on teaching the plaasroman in 2019

I

I teach a second-year Afrikaans literature module on the plaasroman, a module that tracks the development of a subgenre of Afrikaans prose which originated in the 1930s and was popularised by authors such as CM van den Heever. A typical 1930s plaasroman is relatively easy to spot: Stylistically, it contains six-page long baroque descriptions of sunsets, and thematically offers naturalised arguments for the subordination of women to men, and of black and brown characters to white characters. This stands in disjunct to the apparent importance placed on it (within the Afrikaans lit programme) by offering it as a semester-long, 16-credit bearing module.

I have to rely on my students’ critical distance to retrograde aspects in these texts (including racial pejoratives and rearward views on land ownership – for example, only males are allowed to inherit land, and only white characters are fully realised with regard to their relation to nature, while black characters are presented either as comic relief or in animalistic ways).

My students hail from largely rural or peri-urban backgrounds; many of them, like myself, white Afrikaners who grew up on farm.

The main concern with the current teaching of the plaasroman is identitarian in nature: Approached as a set of settler narratives, instead of surfacing common cause and shared humanity amongst all South Africans, the teaching of the plaasroman invariably echoes heteronormative and exclusionary sentiments on gender, nature and (land) ownership – even when taught alongside supposedly mediating and critical gender and ecocritical theory. Compounding this is the praxis of teaching the plaasroman through the socioliterary lens of the settler grondnarratief (literally ‘narrative of the soil’) i.e. socio-cultural narratives which deal with the materially-situated relation between the earth/nature and subject. As the (meta and literary-critical) language use of the grondnarratief itself is steeped in hierarchical notions of identity, relationality and alliance (cf. the problems of having only one authoritative secondary source text on the plaasroman in Afrikaans, Ampie Coetzee’s cringe worthy ‘n Hele os vir ‘n ou broodmes) the teaching of these texts, almost by default, activates contentious, conceivably regressive affective discussions of how gender and land ownership correlate with identity in present-day South Africa.

So we’ve arrived at a bit of a pickle. We don’t want to throw out a whole genre of Afrikaans fiction. But also, at some time, we will need to start reimagining the teaching of Afrikaans literature in more inclusive ways. Changing classroom demographics, and more importantly, a changing and more productive notion of how we see ourselves as citizens, necessitates this.

II

Literary queer studies can be extended beyond narrow identitarian concerns, and into practical fields of, for example, experience. Really, queer theory has less to do with the experience of LGBTQI* folks than with a general destabilising orientation toward fixity. (And it is perhaps a disservice to students that their first encounter with QT is invariably tied to the analysis of a text with LGBTQI* themes.) It is an approach which aims to surface fault lines in the static nature of gendered, familial and national identity, in a way prodding these categories to see what appears.

In approaching the plaasroman, the effect is twofold: Firstly, queer theory views the normative and naturalised nature of identity categories/constructs as inherently problematized, so much so that the “constituent elements of anyone’s gender aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (Sedgwick, 1994:8). (We could productively substitute the term ‘nationality’ for ‘gender’ here.) Secondly, by being located at the academic margin, working with queer theory resembles the process of marginalisation itself. At the risk of being marginalised, we take on an academic position that combines the ‘political’ and the ‘postmodern’ in a way that foregrounds empathy, leading to what Willie Burger (2012) calls engaged approaches to texts, an “evaluative criticism that does not return to superseded humanistic beliefs but that values literature that enables us to share our most important questions and our deepest emotions”. Knowingly embracing such a marginalised position actualises possible empathy/identification with marginalised subjects in the text.

At the same time, through an insistence on the denaturalisation of conventionalised categories, it comes close to imagining marginalisation, relationality and belonging in different, more emphatic, ways.

III

You, of course, don’t need to self-identify as part of the LGBTQI* community to incorporate queer approaches in your teaching practice. (To be completely frank, to reduce the risk of overscaffolding and niche-ification, it might be beneficial if more non-self-identifying-as-LGBTQI* lecturers take up queer pedagogical approaches.)

It is important to consider if I’m creating a classroom as safe space for my students to critically reflect on how different facets of identity is performed in different contexts. (Thinking through queer theory about safer spaces, we need to avoid a fundamental fallacy: It is not that a queer classroom is a safer space for queer students, but rather that a queer classroom can be a safer space for all students.)  A classroom where we don’t ask “What does it mean to be a boer?” but rather “Which repeatable actions do I perform on a continuous basis for me to be deemed a boer?” And also not “What does it mean for me to be both an Afrikaner and a South African?” But rather: “How does the oscillation between taking on the performative identity of being an Afrikaner and the performative identity of being a South African citizen impact on my sense of identity as sustaining?”

Queer theory’s problematisation of various hierarchical identity categories can also help in articulating a changed/changing classroom language, in talking critically about the language use in the plaasroman (and in secondary work on the genre) in order to surface fault lines. The plaasroman, as any set of settler narratives, is awash with terminology to blush at. (I’m not even talking here about more obvious pejoratives such as the k-word, which my students intuitively understand to be indicative of a certain temporal worldview, or phrases such as ‘baas van die plaas’ with its dual connotations of ownership and racially coded subservience. Neither am I talking here about terms such as ‘nie-blanke’, which still foreground whiteness but can, I guess, perhaps be approach in a way that shows its constructedness.

I have it here about more insidious terminology such as ‘anderskleurige’, a word which does a number of things that run counter to the inclusive class: it over-naturalises notions of difference and phenotype, whilst situating whiteness as (invisible) subject positionality from which to speak.

IV

When we put queer theory and decolonisation next to each other, we are actively turning to face the artificial constructions of gender and race that underlie our understanding of relationality and belonging – and even citizenship. There is an immediate necessity, with an affective urgency, to this.

This is especially important in a time when the use of decoloniality-as-discourse has become somewhat glib and performed wokeness trumps sustained dialogue on the lived effects of whiteness in academia.

In Afrikaans departments, we emphasise postcolonial approaches to literature, aiming to surface the power structures and ideologies of settler colonialism in the texts under analysis. (The ‘post’ in postcolonialism is a bit of a misnomer, as it does not imply a settled-chronological following-after; just because the legal construction of national colonialism is no more, that does not mean that we are not still living with the remnants of coloniality.)

This makes me wary of applying a decolonial lens to the plaasroman. Unfortunately, there is still something comfortable, something settling and non-confrontational about the way we speak of decoloniality. Perhaps because we have allowed ourselves to be lulled by the safe and comfortable conceptualisations of multicultarist curricula and decolonialisation as a metaphor.

Indeed, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012) state unambiguously that decolonization should be uncomfortable, disruptive: as it centres around “the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools” (2012:1) – or our universities. As a lecturer of Afrikaans literature, a colonial settler language, I am particularly interested in navigating these settler moves to innocence (2012:9), realising that in diverse classes, these moves may “get in the way of more meaningful potential alliances” (2012:3) between text and student.

V

Another layer of complexity is added by our realisation that new views on national belonging are in circulation. Open the SA daily papers and you’ll see both a sense of growing xenophobia, and a polemic stance on land ownership. These discourses are, in part, based on a conceptualization of national identity based on a) the exclusion of others in a game of zero-sum citizenship, and b) national identity recoded retrospectively on past (usually mythic) events, problematized by the lived actualities of having to, now, live in an integrated pluralistic society.

In other words, the static nature of (group, familial and national) identity categories is challenged. In this regard, queer theory as lens can help provide a critical terminology for dealing with this change.

Our view of closely-linked derivatives, such as patriotism, is also changing, it corresponds to assemblages, weaves, obscures. To put it plainly, we are able to navigate these categories much better if we understand their constructed, performative nature.

One of the plaasroman’s module outcomes is to show attenuation to the textured engagement with literature. (Which, as module outcomes go, is sufficiently vague.) In practice, what students need to do is enter critically into a dialogue with how popular narratives constitute meaning. What we see instead is that classroom boundaries disappear: the land question, the institutional decolonial drive, larger questions around appropriation of land – all of these swirl in the air around us.

Reading the plaasroman through a postcolonial lens, we reimagine it as a set of texts of imaginary identity, as cogent examples of a concept called settler nativism, that is the imagining of both a glorified past and a “settler future” (Tuck & Yang, 2012). Such texts, such “imagined communities” (Anderson, 1991), are foundational, but it is easy, in the digital age, for students to research the fabricated nature of foundational myths – to understand their constructed, affective nature.

VI

Pedagogical change is afoot. We are moving away from approaches in which “the ties that bind a collectivity and connect it to a territory are experienced as ultimate, binding, and ineffable” (Izenberg, 2016:219). Such a myopic view, simply put, can no longer hold in a rapidly-globalising world.

If, as queer theory expounds, nationalist being can be seen as performative, then all the more reason for emphasizing its in-flux nature. If “[c]ollective cultural identity, as something historical, subjective, and symbolic, could metamorphise over time” (Izenberg, 2016:222) into a nation, there is space for navigating a critical distance with the imaginary texts of ‘our’ collective history. Seeing – and teaching – this history anew forms part of such navigational strategies.

This navigation is necessitated by our classrooms. We might be familiar with Gert Biesta’s work on the changing pedagogy of citizenship, specifically an understanding that classrooms become affectively experienced micro-nations which, in turn, allow our students to take these ideas outside the classroom. If a queer classroom can in inclusive manner speak truth to power, work through these settler plaasroman texts without throwing them out, create a safer space within which to work with the past in a way that facilitate toward a common understanding of our humanity as present-day South Africans, then what more could we ask for?

Wemar Strydom, May 2018