Thomas Kullmann (Osnabrück)
Sandra Stadler (2017): South African Young Adult Literature in English, 2000–2014. Heidelberg: Winter. 223 S.
Young Adult Literature, i. e. works of fiction written for readers aged 13–18, has long been considered a field set apart from both children's literature and what can be called 'general literature' mainly aimed at adult readers. As young adults undergo a process of self-discovery and identity development, young adult literature can be expected to reflect this process, and to present characters to identify with (or dissociate from) and situations which resemble their readers' real-life experiences more closely than is usually expected from works of fiction.
With regard to a country like South Africa any attempt at writing literary history is bound to be an exercise in political and social analysis. In this respect, analysing young adult literature, in particular, can be considered a particularly promising task, as the "New South Africa" (dating from Nelson Mandela' election as president in 1994) is, as Stadler points out, "itself and adolescent nation" (2). This endeavour, of course, also presents specific difficulties, as the literary texts need to be contextualized in a particularly contested field of conflicting discourses.
The present study certainly accepts this challenge. Focusing on realist fiction set in present-day South Africa, it highlights central political issues specific to this country: "the spatial distinctiveness of South African space" (28–83) which is informed by a long history of segregation on the grounds of ethnic difference as well as an opposition between the rural and the urban which may be more clearly marked than elsewhere; "gender stereotyping or the liberation of gender norms" (84–130), which in South Africa are bound up with on one hand divergent cultural constructions of masculinity and feminity and on the other with the challenges of the AIDS pandemic. Finally, in the aftermath of apartheid, "socio-economic issues" (131–181) like the gaps between the rich and the poor and between migrants and residents appear to be particularly urgent.
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The time span from the year 2000 to 2013 was chosen because by the turn of the century South African literature started become less immediately concerned with political issues connected to the apartheid system and to be "closer to reality and more emancipated than earlier publications" (5). In line with traditions of writing literary history, Stadler aims at providing a "comprehensive analysis [and] and systematization of South African youth literature" (2). In order to provide a composite picture, Stadler proposes to draw on "both quantitative and qualitative methodology, more commonly known in literary studies as distant reading and close reading" (2). Consequently we are provided with a lot of statistical data as to the frequency of certain types of plots, motifs etc. within a corpus of "147 texts written in the realist mode" (3). To illustrate the phenomena discussed, a total of 21 texts are given closer scrutiny. Stadler certainly manages to provide a representative survey of the various tendencies found in her corpus of texts.
On the basis of the texts studied and interpreted by Stadler, we get the impression that South Africa is a terrible place to grow up in, for black and white, male and female, rich and poor adolescents alike. We read about a boy who sells his body to make a living (Duiker, Thirteen Cents; 43–48), a girl who is raped and contracts AIDS (Orford, Dancing Queen; 48–52), children who are forbidden to socialize with immigrants (Bauling, E Eights, 52–57). In the countryside, lives of people are constantly threatened by "bad weather" (64) and, culturally, "deforestation" (64), children at boarding school find themselves subjected to "spatial and social hierarchies" (van de Ruit, Spud, 75) or to a "new spatial situation" which "is almost unbearable" (van Meck, My Name is Vaselinetjie, 76), young men need to "draw on specific 'dress codes' to establish their maleness" (89); their lives are characterized by "violence and materialism" as well as "the expectation to follow cultural norms" (90, cf. 99). If you belong to the Xhosa community you may be required to undergo certain archaic circumcision rites, which are described as painful and life-threatening (Kaschula, Take Me to the River, 92–94; Mgqolozana, A Man Who Is Not a Man, 94–97), and if you are homosexual you become the victim of "violent attacks" typical of "contemporary South Africa" (110). If you are female, of course, you are on the losing side of an "atrocious civil war between the genders" (116). In common with "a more general African" trend the topic of sexuality is inextricably bound up with "danger and disease, pregnancy and rape" (118), "none of the female characters is depicted as taking pleasure in a sexual encounter" (119), and the usual form of sexual initiation is rape (123). The present reviewer was particularly shocked by the statement that "a simple romantic love is not portrayed in any of the novels in the corpus" (120).
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Are South African adolescents not even allowed to imagine a romantic relationship? Needless to say, "the nuclear family structure becomes disrupted as a result of socio-economic constraints", and "the social milieu of the township is largely portrayed as merciless" (154). If you are rich you grow up in "a capitalist, consumerist environment" (169); if you do not have enough money, you end up taking part in street crime and drug trafficking (168–169).
We may suspect, though, that this is a one-sided picture, due to the fact that these books were written for a specific readership which expects fiction to deal with issues of contemporary social life in a highly critical way. The facts that print runs are usually small and that there is apparently no "South African reading culture" (14) may point to the assumption that these books are in fact written for an intellectual elite which considers itself enlightened and tries to use books for purposes of education (cf. e.g. 6–7, 112). While the present study provides a convincing overview of this rather small cultural segment it is regrettable that we get no idea as to the place of this segment within the larger framework of South African youth culture. Surely there are traditions of oral narrative, dramatic art, festivities, films, TV series, computer games etc.? We may also regret that English-language fiction is not compared to literary productions written in other South African languages. While Stadler acknowledges that English is only one of eleven official languages and that only 9,6% of the population consider English their mother-tongue (or "home language", 16) there are few indications as to what is happening in the literary sector in any of the other languages. While convenience and lack of time may have prevented Stadler from learning Afrikaans, isiXhosa, isiZulu etc. the present study might have benefited from incorporating scholarly research on these other languages and literatures on a more extensive level.
The present study takes the usual approach of studying literary texts on the basis of theoretical concepts. We may wonder, though, if contemporary "spatial theory" (33) is really helpful in the dealing with the specificities of South African 'space'. Spatial theories tend to be characterized by a blurring of literal and metaphorical concepts, while in South Africa "spatial segregation" (37) is very concrete, and literal. We may wonder, thus, if spatial imagery can really be a useful analytical tool, as it also involves mixing metaphors: "Robinson and Nuttall have successfully begun to untangle the web of supposedly disconnected spaces by outlining their very connectedness" (42). Introducing her chapter on "Gender Stereotyping" Stadler herself seems to acknowledge that first-world concerns about "gender binarism" and "gendered language" (85) do not lead very far in the South African context.
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She is less critical with regard to attempts to lay the blame for South African social inequalities on "neoliberalism" (133) and "global capitalism" (135). In some instances a historical perspective might have been useful, e. g. with regard to the phenomenon of "the demystification of urban South Africa" (39, 57). The motif of young people moving to a big city only to be terribly disappointed is not a new one, nor is it specific to South Africa. It rather corresponds to what we read about Victorian London in nineteenth-century English fiction. We should also note that "private schools" have never been "state-controlled institutions" (69), and that Jane Addams was not "the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize" (164), this was Bertha von Suttner in 1905.
While the present study offers a lot of information on South Africa and on South African young adult fiction, the boundaries between a cultural analysis of South African society and a literary analysis of a certain corpus of texts are never clearly marked. Literary works are used as "witness documents" (11); they are read as conveying factual information rather than as discursive, literary entities. Stadler does in fact try to connect the discourses of young adult fiction with other political discourses as well statistical data, but we may still get the feeling that this approach does not really do justice to literary aspects. We may also regret that Stadler does not provide any clear-cut thesis as to the role of Young Adult Literature in the specific situation of South Africa and does not examine in what way South African Young Adult Literature resembles, or differs from, Young Adult Literature written elsewhere.
However, while the present study cannot resolve all the difficulties of finding a viable approach to a multifaceted topic, it should be acknowledged that it certainly displays an awareness of these difficulties.