Years ago, during my first years as a hired hand in academia, I was more careful about doing The Right Thing. I’d read JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians as a student, and something clicked for me – the colonial mentality, the hopeless fantasies of each successive militarised ‘civilisation’ – in a way that no amount of theory had done. I became an instant acolyte of the Master’s writing. In 2005, attended my first JM Coetzee conference, at Royal Holloway: the university for those sons and daughters of the wealthy who didn’t make it to the Oxbridge universities (this according to a friend who went to Oxford on scholarship).
Anyhow, it was an all-white affair. I was the token brown person there, except for a British Indian student who flitted in and out of a few sessions. (Another academic leaned over and said, conspiratorially, that this young man sends him “fawning emails”. Right. Not only was I being handed the ubiquitous racist caricature of the arse-kissing Indian, but I was being invited into the ‘club’: my sarcasm had permitted me to leap over the Indian hurdle, and into white acceptability. Goody for me.) During a couple of sessions, when some students from continental Europe were presenting (albeit somewhat poorly constructed papers), the UK-and South Africa-based white academics trashed them publicly, right there during the session. This was not a place to come to be informed, gently directed, or invited to an ongoing conversation, but a location in which territory was reinforced, and the ‘right’ of the few to belong staked out.
At the end of the conference, everyone gathered in the large auditorium to take a group photo. I didn’t get in on that. Someone asked me why I didn’t want to be in the picture, and I said that it was because I’d lose my Coloured People’s Credentials. Weirdly enough, though my own paper was quite rubbish (it was my first year as an academic, and I spent a lot of time writing drivel), I was invited to send in a revised version for a collection of essays, compiled from that conference. I never could get motivated to do it. I guess I realised, even then, that I was being asked to be the Sole Brown Representative in a book of essays about JM Coetzee. I couldn’t do it.
Instead, I wrote about how that experience taught me a thing or two about the reification of ‘white’ culture by scholars of Southern African literature, via the objectification of JM Coetzee – using his person, as well as his writing. I presented that paper at a Chimurenga Session in 2009, in Cape Town. It was a liberating experience.
Hilariously, the South African writer, Sandile Dikeni, turned up with Nicole Turner, and rose up to defend JM. “Where are you from?” Dikeni asked, as a way of opening a line of inquiry that basically consisted of stating, “If you are not from here, how dare you criticise our most famous writer?” Of course, I began by asking Sandile “Where are you from?” before proceeding to an explanation: in a critique of how the person, persona, and writing of Coetzee have been used to reify a troubling aspect of white supremacy, as well as the protectionism of such views behind fine language and theory, my level of ‘locatedness’ in South Africa has no bearing. Afterwards, over drinks, Dikeni was more gracious: it was like he didn’t know what came over him, when he leapt to defend JM. But he was still troubled by my critique.
So when JM Coetzee compiles a list of “winning stories”, African Pens 2011: New Writing from Southern Africa, and people like Kavish Chetty (in Mahala) point out that this collection – which includes no black writers – promotes a problematic view of writing from Southern Africa, I worry about how gentle Chetty is being.
“I do think there’s something both strange and remarkable about an anthology of Southern African writing which omits black authors. Their absence here draws attention to itself: are black people simply not committing ink to paper? Or perhaps, more interestingly, are they simply not producing anything of value in the eyes of lavished adjudicator, Monsieur JM Coetzee?”
The man who wrote the definitive book of essays analysing on ‘European’ writing in South Africa (the excellent White Writing), the man who is protected from valid critique (not the idiotic politically-motivated nonsense) includes no black writers? I’m hardly shocked. The politeness evident in this Chetty’s critique indicates the level of tiptoeing one is obliged to do, whenever approaching the circle of protection around Coetzee. As Chetty points out, “I think we have a puzzle on our hands here. Is it possible to compile a volume called African Pens without (strictly speaking) an African anywhere in the process” (“let’s not get started on what ‘African’ actually means”, Chetty adds), when there are “fifteen SADC countries all eligible for these awards” and when there were over 500 entries?
The stranger thing is complicity of the editor and publisher, who agreed to continue to permit such a lopsided selection. While Coetzee’s name on the cover means that there will be good sales, this selection also endorses the view that no black people can write well enough to be selected by The Master. Apparently, none of them read Chimurenga or Kwani?
By the way, I still read Coetzee, and remain a fan of (some of) his writing and analysis.