Writing after Apartheid

A Conversation with Jonny Steinberg and Zoë Wicomb, 12 September 2013, Yale University.


This year, Yale University announced the first-ever winners of the Windham Campbell Literature Prizes in fiction, non-fiction, and drama. Endowed by the late novelist Donald Windham and his partner Sandy Campbell, the prizes’ mission is simple: to reward accomplished writers from around the globe with the chance to keep on writing, free of financial constraints (at least for a while, and assuming you don’t live in Manhattan – each award is worth $150,000). Of the initial nine prize recipients feted on Yale’s campus last week, two were South African, with none of the usual Nobel Laureates in sight. And though Jonny Steinberg and Zoë Wicomb may be obvious choices to those of us with ties to that country’s literature, the prominence of such a small place on this big stage marks a subtle shift for the image of South African writing in American academe.

As evidence of this, the public conversation I attended between Steinberg, Wicomb, and Yale’s South Africanist historian Dan Magaziner shot wide of its name, “Writing after Apartheid.” The event, to its credit, may as well have been titled “Writing” (at least until the questions at the end), and it succeeded as an unforced amble through the familiar but vexed terrain of why and for whom we do this. Is it more about an author’s own experience, or his social mission? About finding new modes of representation, or just representing something well? Both writers looked to their South African pasts in framing general questions, with Wicomb noting that her work could be read as an attempt to address the lack of black writers in her apartheid-era education, and Steinberg starting off with a story about his early career at Business Day.

But while he affirmed outright that “everything I do is a process of translation” – of South Africa to the world and to itself, with responsibilities on both ends – Wicomb suggested (counter-intuitively, at first) that the origins of her writing were less social, more personal. The discussion thus avoided a common crudeness of South African literary debates: rather than pit the political against the artistic (or the “ordinary”), both speakers assumed an intermingling of the two and reflected on its craft-specific unfurling. Occasional tension between the prizewinners seemed more a matter of tone and generation than of ideology. Whereas Wicomb revisited postcolonial traditions of theorising representational ethics as such, Steinberg put a pragmatic spin on the transaction between well-known writer and obscure real-life subject: One party gets a story and the other gets some cash, a national asymmetry in values that Steinberg will later characterise memorably as “a question of coordination between deaf people.”

There was common ground, however, in what Magaziner identified as a move to see South Africa as one among numerous sites of interest. The most obvious parallels in this regard are literal – Steinberg teaches at Oxford, Wicomb lives largely in Glasgow – as well as literary in a narrow sense, as both writers’ work have expanded to treat non-South African locales. But the more provocative challenge to the conjunction of nation and narration took the form of a shared sense of the writer with his nose pressed to the glass. Zoë Wicomb, often taken to represent a local culture, writ large, wondered at a review that described her as possessing the “cool gaze of the outsider.” Jonny Steinberg used the issue of intra-African migration to highlight his own wish to “show South Africa what it looked like to somebody else,” raising the possibility that, just maybe, a feeling of peripheral relation to the world under scrutiny precedes the postcolonial jargon in which it is often couched.

In this way, these writers’ role as emissaries from the land of what was once called “colonialism of a special type” – or, at least, from its differently perplexing successor – gives them a platform to broach more expansive concerns. And so the author of books full of fine-grained social reportage suggested a search for “understanding what it means to be human without a home,” a sentiment echoed in Wicomb’s admission that home is a notion to which she still clings romantically, cool gaze be damned.

This is by no means to imply that the conversation somehow transcended social incision in favour of literary platitudes. It was full, especially on Steinberg’s part, of anecdotes that put the whole heavy business of art-talk in perspective. The Somali man, for example, about whom he recently wrote a book was none too impressed with the result, and in response to a question about whether literature could “help” South Africa, Steinberg’s answer was no. As he pointed out toward the end of the hour, the “post-apartheid era” will continue to be valid as historical shorthand for generations to come: there will be no urtext that can absorb the shock of national difference, though Steinberg volunteered Nelson Mandela and Julius Malema as different attempts to construct one.

The final impression of this candid but free-form event was that the Windham Campbell Prizes might play out as a conceptual “halfway point” not unlike that as which Steinberg repeatedly cast South Africa, in his case in relation to African migrants headed up and out. Housed in an institution that, like many others, still traffics in high cultural cachet but struggles to value the study of culture, this new accolade continues a long tradition of granting global writers a form of universal prestige. The difference as concerns South African writing abroad is that this audience, unlike, say, Nadine Gordimer’s in New York in 1982 (when she delivered “Living in the Interregnum”), is only half-committed to the investments their event title suggests.