as its theme. Topping this point off, she asks if these often unpleasant texts (citing Gertrude Millen’s work as a culprit) are not perhaps somewhat difficult to render clinically, given their emotive subject matter.

Rita Barnard (left), a transnational scholar of (transnational) South African literature, asks Lucy Graham about the transnational dimension of her book

Graham reflects on this topic, making the germane point that “rape is a rather difficult topic to talk about”. She describes the subject as being possessed of “an “apophatic dimension”, something to be talked around rather than addressed directly.

“Reading on the page or writing about it allows one to reflect on the matter in a more detached way than speaking allows,” she asserts. Graham tells us that she was deeply inspired by J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, and was surprised to find such a long history on rape when she began her research. She cites a persistent seam of certain thematics in South African English literature, those being “Black Peril” – she glosses this as the fear that Black men are going to rape White women – and “White Peril” – which she interprets as the threat of White men raping Black women.

Graham describes this as “a repeated theme that goes all the way back to the earliest recorded narratives in South African literature, namely the travel narratives of Europeans venturing into the hinterland in search of Europeans who were shipwrecked on the African coast”.

Graham points out that “statistically, inter-racial rape is actually rare”, which makes the obsessive focus on such acts in this country’s literature all the more curious. The book, she asserts, tries to account for the pervasiveness of this thematic.

Barnard, following on from this, proposes that “rape, mythically conceived, is often a way of imagining the new”, a with which Graham agrees. The discussants muse on the idea of rape as manifesting a failure of love, evoking J.M. Coetzee and Judith Butler as they do so. Graham suggests that to write of inter-racial relationships only through the lens of rape is to surrender it to the realm of the unimaginable, as that which can only be perceived through denigrated, abjected forms of violence.

“South African literature has been marked by – scarred by – a failure to imagine inter-racial love.” She suggests that, more than being simply legislative, this way of seeing is deeply ingrained in the psyche as something “profoundly melancholic”, a loss of identification with the Other.

It’s the sort of well-worn framing device that we’re familiar with from dozens of alterity-conscious conferences on Coetzee, but Graham blends Sigmund Freud in expertly, adding a fresh nuance and complexity to the idea. She suggests that “interracial love” and “interracial rape are twins of each other, in a sort of counter-intuitive way”.

Barnard says that the point brings to mind Nadine Gordimer’s earlier works, segueing from the latter’s “Is There Nowhere Else We Can Meet?” into a discussion of Doris Lessing, which she riffs off as a way of discussing the conception of otherness at work in such texts.

Graham makes a point of situating her reading of the works examined in her book, citing a scene in G.H. Nicholls’ 1923 novel, Bayete, in which a Black man, aping Conrad’s “dog in breeches”, holds a newspaper upside-down and crows, “Now, am I not like a white man?”, linking Black Peril to White anxieties over educated Black men.

Barnard muses that Graham might be able to write an article about Lessing’s The Grass is Singing, based on her linking of these ideas, which is both a compliment to Graham’s scholarship and a depressing commentary on the transience of academic thought.

Barnard suggests that State of Peril has an interesting transnational dimension, noting how the book draws useful links to thematics of interracial rape in America. Graham agrees that the major comparative framework she employs is between South Africa and the United States, saying that she sees something particularly comparable in the hyper-sexualisation of Black males in both contexts. She cites Olive Schreiner’s troubling novella Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, more specifically the photograph of a lynching that forms the frontispiece of the novel, linking Schreiner’s appeal to the anti-lynching leagues in America and Britain to her own project.

In her final question before opening up the platform to questions from the audience, Barnard refers to an image Graham includes in the introduction to her piece. The image is of an old National Party (the ruling party during apartheid) electoral poster that uses the threat of rape rather blatantly as an election strategy, with a worried-looking Marthinus van Schalkwyk (the last leader of the now-defunct NP) looming out at the reader, a concerned white male framed by sobering Sans-serif statistics on rape in South Africa.

Barnard uses this example as a springboard to ask Graham to meditate on the use of images in her book and how it relates more widely to visual culture. Graham registers the sensitivities of such images, telling us that she didn’t re-produce the Schreiner frontispiece, for example, short-handing the ethical concerns contained in this decision under a desire not to “reproduce the violence” of the image. The visual, she intuits, is deeply intertwined with these texts. On that expansive note, the floor opens to questions.

Lucy Graham responds to Rhoda Kadalie's question about how the book should have been called "White Obsession" rather than focus on "black peril"

The first question tasks Graham with identifying links between rape as it is figured in the contemporary American novel, and rape as it is represented in the contemporary South African counterpart. In a way that suggests that the novel is a paradigmatic touchstone for States of Peril, Graham compares Coetzee’s Disgrace – specifically David Lurie’s rape of his student – with a scene from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, where she connects a (rather tenuous) similarity of meaning between Lurie as protector/father and Cholly Breedlove’s role as father to Pecola.

She also points out that what she finds most interesting is the way Black writers both in South Africa and America made use of the Black Peril trope, re-appropriating it at times and testing its definitions and limits. She cites Arthur Maimane as an exemplar of this tendency, and indeed Maimane’s Victims is discussed fruitfully in the fourth chapter of State of Peril.

Another of the points raised as the microphone makes its democratic rounds is that there seems to not be an equivalently obsessive focus on interracial rape in Afrikaans literature, a point which Graham theorises as down to the fact that Afrikaners, unlike their English counterparts, were not in direct competition for jobs with Black South Africans at the time that these discourses were circulating.

“Another explanation is that these narratives of rape have a much longer history in English literature”, she adds, expressing her surprise that there aren’t more instances in Afrikaans fiction.

The final and most provocative comment comes from public commentator Rhoda Kadalie at the back of the room. “As someone who was married to a white man under Apartheid,” Kadalie says, “if I was to write your book, I’d call it ‘White Obsession’ rather than [focusing on] ‘Black Peril’. The mostly white audience eyes itself with indrawn breath. She speaks about the outlawing of desire, and says: “I’m very interested in how white writers like you [addressing Graham] and André Brink, as well as other people look at the issue through the notion of ‘peril’, rather than thematising it as the obsession of the oppressor with the Other.” She cites the “fascist intrigue” with inter-racial relationships and ends off by repeating that she would write the book differently.

It’s a weighty point, but Graham handles it smoothly, suggesting that the very obsession alluded to is a subject which the book self-reflexively discusses. The room relaxes visibly, and with a final few polite words, we are released into the night.


Leon de Kock says:

For the record, it needs to be noted that the word “grim” was used by the discussant, Rita Barnard, in relation to the book, which is a history of sorts, as suggested by Robert Young in his blurb. In this way, the headline is about things said at the launch about the book; it is not at all about the book itself in a “reviewing” mode of writing. A “grim history”, in my understanding of the phrase, does not at all imply that the book itself is “grim”; a book about a “grim history”, such as Jeff Peires’s The Dead Will Arise, can be an excellent work of scholarship.

Wamuwi Mbao says:

There seems, in Ms Graham’s response, to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what a book launch report is meant to be. Let me see if I can wrest this from the wilderness of misconception. Ms Graham seems to read something dismissive in the word “grim’, when in actual fact I used that word for the depth of meanings it summons forth, to avoid using any number of over-banalized epithets. Since I was at the launch for reasons other than scholarly bonhomie (the writing of the report whose parts Ms Graham has taken such exception to), I made sure I had read State of Peril beforehand.
While I’m not directly responsible for the heading the editors chose, I’m certainly responsible for the word choices that are drawn from the piece, and it seems to me that this heading refers more to the report itself (a rather imprecise précis, but a précis nonetheless) than it does to State of Peril. I understand that the author will have a certain idea of what their project is, but it seems a woeful (and perhaps wilful) over-reading to assume that the heading in question –signposted by those gatekeeping quotation marks – is a summary of the work, especially with evidence to the contrary immediately divinable in the story below the heading. Anyone reading the article would surely be aware soon enough that there is considerably more depth to be picked out than a convenient title contains. Such is the function of nuanced language. Of course, there are limitations: a book report such as this one is precisely that: a report, coverage of an event. It is not, nor does it aim to be, a review. Certainly, if Ms Graham’s self-validating appraisal of her book as “interesting” and “original” (how revealing the quest for presentism is) is true – it is to be hoped – then it will be borne out in the review, which is forthcoming. It will certainly demonstrate the fineness of spirit Ms Graham seems to feel was occluded from this report, if that quality is at all present.
In any event, it seems ponderous to me that in what is a not-ungenerous report on the event in question, the use of a tag-line should merit so much in the way of aggrieved commentary. As to the rest of Ms Graham’s response, it isn’t my place to comment on her reading of her own work, morbid anomaly of a post-Barthesian universe though it may be. The fact that this is a report means that it is compiled by and large from direct quotation. The entire process is recorded, transcribed and then rendered into readable prose without obscuring meaning or engendering what is not already present. Ms Kadalie’s comment is presented as it happened, and since I point out that Ms Graham’s response to what I perceived to be a provocative question (if still a valid one) was perfectly satisfactory, I’m not entirely certain what the issue is.

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