Getting onto the A-list

A writer’s chance of being rescued from looming oblivion is all too often a matter of pot luck, writes Leon de Kock

Getting onto the A-List

IN HIS book, Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth-Century Poets, Ian Hamilton talks about what he calls a “sub-list” of writers, a “second list” on the notepads of literary historians and anthologisers. In Hamilton’s estimation, these are dead poets who are “teetering on the edge of oblivion, an oblivion which presumably they … spent whole lifetimes seeking to transcend”.

Such oblivion is the spectre that haunts writers of literary works. Poets especially fear being remembered as “minor”, if anything. But serious writers of all kinds want to be remembered, perhaps even commemorated.

Nonetheless, ending up on the “sub-list”, or the “second list” — the limbo of looming oblivion — is the actual fate of all but a handful of published writers.

Exceptions to this bleak but necessary rule are marked by the event of re-publication. Reprints of current titles aside, the really big prize for writers is when out-of-print books are republished during their lifetime, on the impulse of a publisher’s sense of literary value. Even better for a writer’s reputation, but less personally satisfying, is to be published again — and again — posthumously.

Literary critics call this process of selective republication, or recuperation of books that have gone out of print, “canonisation”. Whole academic careers have been based on “canon studies”.

This is why the recent new editions — in effect re-publications with the mantle of canonisation — of AC Jordan’s The Wrath of the Ancestors and Tales From Southern Africa (under the AD Donker imprint), Mongane Wally Serote’s To Every Birth its Blood and Ellen Kuzwayo’s Call Me Woman (both Picador Africa) are of such interest.

Literary recycling of this nature is as much about a savvy sense of marketing opportunities as it is about a literature coming of age. The point at which out-of-print works are canonised in glossy and prefaced new editions is the juncture at which commercial publishing decisions and informed literary evaluation meet. But such a meeting of the commercial and the aesthetic motive remains dependent on fairly arbitrary and happenstance decisions often based on selective considerations of taste.

The present titles are a case in point. Few people would dispute the importance of Jordan’s The Wrath of the Ancestors as a founding work of black written literature. Originally published in Xhosa in 1940 by Lovedale Press — the “first real novel written in Xhosa”, writes Rosalie Finlayson in the new edition’s preface — its translation by AC Jordan himself, with the help of his sister, Priscilla P Jordan, is itself a literary event of note.

It is a historical narrative written with a grand Shakespearian sweep of noble characters — Xhosa princes and princesses, priests and councillors — and it conjoins stories from an oral world with the modern order of the printed book.

Similarly, Jordan’s Tales From Southern Africa (first published in 1973 by the University of California Press) offers that unique hybrid of black South African literature: a view through the frame of printed book-English of tales (in this case, folktales that include elements of the supernatural) originating in spoken Xhosa. Has anyone noted the fact that this book pre-dates, by many years, “magical realism” in South African fiction written by more fancied names?

Picador Africa, a brand-new imprint, has brought out new flap-cover editions of two indisputably important books — Kuzwayo’s Call Me Woman (Ravan Press, 1985) and Serote’s stream-of-consciousness novel of the revolutionary 1970s and 1980s, To Every Birth its Blood (Ravan, 1981).

So far, so good. But, some people would ask — if you re-publish Jordan’s The Wrath of the Ancestors, why not also re-publish another, equally famous, black novel, Thomas Mofolo’s Shaka (Morija, 1910), the last publication of which appears to have been Daniel P Kunene’s translation from the Sotho original, issued by Heinemann in 1981 and now out of print.

And why not add Noni Jabavu’s The Ochre People, a poignant and touching narrative, to the list? Doesn’t she figure as one of the very earliest black woman writers, upstaging her famous father, DDT Jabavu, and grandfather, John Tengo Jabavu? The Ochre People was reprinted by Ravan Press in 1982, but finding a new copy outside of a library will not be an easy exercise.

Re-publishing Kuzwayo’s testimony to a life of unique betterment-under-hardship is good and well, although you might make a case for rescuing Miriam Tlali’s landmark Muriel at Metropolitan (Ravan, 1975) from the ranks of the forgotten. Tlali’s Muriel has been marked as the first novel by a black woman to be published in South Africa, and it made a big impact in the 1970s.

Serote’s novel is fine as a re-publication, but why not also rediscover the black revolutionary poets of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Mafika Pascal Gwala and Sipho Sepamla, not to mention a slew of others, including Oswald Mtshali. Poets don’t do well in the republication game: the best they can hope for is inclusion in one of the inevitably fickle anthologies that appear from time to time. And has anyone in the publishing industry remembered Mtutuzeli Matshoba’s Call Me Not a Man (Ravan, 1979), stories of raw power?

In fact, once you look a little closer, the list gets longer and longer. One of the most canny — and funniest — works of literary experimentalism in black South African fiction, Dugmore Boetie’s Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost (“edited” by Barney Simon), was last published by a house called Four Walls Eight Windows in the US in 1989. (The Cresset Press, London, first published the work in 1969.) Good luck if you want to procure a copy of that great yarn.

Come to think of it, unless you’re a collector or a lucky library member, you won’t be able to get your hands on Simon’s hackingly funny stories, Joburg, Sis! either. Joburg, Sis! — what a great title — was published by Bataleur Press in 1974. Stephen Gray used to perform these stories in his classes at RAU with uproarious effect. They deserve to be heard again.

The same goes for Alex la Guma’s haunting early collection of short fiction, A Walk in the Night and Other Stories — it was last published by Northwestern University Press in 1985. Happy hunting if you’re looking for that one.

It’s not only the older South African novels which are in grave need of rescue from oblivion. You might expect Anthony Delius’s big historical novel, Border (David Philip, 1976), to be out of print, or RRR Dhlomo’s An African Tragedy (Lovedale, 1920s), but you will seek in vain for a new copy of Chris van Wyk’s outrageously neglected experimental novel, The Year of the Tapeworm (Ravan, 1996) or Peter Wilhelm’s searingly brilliant contribution to white South African bleakness, LM and Other Stories (Ravan, 1975). Wilhelm’s The Healing Process (AD Donker, 1988), a beguiling novel, is also out of print. If you’re lucky, you might get a copy of his The Mask of Freedom (AD Donker, 1994), which is listed as still being in print. Wilhelm is an inexplicably neglected writer of formidable poise, one of our better prose stylists.

Even this tentative list of titles that may be in contention to get off the sub-list and onto the A-list, is highly selective and marked by personal taste. Many readers and critics would be able to offer their own, alternative list. But there are only so many publishers, ordinary mortals whose pick of the sub-list of South African literature — let’s say everything below the undisputed Nobel champions JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, and I would add Athol Fugard — is every bit as idiosyncratic as mine and yours.

That’s the lot of most writers, even after they have ascended to the heights of literary publication in the first place — the pot luck of a publisher’s call against the forces of impending oblivion. It’s hardly a fair bargain. Become a writer at your peril. It’s easier to be mortal.