Queues of limitless hope: The Bildungsroman and decolonisation in southern Africa – Fellows’ seminar by Ranka Primorac

11 May 2021

In her book project in progress, STIAS fellow Ranka Primorac of the Department of English at the University of Southampton asks: What happens to the novel form under conditions of protracted socio-political crisis? She situates the question in decolonisation-era southern Africa, and aims to answer it via a comparative analysis of the local appropriations of the Bildungsroman form in postcolonial Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and with the help of a critical apparatus that combines genre theory and theories of world literature.

STIAS fellow Ranka Primorac during her seminar on 6 May 2021

“Using a comparative, carefully historicised and theory-informed critical approach enables me to articulate critical claims related to the history and theory of the novel as a world-making genre, in addition to more specific regional claims related to African literature,” she said. “I argue that the prominence of texts and forms in the global literary marketplace is not necessarily correlated to their transnational cultural importance and that ignoring non-globalised African forms risks misreading the specificity and range of the continent’s imaginaries of freedom.”

She is hoping specifically to address three issues: the impact of protracted social and economic disruption on the forms of Zambian, Zimbabwean and South African novels of formation; the cultural work those forms have enabled; and how they have circulated.

Telling stories of emergence

“African literature in English has experienced something of a renaissance in the last ten years or so, and many novels that have become internationally available in that period have been described as novels of formation – I am thinking about recent texts by Nansubuga Makumbi, Yvonne Owuor and Akwaeke Emezi, for exampleshe said.

In his benchmark, though Europe-centred, study of the genre, literary historian and theorist Franco Moretti argued that the classical versions of this narrative form are capable of symbolically resolving a key contradiction of modern subject formation: the tension between the desire for individual freedom or self-determination, and the desire for happiness or social integration. In postcolonial African fiction, by contrast, individual self-realisation is difficult to think about outside of the collective. It’s also often less about individual happiness and more about individual and communal survival.

Writing of postcolonial cultural contexts, Pheng Cheah (author of Spectral Nationality: Passages of Freedom from Kant to Postcolonial Literatures of Liberation and What is a World?) shows that the link between the idea of freedom, the process of self-realisation, and the development of a living organism was inherited by revolutionary nationalisms in the postcolonial world from the German philosophical tradition via Marx, and, in Africa, Cabral and Fanon. Cheah calls this link the organismic metaphor. The teleological imagination of a social community as a freedom-bearing body has been a powerful cultural mechanism in decolonial literature and political thought in southern Africa. In local novels of formation, this means that stories about young people making the transition from youth to adulthood also function as national allegories.

Between the 1960s and the present historical moment, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa have dealt with the challenges and crises of emancipation and independence in stages. They have also faced waves of upheaval and instability which has included issues around land restitution, worker and student protests, and the impact of HIV/AIDS. Around and since each moment of emancipation in the region, there has been a small flurry and then a consistent trickle of novelistic narratives about youth emerging into adulthood. In novels such as Andrea Masiye’s Before Dawn (1973), Gideon Phiri’s Ticklish Sensation (1973), Ellen Banda Aaku’s Patchwork (2011), Tsitsi Dangarembga’s  Nervous Conditions trilogy (1988 – 1918), Shimmer Chinodya’s Dew in the Morning (1982) and  Harvest of Thorns (1989), Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow (2001), Sello Duiker’s Thirteen Cents (2001), Kopano Matlwa’s, Coconut (2007), and others, the stories of young protagonists undergoing various kinds of schooling and formation allegorise emergent nationhood and register both the conditions of crisis from which they emerge and the social imaginaries and formal repertoires via which such conditions become imaginable in the first place.

Circuits of canonicity

Primorac explained that Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa are differently positioned in what the scholar of World Literature, Pascale Casanova, has called the ‘world republic of letters’. “South Africa has the longest visibility. Zimbabwe has punched above its weight since the 1970s but still can’t match the national-literary prestige of South Africa, and Zambia has really only gained world-literary capital in the last few years, following the publication of Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift in 2019.

Yet Primorac maintains that the cultural importance of the texts she is interested in is independent of their international literary prestige. African novels circulate via differently scaled networks of literary production, reception and taste. These multi-lingual networks intersect and interact. To look only at globally produced books gives a skewed picture of African literary and cultural processes.

She added: “The book unsettles Africanist scholarship by integrating Zambia into a literary view of Anglophone southern Africa. The inclusion of a small, partially submerged national canon alongside the better-known literatures of South Africa and Zimbabwe enables fresh readings of both canonical and neglected texts.”

In her presentation she focused on three male-authored books from the three countries – Dog eat dog (2004) by Niq Mhlongo, set in South Africa in 1994, which lends her monograph its provisional title; The House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marachera (1978), set in Zimbabwe on the eve of formal decolonisation, and Ticklish sensation by Gideon Phiri (1973), set in newly independent Zambia. “All these young, male authors surprised the local literary establishments of their day by doing strange, brave, new things with language,” Primorac explained.

“I hope my work will allow the novels’ own articulations of the meanings of modernity and freedom to come to the fore,” she concluded.

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

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