Against Normalization

Writing Radical Democracy in South Africa

Against Normalization

Post-Contemporary Interventions

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Book Pages: 352 Illustrations: Published: April 2001

African Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

At the end of apartheid, under pressure from local and transnational capital and the hegemony of Western-style parliamentary democracy, South Africans felt called upon to normalize their conceptions of economics, politics, and culture in line with these Western models. In Against Normalization, however, Anthony O’Brien examines recent South African literature and theoretical debate which take a different line, resisting this neocolonial outcome, and investigating the role of culture in the formation of a more radically democratic society.
O’Brien brings together an unusual array of contemporary South African writing: cultural theory and debate, worker poetry, black and white feminist writing, Black Consciousness drama, the letters of exiled writers, and postapartheid fiction and film. Paying subtle attention to well-known figures like Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head, and Njabulo Ndebele, but also foregrounding less-studied writers like Ingrid de Kok, Nise Malange, Maishe Maponya, and the Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera, he reveals in their work the construction of a political aesthetic more radically democratic than the current normalization of nationalism, ballot-box democracy, and liberal humanism in culture could imagine. Juxtaposing his readings of these writers with the theoretical traditions of postcolonial thinkers about race, gender, and nation like Paul Gilroy, bell hooks, and Gayatri Spivak, and with others such as Samuel Beckett and Vaclav Havel, O’Brien adopts a uniquely comparatist and internationalist approach to understanding South African writing and its relationship to the cultural settlement after apartheid.
With its appeal to specialists in South African fiction, poetry, history, and politics, to other Africanists, and to those in the fields of colonial, postcolonial, race, and gender studies, Against Normalization will make a significant intervention in the debates about cultural production in the postcolonial areas of global capitalism.


Against Normalization raises provocative and timely questions about how South Africa is misread, and how local academics collude in the construction of flattering portraits of their own activities.” — Shane Moran, H-Net Reviews

"[M]akes a significant contribution to postcolonial studies, to comparative literary studies, to South African studies, and to a sort of optimistic oppositionality best summed up in the spirit of a 'turbulent refusal of the world as it was'-or is." — Helen Kapstein , Contemporary Literature

"The book insists, contrary to the usual neocolonial flow, that North Americans have much to learn from South Africa. This openness enriches the book, and enables him to follow horizontal movements that exceed or spill over the boundaries of any nation-state. . . . The final chapter, on Nortje, Head, and Marechera, fully delivers what the book's premises have promised." — Charles Sugnet, Africa Today

"The wide range of texts O’Brien analyzes and the broad swath of theoretical issues he touches on are held together . . . by his rich, crisp, and energetic prose." — Christopher J. Colvin , African Studies Review

“O’Brien brings together both familiar and unfamiliar literary and cultural material in South Africa without failing to wrestle with the enormous critical and theoretical problems concerning what connects and differentiates these diverse currents of literature, theater, and critical theory in South Africa.” — Biodun Jeyifo, Cornell University

“An important, topical, beautifully written, challenging, and always interesting book. Delicately melding close reading with political vision, O’Brien presents a carefully contextualized introduction to South African writers of the last two decades and includes a consideration of their many genres.” — Margaret Daymond, editor of South African Feminisms: Writing, Theory, and Criticism, 1990–1994

“In this rich and astute book, Anthony O’Brien introduces his readers to an array of writers and relates them to global, cultural, and political concerns. Subtly responsive to the increasing complexities both of postcolonial theory and culture in post-apartheid South Africa, Against Normalization advances postcolonial analysis on several significant fronts by embarking on a truly comparative approach to South African writing.” — Rob Nixon, author of Homelands, Harlem, and Hollywood: South African Culture and the World Beyond


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Anthony O’Brien is Associate Professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York.

Table of Contents Back to Top

Introduction: Normalization or Radical Democracy

1. Radical Democracy and the Electoral Sublime

2. Njabulo Ndebele and Radical-Democratic Culture

3. Against Normalization: Cultural Identity from Below

4. Staging Whiteness: Beckett, Havel, Maponya

5. Locations of Feminism: Ingrid de Kok’s Familiar Ground

6. No Turning Back: Nise Malange and the Onset of Workers’ Culture

7. Lines of Flight: Bessie Head, Arthur Nortje, Dambudzo Marechera

Epilogue: Postapartheid Narratives: The House Gun and Fools



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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2571-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2552-9
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