Reading List: Lily Saint

The author, a regular contributor, summarizes four new books she's been reading.

Man reading newspaper on Johannesburg street. Image: kool_skatkat (Flickr CC).

The first book on my list is Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities by Carl Nightingale (University of Chicago Press, 2012) examines the world history of segregation, highlighting the notorious role played by South Africa in dividing communities along racial lines (a central case study is Johannesburg). As Nightingale reminds us, segregation in South Africa began long before it became formally instantiated as apartheid. And while divisions between people in cities goes back to Mesopotamia, the practice became entrenched as part of European colonialism’s urban planning, glaringly depicted, for instance, in the separation between the Casbah and the European quarter in Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers.

In his examination of segregation in the United States, Nightingale looks at how division along racial lines continued after the abolition of state-sanctioned segregation laws. Certainly in the second half of the twentieth century apartheid laws were the exception rather than the rule, and it does us well to think about how urban patterns of racial division persist when the state no longer directly enforces them.

A difficult but rewarding book, The Event of Postcolonial Shame by Timothy Bewes (Princeton UP, 2011), zeroes in on the shame that inheres for writers in the postcolony when the question, “how to write without thereby contributing to the material inscription of inequality?” remains hard to answer. Focusing on works by a cross-section of writers from the global south, Bewes examines “what possibilities exist for a literary form that might be adequate to the ethical complexity of the postcolonial world” suggesting particularly that South Africans Zoë Wicomb and J.M. Coetzee, as well as the Caribbean writer, Caryl Phillips, address explicitly in their themes, and implicitly in their formal choices, the ethical imperatives at stake after slavery, colonialism, and apartheid.

If Bewes is correct that “in a certain strain of postcolonial scholarship informed by Spivak’s conceptualization of the subaltern…the real histories of national liberation in Third World countries disappear into an abyss of epistemological méconnaissance,” Susan Andrade’s book The Nation Writ Small: African Fictions and Feminisms, 1958-1988 (Duke UP 2011) provides a useful corrective. It explores how women writers who wrote during the mass wave of continental decolonization were vitally involved in representations of political realities, despite the simplistic tendency to equate women’s writing with domestic spheres seemingly cut off from the public sphere. Instead Andrade makes clear how writers such as Mariama Bâ, Aminata Sow Fall, Tsitsi Dangarambga, and others, depicted worlds very much inflected by the changing political field, and exposed the disappointments and tragedies of independence as much as its optimism. Including an examination of more recent work by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Andrade’s book reminds us how much these women’s work informed and continues to inform the language of political debate.

Finally, A.B. Xuma. Autobiography and Selected Works (Ed. Peter Limb. Van Riebeck Society, 2012) reminds us of the importance of primary materials for scholarly work on African history. The compilation of works by Alfred Bitini Xuma, president of the ANC from 1940-49, gathers his (mostly) unpublished autobiography along with a variety of other genres, including letters, speeches, eulogies and pamphlets, much of which level overt critiques of the state’s white supremacist segregation policies. Xuma fell out of favor for being less radical than Young Turks such as Mandela and Sisulu of the Youth League. However Xuma, cosmopolitan and nationalist, is finally getting some of the attention he deserves here, as ideological divisions in the early history of the ANC no longer require obfuscation for the sake of presenting a unified political front. In an interview on the Africa Past & Present podcast, editor Peter Limb relates that he hopes the book will “open up more research on a range of issues such as [Xuma’s] life and times, related themes of medical, social and ANC history; the history of African women in politics; intellectual history and social biography…. to facilitate textual analysis in South African historiography and draw attention to the need to develop the study of the genre of the works of black authors.” This book could certainly begin to do this.

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