Mhudi, the baRolong woman who is the protagonist of Sol Plaatje’s novel Mhudi (written in 1917, published in 1930), is the first refugee, migrant and dispersed fictional person mentioned in JU Jacobs’s study, Diaspora and Identity in South African Fiction. The last fictional person to be examined is Winnie Mandela as a character in Njabulo Ndebele’s The Cry of Winnie Mandela (David Philip, 2003).
A century or so separates these diasporic characters and their displacement from home has more similarities than one would expect.
Although this is an academic text, it should appeal to anyone who has an interest in the complexities of who we are, the histories of how we got here and the expression of these in fiction and near-fictional biographies. Jacobs examines several such works to illuminate South African identities and to show how we, all of us, are the products of diaspora. It’s an exceptionally rich feast.
Jacobs, scholar and emeritus professor of English, takes the time to make clear the meanings of these words, identity and diaspora. Identity is expanded to include specifically post-colonial identities and he notes the formulations developed by South African academics to express the fluid, changing, marginal nature of post-colonial identity. These include “seam” and “mark of the suture” (Leon de Kock), “entanglement” (Sarah Nuttall), “complicity”(Mark Sanders) and “transitivity” (Steven Clingman).
We generally think of diaspora in its original meaning to refer to the dispersal of the Jews after Masada, and for African Americans and Caribbeans dispersed by slavery. Jacobs looks at the extended use of the term to include any mass migration and other displacements.
Read the rest of Rosenthal's detailed review over at the Mail & Guardian...