My former student Brian O. hipped me to Rachel Donadio's piece, "Post-Apartheid Fiction," in this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine. Its real focus is on the 30-something generation of South African Black male novelists (no female or mixed-race writers are really profiled), and in usual Times fashion, the central issue appears to be: who's going to be the next big thing, which is to say, who'll fill Zakes Mda's footsteps? Donadio selects Niq Mhlongo, one of the liveliest of the new vein of writers, while also mentioning two of the once bright hopes, now deceased--K. Sello Duiker (above, from Boekworm.co.za), a suicide at 30 after a battle with bipolar disorder and depression, and Phaswane Mpe, who died of AIDS at 34.
She also touches upon the larger context, exploring the psychic and social toll the post-apartheid era and its successes, including the rise of a Black elite and middle class, and discontents, from increasing societal hierarchization and stratification to the scourge of AIDS, have taken on the emerging writer, and on the various kinds of negotiations, such as writing in English while speaking local, sometimes hybridized languages, for a public that is marked by extensive illiteracy and poverty, placing the books out of reach of the very people portrayed in them. Who, Donadio seemed to be asking--as Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee, who as one of the leading non-Black South African writers is briefly mentioned here, asked in one of the most important chapters of Elizabeth Costello when the eponymous White female writer confronts the Black African author who's performing his African literariness on the ship, in effect speaking for Coetzee himself and countless other African writers--is the intended audience or audiences? And what roles does such a literature play and what effects can it have? This got me to thinking about the different ways, short of translation into a different, more accessible medium (film, TV) the narratives might circulate and reach the mass of Black people there. I left with the sense that the complexity of the new society that has come into being may require a range of approaches and styles, and perhaps no single literary powerhouse will emerge anytime soon, which wouldn't be a problem; what's wrong with an array of voices, in concert and discord, reflecting the realities of the South Africa that now exists?
Prisoners of (Gay) Sex
Also in this Sunday's Times Magazine was Negar Azimi's "Prisoners of Sex," which looked at the circulation and rise of contemporary globally-informed gay identification and practices in some Muslim Arab countries and the accompanying brutal, sometimes deadly backlash. (The article focused primarily on men and said only a little bit about the problems facing lesbians beyond looking at the life of one woman.) Several aspects of the article interested me. One was what I saw as a quasi-Foucauldian* narrative playing out: as the globalized forms of gay identities took hold, in Egypt for example, supplanting prior local forms, and were publicly named and performed, new rhetorics and forms of repression also came into being, since what was not discursively identified could not be punished before, or at least in the same ways, and with the same rhetoric. One example of this was the film The Yacoubian Building, which showed a bourgeois gay man living out a life that might not be out of place outside Egypt, and it met with swift condemnation from religious conservatives and political opportunists, yet I imagine that more subterranean, local forms of homosexual desire and practices, which were not publicly aired or presented so overtly, might not have provoked such a clamor. (I'm not arguing for them, let me make clear--and as the article notes, this film has been a runaway hit.) The suggested conflict between the globalized gay identities and practices (and more broadly other kinds and forms of social liberalism), and concepts of religiously inflected nationalism was also fascinating. In effect, one way of reading the attacks on gay people was as a horribly misguided means through which to "defend" and "protect" the sanctity of the Egyptian-- Muslim Arab--nation from this pernicious Western form of (post-)modernity. (Of course there's a lot more to be said on this.) As a result, in an effort to end some of the persecution, representatives from the global gay rights movement chose not to appeal to universalist or Western notions, but to specific local beliefs, concerns and worldviews, particularly around the lack of popular, public support for torture, with some success. Scott Long of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Campaign (IGLHRC) described it like this: "Perhaps we had less publicity for the report in the United States because we avoided fetishizing beautiful brown men in Egypt being denied the right to love....We wrote for an Egyptian audience and tried to make this intelligible in terms of the human rights issues that have been central in Egyptian campaigns. It may not have made headlines, but it seemed to make history." Yet Azimi makes clear that the conditions for further repression and oppressive measures are present, and that such an eventuality could very well happen at any point. He ends the with the following two paragraphs, which capture something central to his piece:
Today the Queen Boat continues to sit docked on the Nile, its name clumsily respelled “Queen Boot” in garish green neon. It is hardly the gay hangout it once was, instead catering to the very occasional budget tourist. Many dragged away by the police that evening five years ago have since left the country, and others keep a low profile, although there are signs that young people have begun cruising the Nile banks again and meeting on the Internet.
As I prepared to leave Cairo at the beginning of the fall, I received an e-mail message from M., the businessman from the Queen Boat, since relocated to the States. “I sit here, and the Americans talk about something called Islamic fascism, the Arabs go on about their values,” he wrote. “All of us, and I don’t mean gay men, I mean all of us who don’t fit the norm — democracy activists, queens, anything — it’s us who get branded as Western, fifth columnists. We pay the price.”
*Azimi does mention Foucault at one point, in fact, though only for illustrative purposes.
Spelman to Make Lorde Archive Public
Rod 2.0 posts on Spelman College's plan to make Audre Lorde's personal archive public. He points out that according to Lorde's will, her archive, which she bequeathed to the historically Black women's college after her death in 1992, was to remain closed until a biography of her was completed. That occurred in 2004 with the publication of The Warrior Poet. He goes on to note that the Women's Research and Resource Center, which houses the Lorde archive and is celebrating its 25th anniversary, will, according to its director, Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, be shifting its focus to combatting homophobia. What a wonderful step for Spelman College, for all interested in Lorde's crucial and pioneering work and in Black LGBT literature, and for increased openness and discussions, particularly around gender and sexualities studies, at historically Black colleges and universities!
Update: From Reggie H--> FYI: Brian Whitaker, author of Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, and Noa Sattath, the executive director of Jerusalem Open House (which hosted World Pride 2006 in Jerusalem), were interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air Wednesday 12/5. The interview is available on their website.