By CRAIG MACKENZIE
On the face of it, it seems an outrage: JM Coetzee, South Africa’s most prominent author of the past few decades, selling out to an American institution, which will henceforth be the repository of some of the most avidly discussed and researched literary works in recent South African history.
Where were our local institutions? Why could Coetzee’s papers not have found a home where they belong — in the matrix that gave them birth? And where people can pronounce his name?
Will local scholars now be placed at a severe disadvantage in not having ready access to this trove? Is this another form of exploitation of the developing world by the rich West?
There are no clear answers to these questions.
The first thing to say, perhaps, is that Coetzee is by no means the first South African writer to lodge his papers with the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre at the University of Texas in Austin. The following writers all have significant holdings at the research centre: HC Bosman, Roy Campbell, Jack Cope, Stephen Gray, Uys Krige, William Plomer and Olive Schreiner.
But is this not precisely the point — that some of our most prominent writers have been bought off by the wealthy Americans?
There are arguments for and against. First, perhaps the best thing about this is that some of South Africa’s finest literary talent gets to rub shoulders with the likes of Byron, the Brownings, Joyce, Lawrence, Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess, Doris Lessing, another writer with Southern African connections, and John Fowles — among many, many others. In other words, instead of keeping it local and parochial – each writer to his or her own region — “our” writers are placed in a much larger cultural context, in which comparative studies and greater exposure in general can occur.