Writing South Africa Now 2015: in Conjunction with the Southern African Poetry Project was a two-day colloquium held at the University of Cambridge on 26-27 June 2015.
Started in 2013, Writing South Africa Now is an annual UK-based colloquium on South African literature that seeks to encourage international dialogue by connecting graduates, early-career researchers and academics working in this field. The Southern African Poetry Project was also launched in 2013. It was based on a collaboration between the Centre for Commonwealth Education at Cambridge and the University of Witwatersrand, aiming to develop research on Southern African poetry and to support its teaching in secondary schools in the UK and South Africa.
The panels centred on the themes of “Testimony and Truth”, “Politics and Aesthetics”, “The Global and Transcultural”, and “Identity and Representation” (WSAN.ZAPP 2015 Full programme). The delegates – literary scholars, poets, performers and writers – created a critically-engaged and supportive atmosphere in which ideas could be tested and new ways of thinking about South African literature could emerge. Between panels on the first day of the conference, biographer and memoirist Lyndall Gordon read from her work, along with novelist and short-story writer Henrietta Rose-Innes. Rita Barnard Skyped in her stimulating talk on emerging trends in South African temporality. The day ended with a reading and performance by poets Denis Hirson, Toni Stuart and Malika Ndlovu. (A recording of this night’s readings will be available soon.)
The second day of the conference began with the final panel, and then moved on to a thought-provoking address by Kelwyn Sole on poetry and literary criticism in South Africa. The round table in the afternoon featured Denis Hirson, Kate Kilalea, Toni Stuart and panel chair Isobel Dixon in discussion on anthologising poetry. The conference closed with a selection of readings by poets Kelwyn Sole, Kate Kilalea and Isobel Dixon.
The warm environment of Writing South Africa Now 2015: in Conjunction with the Southern African Poetry Project is a testament to the enthusiasm of its participants and the value of bringing together writers, poets and academics to explore the South African literary landscape.
Here, some delegates offer their reflections on the conference:
Anique Kruger: This year’s Writing South Africa Now conference afforded me the opportunity to present a paper on contemporary South African spoken word poetry. The heartening experience of presenting this work for a group of South Africanists with a shared interest in South African poetry was made all the more pleasurable and rewarding by the diversity of the conference delegates. Indeed, academics, poets, publishers, and educators alike were all present for this celebration of South African literature in all its forms. Having spent a good deal of time grappling with the supposed antagonism between the academy and practitioners of the spoken word, it became clear as the conference progressed that the boundary between poets and academics is highly permeable, if not non-existent. The insights offered by the creative artists in attendance were mirrored by the passion with which the academics present engaged with the various literary texts they brought to the table. The depth of the discussions which took place over the course of the conference is testament to the necessity of bringing thinkers from all spheres of South African literary life together in conversation about this writing that enriches all our lives. The profound gratification which I took from sharing my own love for South African verse with many of my personal academic and poetic idols is beyond words.
Megan Jones: …the warmth and vitality of the intellectual space created by the organisers was palpable. Listening to my fellow speakers, what struck me was the density inhering in the “Now” towards which the colloqium gestured. Rather than describing a contemporary moment, to speak of the “Now” evokes a layering of temporality and experientiality. Texts extend rhizomatically across the horizons of past, present and future; they pull us back into South African literary histories (Kelwyn Sole and Malika Ndlovu) and push us relentlessly towards the emergent (Toni Stuart and Anique Kruger). Whatever our modes of critical reading as we hover in this textual continuum, we find– to steal a tiny quote from the astonishing poet Kate Kilalea– the possibilities of South African writing’s “Wow”.