Dis-placed Desires : Space and Sexuality in South African Literature

University dissertation from Stockholm : Department of English, Stockholm University

Abstract: This study provides a diachronic view of the interweaving of space and sexuality, their interdependency and mutually constitutive aspects, in seven South African English language novels from the early twentieth century until the first decade of the twenty-first century. A key contention is that it is precisely a co-constitutive depiction of space and sexuality that has arisen in this literature as a response to a socio-political climate which has exercised harsh regulation in these two areas. Conducting close readings of the novels in question in relation to Sara Ahmed’s idea of “queer phenomenology”, Henri Lefebvre’s social production of space, and Michel Foucault’s notion of sexuality as a “transfer point” allows for an understanding of the relationship between bodily experiences and their socio-political contexts. The co-constructional quality of space and sexuality is particularly shown in certain “sites”, understood as “where the intensity of pleasures and the persistency of power catch hold” (Foucault 49). Examples in this project are the body’s integrity, the relation between the individual and the group, mobility, the relationship between urban and rural spaces, the novels’ endings, and questions of normative and queer temporality and sexual norms.The investigation is carried out in four chapters, each focusing on an individual time period in South Africa’s modern history. The first chapter considers the turn of the twentieth century, analysing Olive Schreiner’s From Man to Man (1926) and R.R.R. Dhlomo’s An African Tragedy (1928), which contain explorations of how urbanisation and modernity affect sexual relations and how the individual’s embodied experience can register resistance. The second chapter looks at literature during the initial stages of apartheid, arguing that Bessie Head’s The Cardinals (written 1960-1962, published posthumously 1993) shows how aesthetic responses to the time period’s “tyranny of place” (Mphahlele 1974) corresponds to a gender-inflected “tyranny of sex”. The third chapter moves to the later stages of apartheid and reads Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist (1974) together with J.M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country (1977) to investigate the role of queered reproduction in terms of land and family in imagining the future of the nation. The final chapter concerns the transition period in postapartheid South Africa when doubts about the “rainbow nation” start to emerge; by bringing together Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow (2001) and Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room (2010), it investigates opened or new borders in the postapartheid period, belonging and migration, and the subsequent queering of desires.This study expands on how previous research on South African Anglophone literature has identified sexuality in general (Munro; Pucherová; Stobie) as well as the particular entanglement of spaces and sexuality (Gunne). The project’s diachronic perspective allows an understanding of how current depictions of spatiality and sexuality are related to those during and before apartheid. It also shows how the intertwinement of the two concepts could be termed, what Leon de Kock calls a “compulsive reiteration” of a specific South African literary trope (Losing the Plot 58), namely that of imagining the co-constitution of sexual relations and spatial belonging.

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