Monday, October 3, 2011

Literature and the Ordinary

In a conversation strongly shaped until now by Anthropology, Philosophy, and History, could the ordinary find a home in poetry, the novel and criticism? A panel of Literature scholars promised to answer this question by tracing three perspectives on literary beginnings, middles and recursions.

Sarah Nuttall introduced the panel by pointing to the crucial role of literature in South Africa as a platform for the ordinary. However, in contrast to the more familiar “hermeneutics of suspicion,” with its interrogation of the text to reveal what it hides, Nuttall asks us to think of literature through its surfaces as well as its symptoms. In other words, to dwell on its aesthetics as well as its symbolism. She also noted the recent ascendancy in South Africa of the non-fictional and the “fiction of the real.” Are we still tracing, in Njabulo Ndebele’s terms, a move from the ‘ordinary’ to the ‘intimate’, she asked’?

The first of the panel’s speakers, Harry Garuba, spoke about the construction of the ordinary in literary modernity. He noted that from the beginning the genre of the novel arrived with a heavy investment in the ordinary. However, the techniques and methods of rendering the ordinary are the subject of ongoing debate. In literary modernity, we arrive at the ordinary through the opposite of realism.

Garuba traced the ordinary in the Black literary critical tradition, which he argued comes through the work of Dubois, Fanon, Ellison, Cabral, Baldwin, who craft an ordinary which is neither journalistic nor realistic. Instead, this literature invokes storytelling, art, music. In Black literature, the ordinary needed to be imagined away from the spectre of racial conflict, therefore it could not be represented through realism. In fact, it needed to be defined in opposition to realism. After all, in the Black experience of reality the world was not so ordinary.

Garuba noted that the ordinary has become weighted with contemporary significance. During the discussion, Achille Mbembe would describe this as a time when “the reservoirs of belief are swelling and swelling.” In this context the ordinary has become the valued currency of our time - sought, defined and claimed. But what is the ordinary in the age of image and spectacle, Garuba asked. With the rise of rightwing politics, the pursuit of the ordinary and the uses to which it is put have intensified, and yet we are faced with the impossibility of its representation.

In fact, the representation of the ordinary has always contested. Garuba pointed to the similarity across a distance of decades and geography between essays by James Baldwin and Njabulo Ndebele, both of whom critiqued the “endless cataloguing” of writing that does not arrive at ordinary life, and obscures its complexity and intricate social processes. In contrast, they sought the receding authenticity of experience through the secrets of interiority and rich subjectivities. In her poetic presentation on poetry, Laetitia Zecchini reflects on Glissant’s poetics, his detours that articulate the tension between opacity and revelation.

In contrast, is the novel less and less the place where we can encounter the fullness, the dreams, the anxieties of the present? Garuba notes that the saturation of theory in literature and creative writing programmes at Universities has generated a circular and stifling pattern in which writers are responding to theory, are starting from theory instead of objects.

So where does the ordinary lie? In a time when the hunger for stories is almost unlimited, Mbembe observes, is the novel a home for stories? And in a country where illiteracy means that almost half of the population cannot access novels, where do such homeless stories go?

In Meg Samuelson’s review of the several beginnings and middles of South African literature, Mbembe found an acute reading of the country’s literary birth and trajectory, but an overrepresentation of Vladislavic and Coetzee in the present. Particularly of Coetzee, Mbembe asks, since he has moved on, why haven’t we? Why do we still speak about him so compulsively? Instead, he asks, what are Black South Africans writing about?

In the discussion, Zimitri Erasmus takes up this question in typically thoughtful manner. They are writing the ordinary, she asserts, and doing so by exploring the relation between critique and orality. And in this, we are not just South Africans, she muses. She notes softly and intriguingly, we have written journals for years, journals with intimate and abundant pages and many of these are not (yet) public.

I think through the primal scenes sketched in this literary panel and discussion. Our beginnings are multiple, and their aftermath has many strands. Black writers are claiming the intimate spaces of memoir, autobiography and creative non-fiction and through them are reshaping what might be said in public. South Africans are also producing fantasy, fairy tales, comedy, madness, doubt –stories that tell of a complicated ordinariness. I wonder, are we less ourselves because we are experimenting, betraying, reinventing the traditions that demand fealty of us and if we talk of things we shouldn’t?

Gabeba Baderoon is a poet and scholar. She teaches Women’s Studies and African Studies at Penn State University, and was a Research Fellow in the “Islam, African Publics and Religious Values” Project at the University of Cape Town in 2010-2011.