The English Department at Rhodes University recently ran a symposium on nostalgia (“Nostalgia and disillusionment in the Southern African literary imaginary”) and having had a recent visit from Jacob Dlamini (author of the still-controversial Native Nostalgia), I decided to attend. Probably the most interesting insight of the day was shared by a few of the presenters and came from a very interesting Russian academic (who died this year) called Svetlana Boym which deals with how nostalgia affects the future.
In fact Boym, an academic and artist (essays, plays, photography) fled the USSR for the US in 1981 and made the dealing with the past via nostalgia central to all her work and ideas. This very startling idea (which is the title of her book on the issue, The Future of Nostalgia) is encapsulated in a paper called “Nostalgia and its Discontents“. Boym says: “Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy.” She goes on to say that nostalgia is most often connected to loss of home or place but actually it is a longing for a different time — “better time, or slower time — time out of time not encumbered by appointment books”.
But then comes the very interesting thought: nostalgia is not always retrospective, “it can be prospective as well” — “the fantasies of the past, determined by the needs of the present, have a direct impact on the realities of the future”.
Or it can go sideways: as in neither the past nor the future are in the intended destination but the nostalgia directs one into an exploration of the “side shadows and back alleys” — this Boym calls “off-modern” — a resistance to the linear timeline of progress marching towards the inevitably better and determined future.
So that brought me back to Dlamini (whose work was also on the symposium agenda) and his visit to our writing and editing classes in August. Dlamini is a very nice, congenial and very clever contrarian, who most certainly thinks for himself. He’s absolutely insistent that Native Nostalgia is “not an apology for apartheid, apartheid is a crime against humanity, look at page 13 in the book”. His argument, he says, is that “the black experience was not overdetermined by apartheid. This is not an original idea. Lewis Nkosi in the ’50s said not everything black people do is a response to apartheid and Njabulo Ndebele in the 80s was making this argument in his book Rediscovery of the Ordinary”.
“I’m angered that Soweto defines all black experience. I challenge the commonality of experience. Townships are no strangers to thought.”
So how to change the “single story” (using Chimamanda Agozi Ndichie’s idea) being told about black South Africa? It’s about using the techniques of familiarising and defamiliarising, says Jacob. In his latest book Askari, he takes on the idea abroad that every black person was a freedom fighter with his dissection of a collaborator and murderer who had been in ANC intelligence. “I am making an argument for complexity,” he said. “The South African story must be informed by all kinds of voices, experiences and histories.”
David Medalie from the University of Pretoria would agree. At the symposium he looked at both Native Nostalgia and Chris van Wyk’s Shirley, Goodness and Mercy. He pointed out that both authors were paying homage to their mothers — extraordinary, very ordinary women of love and agency and power in their lives. “They are both restoring to their mothers status as moral agents under apartheid,” Medalie said. They are also both showing the idiosyncratic nature of their individual relationships to the apartheid past and “redeeming a conception of the individual” and in the case of these two writers, the individual who wasn’t heroic, self-sacrificing and in the media spotlight.