As some of my readers might have noticed, I’m currently specialising in South African literature – Afrikaans literature, to be more precise. I myself am Dutch, and had never set a foot in South Africa until three months ago. It is kind of weird to specialise in a literature that I’m so uncommon with and it has its own specific challenges.
First, let me tell you how it came to be. Almost two years ago, I took a course on South African literature. I had a little time left, I had once read Ingrid Jonker and enjoyed it, I thought it would be fun. So my attitude was pretty casual and I never expected to be struck by the course like I was. For some reason, everything we read and heard just resonated with me. I especially remember the teacher showing this animation of a poem by Adam Small and me just crying in the middle of class. That was the moment I knew this was a literature I needed to do more with. So I started buying some more books and I enrolled in a course Afrikaans in Amsterdam.
Now, I need to explain something about Afrikaans. I am Dutch myself and had never heard any Afrikaans before I started my course at university. Luckily, Afrikaans is a creole language which was heavily influenced by Dutch. This means that any Dutch person can pretty easily understand Afrikaans, and any Afrikaans person can easily understand Dutch. Apart from Dutch and English, my language skills had never been good enough to be able to understand all nuances in a literature in another language. French was my third language, and I’m able to read French books, but I would be hesitant to do an academic analysis about French literature because to do that you need to be able to understand every little aspect in the language. I always wanted to be able to look beyond Dutch, English and translated literatures and was very disappointed when it turned out that wasn’t a right fit for me (I suck at linguistics). And suddenly, here was this whole other language, from a wholly different culture and country, and without too much trouble, I was able to understand it! This was incredibly motivating to learn more about this literature because I could finally do something I regretted not being able to for years.
Apart from being able to read it in the original language, there was another thing that struck me in Afrikaans literature. I felt an urgency in this literature that I really enjoyed. Because of South Africa’s tumultuous recent history, this is a people working through a trauma and you definitely notice this in its literature. I like this kind of engagement with society, it makes me feel the need of literature. Suddenly it doesn’t feel like I’m this waste of money studying a hobby, but I’m studying this social process that is helping people working through a history of oppression.
So I had my motivation, but again, before I started this two years ago, I had only read a Selected Poems by Ingrid Jonker. Suddenly I wanted to specialise in a literature I knew absolutely nothing about! And the only thing that helps in this situation is to read. To read a lot. I started with poetry and a few more simple novels. Now I’m reading more difficult ones and I’m working through the complete oeuvres of authors I want to use for my thesis. But I started out with no context at all and that can be difficult. No man is an island and neither is a writer. Every writer relates to other writers and it is a slow process to be able to see those links. By now, I’ve read a lot of poetry by Breyten Breytenbach and Antjie Krog, but I still know very little of the authors that influenced them. Now, I’m slowly starting to read the younger generation of Afrikaans poetry (Ronelda S. Kamfer, Nathan Trantraal, Bibi Schippers), and I’m trying to see how they relate to the authors I already know.
But maybe it also has an advantage to specialise in a national literature that’s not your own. We grow up with all these standard ideas about what good literature is, what themes are important, why an author is famous. In high school, I learned to pay attention to symbolism in Mulisch, I read Nijhoff to see what a sonnet looks like and during my exam I discussed postmodern aspects in Vissen Redden by Annelies Verbeke. I don’t know how I would read these books if I wasn’t educated in the Dutch school system. However, not having this context makes sure you read with a more open mind, and maybe that’s just what I need to be able to continue my research.