Zoe Wicomb and the Translocal: Scotland and South Africa

13-14 September 2012, University of York

David Attwell

Professor of Modern Literature at the University of York, David Attwell studied at the Universities of Natal and Cape Town and completed his PhD at the University of Texas at Austin. He has taught at the University of the Western Cape, the University of Natal, and before coming to York was Head of English at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He has held visiting professorships at the University of Texas at Austin, John Carroll University and the University of Stockholm. He has published widely in the fields of anglophone African literature, South African literature, and postcolonial studies.

David’s most well known work is on J.M. Coetzee: a monograph, J.M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing(1993) and a collection of essays which includes a series of dialogues with Coetzee, Doubling the Point (1992). More recent books are Rewriting Modernity: Studies in Black South African Literary History (2005, 2006) and Bury Me at the Marketplace: Es’kia Mphahlele and Company, Letters 1943-2006 (co-edited with N. Chabani Manganyi, 2010). Together with Derek Attridge, he edited The Cambridge History of South African Literature (2012). He is currently on research leave funded in part by the Leverhulme Foundation, writing a political and intellectual biography of Coetzee.

Scottish-South African literary relations: Zoë Wicomb in historical perspective

The records of NELM, the National English Literary Museum in South Africa, list twenty-seven South African writers as having been born in Scotland, and a further seven “with Scottish links.” Further searches produce lists of works by authors who are identified as Scottish, works in which South Africa features in the setting. As with all attempts to classify writers by nationality, there are anomalies. Amongst the South African authors listed as born in Scotland, we find Lady Anne Barnard and Thomas Pringle; both with deserved places in South Africa’s literary history but this does not make them South African. There are odd inclusions and exclusions: James Ambrose Brown deserves his place, but Dora Taylor, whose long-term influence is more important, is absent from the list. Of the Scottish authors who use southern Africa freely as milieu, the most successful are John Buchan and Alexander McCall Smith. There are copious Scottish writings about the South African War, family histories, children’s literature and some poetry. The question that seems worth pursuing, from a literary-historical point of view, is the trans-national one: how do writers from one national context (Scotland or South Africa) use their backgrounds to reflect on conditions in the other? The first writer to do this with any seriousness was Thomas Pringle, whose childhood on a farm in the Borders, and whose work for the Anti-Slavery Society, decisively influenced his representations of colonial South Africa. A generation later, Tiyo Soga’s encounter with Glasgow’s abolitionism led him redefine the historical destiny of the amaXhosa in their struggle with British imperialism. Few writers have drawn on their South African experience to interpret life in Scotland, the exception being Zoë Wicomb.

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Zoe Wicomb and the Translocal

September 13th, 2012
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