Southern Imagining: A cultural and literary history of the far southern hemisphere – Fellows’ seminar by Elleke Boehmer

31 March 2020

“The talk gives an overview of my current research project Southern Imagining, a literary and cultural history of responses to far southern hemisphere worlds, 1798 to the present. To reflect the interdisciplinary and comparative scope of the project, I trace the book’s arc of discussion and talk through some of the key guiding concepts and terms, including ‘epistemologies of light’, and ‘remote proximity’,” said Elleke Boehmer, from the English Faculty at the University of Oxford. “I show how the far south—so often represented as distant and ‘off the planet’—sees itself in spatial, environmental and conceptual terms, but not just in piecemeal ways. Rather, we look at how southern worlds might be considered to imagine themselves through and in relation to each other. How are global perceptions pitched from or located in the south interpretatively different from those generated in the north? And, importantly, what might be the conceptual, political and environmental significance of thinking in lateral southern ways?”

STIAS Fellow Elleke Boehmer during her seminar on 5 March 2020

“Understanding the southern hemisphere, here in particular its far southern reaches, its deeper south, on its own terms, from the south, I suggest, provides important ways of revaluing some of its key aspects—aspects that not only invite postcolonial reassessment but that may also be crucial to our planetary survival.”

Boehmer indicated that for her project, the far south encompasses Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and southern Africa, including Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and the seas in-between. The writers to be discussed include Luís de Camões, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Herman Melville, Charles Darwin, Olive Schreiner, Katherine Mansfield, Witi Ihimaera and Zakes Mda.

“I’m interested in remote areas,” she said, “southern tips, edges, peripheries, the places that used to be considered the edges of the known world where the centres of knowledge were – and in many ways still are – located, that is, the Mediterranean basin and, subsequently, the Anglo-American world. Therefore, it’s not about the ‘Global South’, which is a concept from development economics. Mine is also not an encyclopaedic investigation, but rather a cultural history about how land and landscapes have been read.”

She commented further that it is axiomatic for the project that “the South is growing as an area of environmental and geocultural importance especially as climate change is making south-south connections more urgent.”

The project in a nutshell was “a comparative world literature analysis which includes the close reading of established myths and stories while taking “an eco-critical perspective”. “It’s about charting the South as an imaginative space – and revealing a more vivid set of planes of connectivity,” she added.

Remote proximities

Defining “southness” more precisely, she spoke of “southern imaginaries, or the perception of southern lands and seas, still generally considered to occupy the margins of the world and hence generally deemed remote and relatively powerless, except in terms of exploitable resources.”

This south “was for a long period uncharted and only a construction of geography and imagination.”

She described the area as home to only 10% of the world’s population but 80% of its oceans and as an area of greater climatic variation than in the North. These are also areas remote from each other with no cross-continental bridge such we find in Eurasia. As an example, she pointed out that due to economic reasons, flights between southern routes have diminished in the past 30 years making the south even less physically connected than before, despite globalisation.

“The Northern view of southern lands has moulded our perspectives, even those who live in the South, with the South typically seen as ‘down under’, ‘reversed’, ‘topsy-turvy’, ‘contrariwise’. Instead,” she said, “I want to look at the south from the point of view of the south, of its writers, its artists. I also want to bring out transnational interconnections, south-south links and commonalities.”

For her, “Literature is not merely reflective but rather stimulates and shapes our understanding.”

She explained that she is finding strong correlations with respect to the culture and literature of the southern hemisphere. Among the interesting connections already made are those of detailed descriptions of cartography and landscape. “Olive Schreiner wrote the Karoo landscape for the first time,” she said. “She was a literary pioneer cramming in detail about a landscape not previously described in literature. Katherine Mansfield was doing the same in respect of her native New Zealand some 20 years later.”

“There are also clear and interesting comparisons to make between Witi Ihimaera’s Whale Rider and Zakes Mda’s Whale Caller.”

But Boehmer indicated that she is still very open to suggestion on writers to include. “I have so far chosen works that lend themselves to comparison and that set up similar patterns and motives.”

Shared light and skies

A key topic in Boehmer’s project is the concept of what she called southern light and its epistemologies: “What the light shows or reveals at certain latitudes and not others which may not have been shown in that way before”.

To illustrate, she pointed to shared skies and shared myths of the southern skies. “I’m looking at the indigenous and local understandings of the vocabulary of the sky in southern environments – via words, songs, chants and oral poetry – these environments as seen from within, in other words.”

In discussion Boehmer acknowledged the huge challenge of overcoming the imbalance of authoritative knowledge between the North and the South.

“The South has been constructed as the far edges of the world,” she said, “not just in power but also knowledge terms.”

“The project will only scratch the surface of addressing that imbalance,” she said. “But I want to think about how we interrogate it. I want to question what constitutes important knowledge and how we deal with educational and language hierarchies in knowledge production.”

“I’m not looking for the pure or authentic. The pure is not available to us – all is still filtered through Northern lenses. I’m hoping I can at least highlight that.”

“I would like to contribute to the process of southernisation in knowledge production,” she added.


Boehmer’s collection of short stories, To the Volcano, which begins to explore some of these ideas of the south, was published in late 2019 by Myriad Editions, and was launched in South Africa during March 2020.


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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