In recent years, J. M. Coetzee has led a series of inspiring, quixotic, and provocative initiatives to promote greater literary exchange across the southern hemisphere. These include the ‘Literaturas del Sur’ seminar series in Buenos Aires, Spanish translations of Australian and South African novels, residencies for Argentine writers in Australia, and his own literary critical work on various southern writers in the New York Review of Books. These ventures take place in the context of a surge of social science research into the ‘Global South’ over the last two decades. But the writer avoids the term. He prefers to speak of a geographic or ‘real’ South connected to the formative influence of landscape.
Coetzee’s ‘Australian period’, since the 2002 move from South Africa might now be understood as his southern period. In addition to occasional journeys home, the writer has regularly visited Latin America, especially Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico. One of the immediate motivations behind Coetzee’s southerly projects, it seems, was his dismay at finding virtually no Australian literature in Buenos Aires’s well-stocked bookstores. But the larger stated goals – fostering south-to-south dialogue, combating ideas of the South as lack – suggest a vision of world literature as both an active world making process and a negation of certain undesirable forms of globalisation.
So, does it make sense? Is it in any way useful or enabling to think of writing from the southern hemisphere as a distinct category? What creative possibilities and theoretical insights might be generated through dialogue between writers from different parts of the hemispheric South? And what contribution could this category of ‘southern writing’ make to thinking about world literature? These were among the questions discussed when eighteen writers from Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and Argentina came together in April 2019 – I was one of them – to participate in ‘Writing from the South’, a three-day event in Sydney co-convened by Coetzee and fellow novelist Gail Jones, that was organised by Western Sydney University and the University of Adelaide as part of the larger Australian Research Council-funded project, Other Worlds: Forms of World Literature.
What transpired resembled neither a conventional academic conference, nor a writers’ festival. No books were on sale and, for the most part, no audience was present. Each writer was asked to deliver a short, informal paper on a topic related to the overarching theme, and the bulk of the program was given over to the spontaneous discussions these sparked. The following account draws out some of the major themes of our conversations but avoids direct attribution as they were conducted off the record. The writers involved were Stuart Cooke (Australia), Brian Castro (Australia), J. M. Coetzee (South Africa/Australia), Mariana Dimópulos (Argentina), Ceridwen Dovey (South Africa/Australia), Martin Edmond (New Zealand/Australia), Gail Jones (Australia), Nicholas Jose (Australia), Anna Kazumi Stahl (USA/Argentina), James Halford (Australia), Eva Hornung (Australia), Pedro Mairal (Argentina), Tina Makereti (New Zealand), Yewande Omotoso (Nigeria/South Africa), Kim Scott (Australia), Anthony Uhlmann (Australia), Marlene van Niekerk (South Africa), and Alice Whitmore (Australia).
We gathered in the Unaipon Room of the State Library of NSW. Through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of the library’s modern wing, we could just make out the sandstone Mitchell Library between the branches of eucalypts and figs. Golden autumn light filtered through the leaves, so that the room seemed to float in the treetops over the roar of Macquarie Street. We talked early on about the man for whom the space was named, the Ngarrindjeri-Warrawaldi author, David Unaipon (1812-1967), who is recognised as the first Australian Aboriginal writer published in English. The eighteen of us sat in an inward facing circle in the library where Unaipon’s papers are held, struggling, initially, to figure out what we could possibly have to say to each other about ‘the South.’
Several writers expressed polite scepticism about the meaningfulness of southern writing as a category. ‘Who is this we?’ someone asked. ‘I’m not convinced it’s a thing.’ Someone referred to us jokingly as a community of those who have nothing in common, a reference to the American philosopher Alphonso Lingis’ book on the origins and limits of the idea of community.
The discussion reminded me of an essay by the Dutch critic Carrol Clarkson on the use of the first-person plural in post-apartheid South African fiction. Clarkson argues that recent novels’ persistent challenge to the parameters of the ‘we’ registers both the loss of inherited ideas of community and the ethical complexity of negotiating a community to come. As the coffee kicked in and the ice thinned, I sensed our little band of southern writers playing a similar trick, performing our suspicion of belonging in order to construct a community of those who worry about the word ‘we’. One of the clearest points of consensus to emerge was a preference for southern writing to be conceived as co-adjacency – a sitting-next-to each other – rather than identification or suppression of difference.
We recognised early on that distinct experiences of colonialism are the most striking historical factor our countries share. Many of us have confronted the colonial past and its legacy in our work. But as storytellers rather than theorists, we were wary of generalising based on local experiences and tentative to speak of contexts with which we were less familiar.
A high-level, present-day demographic comparison of these southern hemisphere nations reveals markedly different societies and colonial legacies. The democratic transition in South Africa was premised on the relinquishment of exclusive political power by a small settler minority (7.8% white, 80.9% Black African, 8.8% ‘coloured’ on Statistics South Africa’s 2018 figures). In Aotearoa/New Zealand, where Māori and Pacific peoples represent substantial minorities (15% and 7% according to the 2013 census), treaties to address historical grievances have re-emerged since the 1980s, updating the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. As yet, no treaties exist in Argentina or Australia, where less than three per cent of the current populations identify as Indigenous (2.4% and 2.8% on the most recent census data).
While a few writers knew more than one of these contexts well, it would be fair to say that not many of us had a decent working knowledge of social or literary history across the countries of the southern hemisphere. Building greater mutual knowledge will be vital if we are serious about encouraging literary linkages and comparative literary critical projects. One starting point might be to study literary representations of colonialism across both the Anglophone and non-Anglophone south, building on the theoretical foundation laid by critics like Patrick Wolfe and Lorenzo Veracini; another might be the comparative study of Indigenous poetics and storytelling as in the work of Stuart Cooke. Though the learning curve will be steep, an approach encompassing a multi-lingual corpus of texts from Australasia, Latin America’s Southern Cone, and southern Africa promises to deepen our understanding of invasion as, to borrow a formulation from Patrick Wolfe, ‘a structure, not an event’.
Our discussion of colonial legacies shifted to the perspective of the individual creative practitioner. We talked about the need to reframe feelings related to the colonial past, such as remoteness and belatedness, as sources of creative possibility. We heard the parable of the African maid who knows the secret life of the hotel guests, while they know nothing of her. Someone suggested the South might act as an Archimedean Point – an outsider’s angle of vision – from which writers can see clearly. The putative universalism of the North, it was pointed out, is only visible from the South.
We also talked about the role an expanded awareness of other southern literatures might play in a writer’s creative formation. Though it did not seem that any of us consciously thought of ourselves as ‘writing from the South’, many of us were attracted to the idea of ‘expanding the circumference of art’ by learning more about literary traditions elsewhere in the hemisphere. We also recognised some potential practical benefits of greater south-south connectedness: the option of selling southern literature into other southern markets, the possibility of collectively educating northern cultural powerbrokers to southern imaginings.
In these early stages of the conference, as we talked at cross-purposes and within our existing frames of reference, discussion often slid unsteadily between Coetzee’s biogeographic South and the resistant imaginary of the ‘Global South’. In a group that included writers of Indigenous, non-European migrant, and settler backgrounds, it proved difficult to separate the two. Many were more drawn to one term than the other, but the general attitude among the group seemed to be one of ambivalence toward all labels.
The ‘Global South’ refers to the industrially and economically underdeveloped countries grouped below the Brandt Line, drawn in 1980 by the Commission on International Development Issues. It has proved an enormously suggestive concept for decolonial activism and scholarship over the last forty years, and has been the basis of significant theoretical contributions from Haníbal Quijano, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, and Raewyn Connell. But the Global South is not a framework that can readily account for what the cultural texts of wealthy but relatively small nations like Australia and New Zealand might share with those of their hemispheric neighbours. Clearly, any suggestion that settlers in the hemispheric South can somehow slip into the structurally-dominated position of the nations and subjectivities of the ‘Global South’ is problematic.
The idea of ‘biogeographic’ South-South connections, on the other hand, remains under theorised. The oceans between us offer one point of departure. The South African critic Meg Samuelson speaks of the ‘blue southern hemisphere’ to emphasise the importance of the sea to our experience of place in the South. For her, Southernness can be considered ‘a littoral condition’, in the sense that we live on relatively isolated strips of land surrounded by relatively large stretches of water.
But what of the land itself? In An Ecology of World Literature, Alexander Beecroft proposes the ‘biome’ as a model for the comparative study of human cultures. Biomes are the intermediate level of classifying environments in terrestrial biology (between the eight large-scale ecozones and 800-plus smaller ecoregions). Each of the fourteen biomes represents ‘a shared set of challenges and constraints to life in a given region’, leading to common adaptive features in species that may not be genetically related. As a result, regions of a given biome – whether desert, temperate grassland, or Mediterranean forest – share similar kinds of plant and animal life worldwide.
Beecroft, who began his career studying parallels between the literatures of early Greece and China, proposes the study of ‘literary biomes’ as a strategy for working between literatures with little direct contact. While his six literary biomes are metaphors for broad linguistic ecologies, Beecroft’s creative adaption of biological terminology has much to offer. The literal ecological biomes shared by geographically remote but latitudinally aligned literatures of the southern hemisphere could provide a useful schema for comparative work.
Take, for example, the four countries of the conference participants. Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and South Africa are all situated entirely below the equator and mostly in the southern temperate zone below the tropic of Capricorn. Though separated by oceans, they inhabit parallel latitudes and display comparable assemblages of climate classes and biomes: desert and Xeric shrublands are common to north-western regions of South Africa and Australia; Mediterranean climates characterise the areas around Adelaide, Perth, and Capetown; temperate grasslands dominate much of Argentina but can also be found in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand; temperate broadleaf and mixed forests cover much of Aotearoa/New Zealand’s north island and large parts of Australia’s east coast. In 2016, when I visited Tasmania, Aotearoa/New Zealand, and Argentine Patagonia in the space of a year, the windblown, green-brown grasslands, and shared quality of light and air gave me a sense of Gondwanan oneness. The uncanny physical resemblance between biome-sharing regions of geographically distant countries invites us to consider their literatures together. Do their literary ecologies also share certain qualities of affect? Is there a ‘Southern’ literary biome?
As discussion progressed, we laughed more and more often. The experience of pilgrimage to the cultural metropoles of the North, especially when young, was something many of us shared. Often, this involved reverential visits to cultural sites: the Library of the British Museum, Bloomsday Dublin, Oscar Wilde’s grave. Treating canonical works of northern culture irreverently seems to be a common literary device across the South. We wondered if a generational shift might be underway, if the journey to the North may no longer be necessary in the way it once was. Movement between different southern hemisphere regions was more common among the younger writers and more overtly thematised in their work. We discussed the emergence of Beijing – literally ‘north capital’ – as a new metropole and were reminded of the friendship between the Chinese and Chilean poets Ai Qing and Pablo Neruda, an example of a fleeting world literary encounter that grew into a long-term correspondence.
Writers from different parts of the South described comparable experiences of being published in the North: publishers sometimes reluctant to concede northern readers could be interested in southern settings and subjects; publishers who encouraged writers to exoticise themselves. Nonetheless, it was apparent from our conversations that, for the most part, publication in the North remains necessary for southern writers to reach readers in other parts of the hemisphere. We were surprised by the extent to which even the Australian and Aotearoa/New Zealand writing scenes remain separate from each other, with most contact funnelled through the ‘colonial chute’ of multinational publishers based in the North. In Spanish-speaking publishing, acquisitions and mergers over the last decade have concentrated ownership in the hands of three large northern-owned companies. While Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Lima, and Bogotá remain important hubs of literary culture and home to vibrant small publishers, publication in Spain is nowadays the surest way for a Latin American writer to find an international readership.
There were a variety of views among the group on the question of how much power we have to choose the place from which we write. Some of us – younger and perhaps luckier – were attracted to the idea of multiple self-chosen allegiances to place. Others were more fatalistic and resigned, viewing the formative psychic influence of home as something pre-ordained, inescapable. ‘You can no more choose your birthplace than your mother’, someone said. Several of us spoke of home as a place of unfinished business, even of haunting. A few writers whose work draws on deep, multi-generational community connections with specific locations, expressed surprise and sadness to hear so much ambivalence about the idea of home.
We spoke of the novel as an intrinsically melancholy form and of disillusionment as one of its fundamental themes. Ecological destruction was a key cause of disillusionment for many of us and a preoccupation of our writing. Others spoke of ‘consoling landscapes’ that might be approached through song. We wondered if the relative closeness of the human and non-human worlds might be an attribute of southern writing. Not everyone liked the idea of the South as a ‘geographic imaginary’. Geography, we were reminded, is made through violence. One writer suggested it would be better to put the imagination first and emphasise the active process of inventing a new and better ‘imagined geography’.
We spoke of the idea of the literary canon and of its peculiar resistance to attacks of all kinds. Some of us were adamant that southern writing should try to avoid becoming an alternative canon. Others saw potential in unconventional, counter-hegemonic canon building. The small-scale South-South translation projects recently undertaken by Giramondo in Australia and UNSAM Edita in Argentina might be seen as cross-canonical, in the sense that they promote the circulation of southern texts that already enjoy a degree of recognition in their own linguistic and literary context but haven’t yet been translated into other major southern languages or published elsewhere in the south. In the Australian context, we spoke of landscape as a repository for an ancient canon that some Indigenous communities are trying to recover and rebuild.
Conscious of the language in which our conversations were being conducted, we talked about the way English is taught as a foreign language around the world. Some writers expressed concern about the tendency to keep non-native speakers within the communicative function of language and ignore its expressive function. Others spoke of a preference for music over meaning, of the search for a tongue of inexpressibility, of the need to break authoritarian language.
Many of us were hopeful about exploiting the polylingualism of major world languages. We spoke of the rich expressive possibilities of English inflected by Māori and Australian Indigenous languages, of Argentine Spanish as ‘the South of language’, and of the special status of Afrikaans as an ‘accused language’. We spoke of the problem of language death in Australia, Southern Africa, and Latin America, but also of recent community-led initiatives to resurrect endangered Indigenous languages. Several participants told moving stories about the experience of recovering lost languages, others about not being able to speak their parents’ or grandparents’ tongue.
Since the South is a place of mixed heritage, we reasoned that the literary form of southern writing would need to be a kind of fusion. A handful of those present were strongly committed to an avant-garde project of formal newness, described as carving out a new space in a new space. Others expressed weariness with the aesthetics of transgression and breakage and preferred recuperative, consultative, collective projects.
As you will have gathered, there was no more consensus among us than you would expect at any other gathering of writers. But there was a growing sense of occasion, of excitement, of distances being traversed, as we all leaned forward, inventing something together, listening furiously.
In the evenings each day, public readings from creative work were held in the Mitchell Library auditorium – a separate part of the program to the daytime theoretical discussions. The headlights of the traffic on Sir John Young Crescent panned across three high arched windows, as each writer rose in turn to read at the lectern on the low stage. Coetzee and Jones, as convenors, left us free to choose what we read. There was no organising principle or obligation to address the theme of the south. As a result, the texts were disparate, and offered a very provisional account of southern writing, as perhaps any account must be. ‘There is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and speculative’, Jorge Luis Borges once wrote. To me, however, south-south resonances did seem to emerge. I have arranged my account of the readings according to literary biomes, an approach as arbitrary and speculative as any other, but one that invites relational thinking across the south.
Imminence (2019) by the Argentine writer Mariana Dimópulos and Sorry (2006) by Gail Jones both capitalise on the figurative resonance of deserts in settler narratives to explore the motivation behind cathartic acts of violence by traumatised women.
Throughout Imminence, the narrator, a new mother on her first night home after a pregnancy that nearly killed her, wrestles with the urge to hurt her infant son, Isaac, whom she finds she cannot love. Since much of the action is confined to the interior of her Buenos Aires apartment, our few brief glimpses of the Argentine landscape, in flashback, gain symbolic weight: the river in the Buenos Aires delta she recklessly swims across at night, at 36, when a long-term lover pressures her on the question of babies; the bleak ‘desert town’ of the interior, where Ivan, the man who will eventually father her child, picks her up.
The fleeting but significant presence of the physical desert in Dimópulos’s novel builds on a pattern of allusions to Old Testament desert mythology. An epigram from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling introduces God’s testing of Abraham as an intertext. Kierkegaard found Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son appalling, but admired his ability to go on loving Isaac after the boy was spared. The epigram’s implication of narrowly averted infanticide generates enormous suspense, as the reader fears for Isaac, the narrator’s son, but also hints at a hopeful – or at least less horrifying – reading of the novel’s ambiguous climax.
The desert of Gail Jones’s Sorry lies on a cattle property in the spinifex scrub south of Broome in far north-western Australia. The culminating violence, this time, is directed toward the father, Nicholas, a British anthropologist, abusive husband, and furtive rapist of Aboriginal girls. His daughter, the protagonist, Perdita, begins her story by recounting the aftermath of Nicholas’ death by stabbing. She has a clear memory of blood spattering the blue dress of her close friend Mary, the family’s Aboriginal maid. Mary’s guilt, self-evident to white police in 1940s outback Australia, is not so clear to the contemporary reader, who learns through Perdita’s fractured first and third person narrative that both she and her mentally unstable mother, Stella, had good reason to wish Nicholas Keene dead.
If the Abrahamic allusions in Imminence take us into the narrator’s desolate mental state in her Buenos Aires apartment, Sorry’s many references to Shakespeare being read in the desert serve to characterise mother and daughter’s quite different relationships to ‘barren Australia’. Stella recites sonnets, dreams of snow falling on the desert, and insists that everything one needs to know about life is contained in Shakespeare. Perdita comes to love the local landscape. Against her mother’s northern universalism, she counterposes the ‘huge unelaborated life’ of her provincial reality: ‘hot wind’, ‘the hum of blowflies’ and ‘the scamper of unseen lizards’, as well as the Indigenous ways of knowing she has begun to encounter though Mary: ‘the floaty feeling induced by hearing Aboriginal songs by firelight’. Perdita’s embryonic interest in southern languages and traditions, however, remains that of an outsider and is complicated when she fails to defend Mary against the accusation of Nicholas’s murder. Ultimately, the novel’s attention to structures of kinship and multi-racial community in Australia’s north-western desert becomes an exploration of the ‘dense and complicated meanings’ of the word sorry.
In both novels, desert places signify a failure of love at individual level that connects to broader social forces – the pressure contemporary society places on women to partner and bear children, settler Australians’ reluctance to apologise for the wrongs of colonialism.
Agaat (2006) by the South African novelist Marlene van Niekerk, and Taboo (2018) by Kim Scott, both dramatise a settler’s voluntary transferral of the ownership of a pastoral property to those they have dispossessed.
Agaat reimagines the plaasroman – the Afrikaans farm novel – for the post-apartheid era, proposing an alternative matrilineal and racially hybrid future through the white matriarch Milla de Wet’s passing of her beloved Grootmoedersdrift to the ‘coloured’ Agaat. Milla once adopted Agaat as a daughter, but cruelly demoted her to housekeeper on the birth of her biological son, Jak. Despite this past betrayal, Agaat cares diligently for her employer through the advanced stages of motor neuron disease, a slow, painful decline that coincides with the democratic transition in South Africa. The shifting power dynamic on the farm can be read as an allegory for broader social change, but it is the novel’s psychologically acute and compassionate attention to the minutiae of power as it manifests itself at domestic level – between mother and foster-daughter, master and servant, patient and carer – that holds the reader for 692 pages.
When Jak, now a snobbish expatriate ethnomusicologist, flies home in 1996 to a newly democratic South Africa for his mother’s funeral, he decides: ‘It’s not a country for me to live in. To study, yes’, and agrees to sign over the property to Agaat. Fleeing for his home in Canada, Jak accepts Agaat’s gift of a ram’s head horn: ‘Blow me a note on it now and again…I’ll hear it.’ In the final pages, the cardinal points come to represent the distance between exile and homeland: ‘North and south, a frozen interval.’
Scott’s Taboo takes an Indigenous Australian viewpoint on a similar transfer of land. A devoutly Christian white widower, Dan Horton, invites a group of Noongar onto his farm on the south coast of Western Australia. He wants them to help fulfil his wife’s dying wish: the opening of a memorial to the Indigenous victims of a nineteenth-century massacre on the site. Their ancestors were victims, his perpetrators. Horton proposes his guests meet him in a spirit of Christian forgiveness, but at the same time disputes the number of dead and tells them: ‘I hate the word massacre. It hurts me.’
The priority for the protagonist Tilly Coolman and her community is to instigate a process of healing on their own terms. They do this by bringing their language and stories back to taboo country and through the stirring ceremony that begins and ends the novel – the symbolic resurrection of a figure made of materials gathered from their ancestral land: timber, river stones, seeds, woven grasses, and bones. As in van Niekerk’s novel, the white landholder’s relationship with his son has broken down, and he ultimately recognises that reconciliation must begin with the relinquishment of appropriated land.
The Mediterranean South
Novelist Yewande Omotoso was born in Barbados, grew up in Nigeria, and now lives in South Africa. Her comic novel of upper class Cape Town, The Woman Next Door (2017), comes at large-scale questions of political reconciliation at the level of neighbourly relations. It is the story of the ‘hateship’ of Hortesia James and Marion Agostina, two formidable octogenarian widows – one Black, one white – who battle for dominance of the community committee in their exclusive gated neighbourhood of Katterjin.
Both are avoiding the legacies of miserable marriages. Hortesia refuses to comply with her husband’s dying request to meet his daughter from an extra-marital affair; Marion cannot accept she must sell her house to meet her husband’s debts. No longer able to cope alone, the neighbours must overcome their distaste for ‘Thelma and Louise bullshit’, join forces, and reckon with the past. Their personal struggles bring them into contact with the dark history of the old wine estate where their luxurious houses now stand – a place where slaves are buried under the Silver Tree, and Black families evicted during the early Apartheid years still claim the land.
In the Garden of the Fugitives (2018), by the South African-Australian writer Ceridwen Dovey, foregrounds the relatively recent phenomenon of South-South migration. Dovey’s neo-epistolary novel ties together narratives in Boston, southern Italy, small-town NSW, and Capetown through the email correspondence of its two principal characters, Royce and Vita.
Royce is a wealthy Bostonian bachelor, haunted by the premature death of his first love, Kitty Lushington, a promising archaeologist of Pompeii. For much of his adult life, he runs a foundation in her name to fund bright young women’s Ivy League studies, sometimes seeking inappropriate sexual favours in return. In old age and ill health, he contacts a former protégée, Vita, out of ‘a craven need for absolution’. Seventeen years after severing contact with Royce, Vita feels she has failed to live up to the promise he recognised in her as a student. Middle-aged, over-educated, and living alone in rural New South Wales, she has given up on finding love, and on her artistic ambition of making a film that will explain her complex sense of guilt and attachment to her native South Africa.
Vita’s strand of their confessional exchange focuses on the years immediately after her unpleasant undergraduate entanglement with Royce. As a lost young filmmaker, she returns ‘home’ to the South Africa she left as a child in the dying days of Apartheid. Instead of reconnection, she experiences alienation and artistic blockage. Vita consults a Black psychotherapist who treats white patients’ feelings of guilt through idiosyncratic therapies, but finds herself trapped in a process of erotic transference that eventually sends her back to Australia: ‘a different promised land for whites’.
Meanwhile, Royce’s vision of the Italian south as a place of sluggish heat, sexual decadence, and moral decay reminds us how northern European stereotypes of the Mediterranean are often superimposed on other southern worlds.
The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke (2018), by Kiwi writer Tina Makereti, is a big, rambunctious historical novel. Set in the 1840s, in the violent aftermath of the British annexation of Aotearoa/New Zealand, it traces the fortunes of the orphaned son of a Māori chieftain from his homeland to imperial London.
From his London death bed, Pōneke, who is wasting away from disease at only 16, directs his story to future generations of his own people back in Aotearoa – warning them not to forget their lineage and traditions. His earliest memories are of ‘green everywhere’, of ‘speckled light’ through gaps in the trees’ canopy, and of the silence ‘planted’ in him by witnessing his mother’s murder. After losing his family, Pōneke learns English in a mission school. His fluency wins him a job as assistant to a wealthy young British painter, who invites him to London, where ‘all the sky allowed to us is the sliver above the road’. Through the intervention of his patron’s family, he is educated as a British gentleman and is able to earn a living exhibiting himself as a curiosity.
Pōneke’s thoughtful observations of the customs of his Victorian audiences invert the anthropological gaze and signal the novel’s very contemporary attention to the performance of colonial subjecthood. ‘You can imitate the ways and speech of an English gentleman, but your black skin belies a black soul’, one doubter tells him. ‘Of course I am but a dancing cannibal’, Pōneke responds before terrifying his audience with a haka.
The most prescient exchanges in the novels, however, are between the Māori boy and other lonely representatives of colonised peoples in imperial London:
‘I am afraid your act does nothing to promote our cause,’ an African American Doctor of Science tells him at a Royal Society soiree.
‘What is our cause?’
‘Boy, my cause is the emancipation of my people. As it will ever be.’
Migrancy, asylum seekers, and orphanhood are preoccupations of J.M. Coetzee’s recent writing. In Sydney, the writer provoked a gasp from the audience when he revealed he would be reading from The Death of Jesus (2019), the highly anticipated third novel in the trilogy that began with The Childhood of Jesus (2013) and The Schooldays of Jesus (2016). We are now able to recognise the Jesus books as a serialised bildungsroman broken into the same three phases as Coetzee’s earlier trilogy, the autofictions Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002), and Summertime (2009) – the last of which deals with the death of the character John Coetzee.
Elena Marengo’s Spanish translation, La muerte de Jesús, was published in June 2019, many months before the English version, which appeared in Australia in October, and is slated for release in the USA and UK in 2020. Coetzee told the Argentine newspaper Clarín that his recent practice of publishing in Spanish first is a gesture of resistance to the global dominance of English: ‘I find myself ever more distant from the worldview proposed by the English language… Every language carries inside it a certain vision of the world, a vision its native speakers take for granted… For philosophical and political reasons, I am in favour of a plurality of languages and a plurality of opinions about the world.’ Whereas Coetzee once saw English as a means of escaping the narrow confines of mid twentieth-century Afrikaaner culture, he indicated in a 2008 letter to Paul Auster, that he has drifted away from the Anglophone weltanschauung since his move to Australia, a country where ‘public life is monolingual’ and reality is ‘mediated in a notably uninterrogated way through a single language’.
Monolingualism is just one of the ways in which the unnamed setting of the Jesus novels resembles Australia (though Spanish is the official language). The action unfolds in a prosperous and complacent country, with a functioning welfare system, little unemployment, and high migration – indeed everyone seems to be a migrant – where authorities nonetheless see the need to police the linguistic and cultural assimilation of new arrivals. This materialist, wholly utilitarian society is as culturally and spiritually arid as Plato’s City of the Pigs in the Republic, which, like Coetzee’s Novilla, has no spices, no surplus desire. Though the reader recognises allusions to the holy family and the gospels saturating the three novels, the characters within their autonomous textual world do not, for theirs is a society without religion or historical memory.
Only Simón, a newly arrived refugee in his forties who has taken a six-year-old boy named Davíd into his care, seems to recognise that life in the new world is missing a vital dimension. In Childhood, the pair arrive as boat people having been ‘washed clean’ of their language, true names, and all memory of their past lives. They form an unlikely ‘holy family’ with a young woman named Inés, who agrees to act as Davíd’s mother.
As the series progresses, the precocious boy grows more rebellious, resisting both formal schooling and his philosophically minded foster father’s lessons. In the Death of Jesus, Davíd, now ten, abandons his foster parents to live in an orphanage, where he succumbs to a mysterious illness, leaving those who knew him to speculate about the ways his brief life may have changed the world. The extract from the opening of the novel that Coetzee read for us in Sydney passed swiftly from the organisation of a football match among orphans to a discussion of the way in which ‘we are all orphans, for we are all, at the deepest level, alone in the world’.
What relationship might exist between Coetzee’s elaboration of the novelistic world of the Jesus trilogy and his contemporaneous efforts to forge connections between the literary worlds of the far southern hemisphere? The clearest link between the projects is their shared dialogic orientation. Throughout the Jesus novels, frequent allusions to Plato’s dialogues and those of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza underline the thematic importance of dialogue. But the trilogy’s form is also dialogic. Long passages of direct speech characterise Coetzee’s ‘late style’. Just as the characters must navigate this carefully under-determined ‘no-place’ without divine guidance or historical experience, the reader must make sense of it without the direction of an authoritative narrating voice. Simón and Davíd’s pedagogical dialogues therefore become a world-making exercise in themselves. In the event of civilisation-wide amnesia, the Jesus novels seem to ask, how much of the humanistic tradition could be reconstructed through the ‘natural philosophy’ of a parent and an inquisitive child in dialogue?
Coetzee’s recently expressed reservations about the English-speaking worldview, might nudge us toward a dystopian reading of the trilogy as a warning about the undesirability of a monolingual, monologic world. But given the radical historical and geographic openness of these novels, I suspect how we respond to their world depends very much on where we are reading from. In 2017, when I attended a conference on Coetzee’s work in Buenos Aires, many of the Brazilian and Argentine presenters recognised aspects of their countries in the world of the Jesus novels. If, from Australia, Novilla looks like an unflattering portrait of us – our unimaginativeness, our callousness toward refugees – from Argentina or South Africa, this spiritually lifeless but peaceful and materially prosperous society might look a lesser evil.
The format of Coetzee’s series of southern encounters has echoed the dialogic mode of the Jesus novels. The project might have been set up as a lecture series; instead it has established a framework within which a polycentric southern dialogue can unfold. Coetzee himself has been vital to making such gatherings possible, but during the events themselves he has mostly remained silent, leaving the talking to others, listening respectfully, and restricting himself to occasional Socratic questioning. Might the dialogic form of the novel – with its interplay of countervoices – offer a model for the process of collectively imagining an alternative, south-centred world literature? If so, what might be the larger rationale for such a project?
In a recent essay, Ben Etherington, who attended the conference in Sydney, asks whether to speak of ‘world literature’ is to make a ‘leap of faith’. Critics who profess such faith understand and accept that world literature’s prohibitive scale means it is no more susceptible to empirical measurement than God, human rights, or communism. Before the advent of Big Data and the aspiration to ‘distantly read’ the world’s entire literary output, critical humanist scholars of world literature did not seriously expect to overcome the problem of scale by making the entirety of the world’s verbal arts a consolidated object of study. Rather, they worked to develop a sense of this totality through speculative critical ‘encounters’ with world literary texts. World literary encounters are those meetings between literary worlds that radically enlarge an individual or group’s sense of the dimensions of a larger ungraspable whole: Lu Xun translating Gogol in Shanghai, Borges discovering the Arabian Nights in Palermo, Nettie Palmer devouring Proust at Caloundra.
Ever since Goethe’s influential reflections on ‘Weltliteratur’ in the 1820s, however, the ideal of globe-spanning mutually enriching exchange has existed in tension with the underlying condition of world literature’s possibility: the expansion of a capitalist world market through colonialism and the exploitation of labour and resources. As a result, one of world literature’s defining traits is a continual need to assert its autonomy from the globalisation of what Marx called ‘exchange value’: the equivalence that capitalism makes between unlike things in order to subject them to profitable exchange. Etherington therefore reframes world literature paradoxically as: ‘the study of those literary worlds brought about by the negation of literature’s globalisation’.
A world literature conceived as a negative ideal cannot pretend to be purely descriptive by restricting itself to mapping existing transnational literary networks. Instead, its task becomes to attend to the stubborn persistence of local literary ecologies in spite of globalisation. To understand world literature’s project, in Pheng Cheah’s terms, as ‘an active power in the making of worlds’, – a force for opening or making alternative worlds – might involve looking for implicit solidarities between literary communities who see themselves as acting in concert against the usurping influence of globalisation. Southern writing could be a powerful imagined community of this kind – provided enough writers and critics see the benefit.
We took a minibus to the Parramatta campus of Western Sydney University for our final gathering, which was held in the Female Orphan School, a carefully restored three-storey heritage building of red brick. One visiting writer remarked on the appropriateness of the venue given the concern with orphanhood in many of our books. The school was built in the Palladian style of the Scottish childhood home of its patroness, Elisabeth Macquarie. From 1813 to 1850, the daughters of Sydney’s poor – few of whom were actually orphans – were brought here to keep them from the risk of ‘moral corruption’ in the colony and to receive a basic education that would prepare them to work as domestic servants. For much of the twentieth century, the building operated as a psychiatric facility, a place the Sunday Herald described back in 1949 as ‘unscientific, obsolete, and inhuman’. Though the Orphan School nowadays operates as a gallery space and historical archive, the bare floors and paint-stripped interior brickwork still convey a carceral atmosphere.
By now, conversation flowed readily and there was warmth and fellow feeling in the room. We spoke of the fun of writing, the element of play, the importance of literary friendships, the indelible effect of hearing writers read aloud from their work. A final round of readings closed the conference. No English this time – another gesture. I will not forget the sound of poetry in Spanish and Afrikaans echoing the bleak passageways of the Orphan School. It has been a pleasure to encounter those voices again as I have read these writers’ books.
The legacy of ‘Writing from the South’, remains to be seen. Past gatherings of southern intellectuals and artists, like the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman’s ‘Writing the Deep South’ conferences (1997) and the Australian curator Kevin Murray’s ‘South Project’ (2003), were important pioneering ventures, but it has taken the intervention of a writer of Coetzee’s stature to draw significant attention and resources. At present, South African writers and scholars like Coetzee, Elleke Boehmer, Meg Samuelson, and Isabel Hofmeyr are among those prominently discussing Southern writing. Australasian and Latin American literary intellectuals have been slower to embrace the paradigm. They would need to be brought on board if it is to have a widespread impact in the region itself. Also unclear is who would have the global recognition and institutional clout to spearhead such an ambitious project in Coetzee’s absence.
challenges, I see enormous scope for future creative exchange and comparative critical
work across the South. The environmental groupings adopted here are just one of
many possible approaches to South-South comparison. On the strength of our
discussions in Sydney, I suspect the most widely acceptable approach will be
one that can encompass both biogeographic and Global South paradigms and perhaps
investigate the tension between them. While many objections to such a project might
be raised, nearly all of them risk reinforcing lazy assumptions of absolute
difference grounded in sanctioned ignorance of non-metropolitan cultures. The
effort of educating ourselves about other southern literatures should not be
underestimated, but the advantages of doing so could be considerable. Great
writing is being produced across the hemisphere; we are not enough aware of it.
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