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Heywood's A History of South African Literature - totally unreliable as a study guide or introduction

Helize van Vuuren

Click on the book cover to buy now from
Title: A History of South African Literature
Author: Christopher Heywood
Publisher: Cambridge & Cape Town: Cambridge University Press
ISBN: 0521 61595 X
Edition: African Edition
Pages: 296
Format: Hard back

If there was a "Rotten tomato" website for singularly bad books as there is for films, Heywood's A History of South African Literature, erroneously announced as "the first critical study of its subject", would certainly be a strong contender for first prize.

The author and the editors of Cambridge University Press seem singularly ignorant of the field of South African literary study. Even a superficial internet search on the topic of "South African literary history" would have revealed the publication Rethinking South African Literary History (1996), the result of a colloquium held in 1995 entailing lengthy deliberations on the topic, attended by leading scholars in the field of South African literature. It is common knowledge that Besselaar (1914) and Nathan (1925) attempted older, inclusive and comparative literary histories. Stephen Gray reintroduced the field by writing an Introduction to South African literature (1979), and in 1996 Michael Chapman's hotly-contested and politically rather than aesthetically orientated Southern African Literatures was the first inclusive literary history in seventy years in South Africa, and the first in the "new" South Africa.

Heywood claims that there exist five literary traditions in South Africa (Khoisan, Nguni-Sotho, Afrikaans, English and Indian) and - strangely enough - that there are only four interwoven communities (Khoisan, Nguni-Sotho, Anglo-Afrikaans and Indian). How do four communities manage to produce five literary traditions? Equally problematic are the identity of Heywood's traditions. "Khoisan"? There is no such identity. This word was formulated in the early twenties and refers to the combined Khoi-Khoi and San or Bushmen people, both first peoples, one pastoral and the other hunter-gatherers who inhabited Southern Africa in earliest times. Neither can one restrict the nine official African languages in the country merely to "Nguni-Sotho" origin. What about Venda, Pedi, etc? And since when is Indian literature separate from mainstream English? Equally puzzling is how the author amalgamates the increasingly polarised English and Afrikaans literary communities into "Anglo-Afrikaans". How on earth do two different language and literary communities fit under one caption? On the basis of skin colour?! One might as well talk about the Chinese-Japanese community - on the basis of their Eastern orientation!

The so-called "study" is focused on three strange concepts: a "Hamite ideology" (according to Heywood it "appears in its original form in God's Stepchildren, p 11), creolization (p vii: "bodily and literary" merging of the various "interwoven communities") and protest literature. In typically confused and fuzzy language the author describes what he understands by "protest literature" and "creolization" (he uses it as synonym for hybridization) as follows: "Literary and bodily creolization represent cultural, social and moral protest and an assertion of independence for the writer and his or her community" (p 17). A most idiosyncratic approach (not to say highly flawed) to a body of work that the author seems not to be very familiar with.

The lack of familiarity with the literary corpus is extremely obvious, especially in the last chapter, "Novels and stories after 1960". The title accentuates Heywood's orientation: "1960". Almost half a century's literature is very flimsily treated throughout this book in a haphazard and a-chronological manner.

The impression on the reader is of an émigré who left South Africa in the sixties, received the odd book in the post, but does not have a thorough grasp of the chronological development of Southern African literatures - not of the African languages, nor of Afrikaans, nor, strangely enough, of English South African literature. Discussions mostly wander off into distinctly undergraduate type lectures, for instance on the origin of the word ideology or the wider setting of oral tradition as a concept in world literature. One cannot escape the impression that the content of this book originated as lectures, many of them held in Japan, obvious from the anxious way in which the South African content is related to Japanese subject matter (haikus and the like) in an obvious attempt to hold his Japanese students' attention. The retired professor decided to "throw together" his life's production in one last mammoth publication. But none of it gels. It is an uneasy amalgam of rather dated material, which seldom gives the impression of any solid grasp of the focus area.

A History of South African Literature is totally unreliable as a study guide or introduction. Any reader or student who uses this book as his or her guide will be lost in a never-never land darkened by misconceptions. Strange that such a reputable publisher should publish such a book. What will come next, one wonders in desperation, in this "Cambridge Africa Collection"?

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