This issue begins with a selection of writing from contemporary South African authors. Some of these writers grew up after the laws of apartheid were dismantled, while others grew up believing they never would be. Some have emigrated, some have returned, and others have never lived anywhere else. No one author—or even a dozen authors, as you’ll find here—can represent the voice of any nation. In South Africa, though, the idea of a national literature is particularly fraught, as the laws of apartheid, established to keep people “apart” from one another in a strict racial hierarchy, created radically inequitable nations within nations. It was not until the last decade of the twentieth century that these laws of segregation—which a white minority government had brutally, blatantly, and systematically enforced—were finally abolished and the constitution rewritten.
South Africa became the focus of this issue’s international portfolio through a combination of intention and accident. It began in curiosity, ignited by optimism and excitement for the “new South Africa” as it has emerged over the past couple of decades. What now, now that previously silenced voices can be heard beyond their own communities, and people kept separate can speak to one another? What now, now that Nadine Gordimer has died and J. M. Coetzee has left for Australia? Might we hear more from the nation’s black majority? Might we hear some of the other languages of that nation? Where even to begin? As usual with our international sections, curiosity led to a conversation, and one writer led to another.
It also began with some naïve but fundamental questions. What languages are spoken in South Africa today, and why is most of the South African literature we’ve seen up to this point originally written in English? Why are the South African authors we know best—those who won the Nobel Prize in literature, for instance—white, while the country’s majority is black? When we started putting the section together, I imagined that in the wake of apartheid there would be poems and stories translated from all of the nation’s eleven official languages, just ready to be gathered up and published, or at least that we’d find a wealth of work from Zulu, which is spoken by nearly a quarter of the population. But for complicated reasons far beyond my ability to address here—reasons pertaining to oppression, poverty, and a stunted educational system, as well as to cultural value differences—we did not find an overwhelming amount of writing originally composed in African languages and translated into English. People are working on such translations—which involve much more than finding equivalent words and grammars in two languages—but we’re not all the way there yet. Most of the writing that appears in forms we’re able to recognize and comprehend as literature was written in English, and to a lesser degree Afrikaans, no matter the race of the writer, and no matter if that writer also knows multiple other languages.
A note on the text: We decided to retain the British spellings in this section, rather than Americanize them as we would normally do. This is how they were written or translated and so this is how we present them. The word “coloured” gave us particular trouble. Would it be the same as “colored”? Were we trying to distance ourselves from that kind of nomenclature by retaining the British spelling? Possibly, but then again “all words, in South Africa, are wrapped in trouble,” as the poet Denis Hirson, editor of several anthologies of South African literature, has told me.
On that note, I’d like to thank Denis, who encouraged these literary connections, and Antjie Krog and Ingrid de Kok, who enthusiastically introduced us to many of the South African writers who appear in these pages. And thanks especially to all the writers—from here and abroad—who’ve entrusted the
New England Review with their work.
Although this brief selection can’t speak for a nation, it can, all together, give a powerful sense of place—or multiple senses of that place. And at the very least it encourages us to turn an ear in this country’s direction and listen attentively for a while. We are chuffed to include these writers alongside their (mostly) American counterparts, and hope that now that these connections have been made they will continue to lead to more.