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Postcolonial nostalgia and meaning: new perspectives on contemporary South African writings.

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This dissertation explores the concept and application of nostalgia in a selection of contemporary South African novels chosen as representative of the multi-cultural diversity of South Africa’s literature. The study explores novels by four authors – Etienne van Heerden (Ancestral Voices; 30 Nights in Amsterdam), Rayda Jacobs (The Slave Book; Joonie), Mongane Wally Serote (Revelations; Rumours), and Ronnie Govender (Song of the Atman; The Lahnee’s Pleasure) – to analyse these authors’ nostalgic treatment of the past as complementing their explorations of the anxieties of the present. Much of South African literature deals with the past, and postcolonial themes predominate: e.g. dislocation, diaspora, hybridity, ambivalence, home, identity, and belonging. Many authors dealing with issues of the past write nostalgically about it: either fondly, or with a sense of yearning, even though the past that is examined might have been turbulent and traumatic. However, this does not necessarily mean that their representations of the past are superficial or sentimental. On the contrary, nostalgic writers grapple with the paradoxical emotions associated with longed-for times and places. The term ‘nostalgia’ has often been misunderstood as an unreliable or biased form of memory. This is not always the case: the conventional understanding of nostalgia as ‘bitter-sweet’ gives the first clue as to the tensions inherent in its complex and nuanced texture. It is misleading to take nostalgia at its ‘sweet’ face-value only without also exploring its ‘bitter’ counterpart, as current research indicates. This study applies the concept of ‘nostalgia’ as a complex conceptual and analytical tool within recent debates in postcolonial literary study. In my investigation, I draw especially on Boym’s (2001) distinction between ‘restorative’ vs ‘reflective’ nostalgia, as well as on Medalie’s (2010) differentiation between ‘evolved’ vs ‘unreflecting’ nostalgia. I have also made intenstive use of related postcolonial concepts – such as ‘space and identity’ and ‘trauma and haunting’ – to inform my analysis. Finally, this study illustrates that contemporary writers can harness nostalgia as a positive force; and that instances of nostalgia, if critically applied and analysed, can unearth submerged memories and help transform trauma into meaning, thus providing fresh points of entry towards a reimagined future.


Doctor of Philosophy in English Studies. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, 2019.