Writing from a Middle World: Perspectives on, and from, South Africa
In his acceptance speech for the CNA Prize for his novel Waiting for the Barbarians in 1979, J.M. Coetzee asked the question whether one can “call South African literature in English a national literature” (in Kannemeyer 2012: 356). He concluded that, in relation to the metropolitan centres of Western Europe and North America, it could at best only ever be a provincial literature – but that this did not mean that it was inferior, he said: “A provincial literature is not necessarily minor. Russian literature of the age of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy is provincial and major” (ibid. 356–357). In this essay I would like to reconsider this question, with reference to three South African writers each of whom is recognised as a major national – and international – literary figure: the Afrikaans poet, Breyten Breytenbach, who has won every prestigious Afrikaans literary award, but whose prose works are mostly in English, and the Nobel laureates, Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee himself. I would like to compare their relations to the country of their birth, and show how each of them imaginatively inhabits a “middle world” in texts that travel between and across nations and cultures, including those of Central and Eastern Europe.
Breyten Breytenbach and inter-nationalism
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