Dorothy Driver is Professor Emeritus at the University of Cape Town. From 2005 to 2016 she held a professorship in the Department of English and Creative Writing, Adelaide University, Australia, where she now has adjunct researcher status. Her most recent publications in Schreiner studies include a revised edition of From Man to Man or Perhaps Only — (UCT Press, 2016; expanded and reformatted edition forthcoming Edinburgh University Press, 2022), a booklet entitled Olive Schreiner’s Poetics of Plants (Makhanda: Amazwi, 2019) and a related essay, ‘Invoking Indigeneity: Olive Schreiner and the Poetics of Plants’, Journal of Commonwealth Literature (2021). Her publications on Bessie Head include early essays in CRNLE (2001) and WLT (1996), the latter of which refers also to Zoë Wicomb. She also produced an Afterword to the reprint of Wicomb’s David’s Story (New York: Feminist Press, 2001) and published several essays devoted solely to Wicomb, including ‘Zoë Wicomb’s Translocal: Troubling the Politics of Location’, in Zoë Wicomb & the Translocal: Writing Scotland & South Africa, ed. Kai Easton and Derek Attridge (London: Routledge, 2017); ‘Zoë Wicomb and the Cape Cosmopolitan’, Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa (2011); and ‘The Struggle over the Sign: Writing and History in Zoë Wicomb’s Art’, Journal of Southern African Studies (2010).
‘Passing it on? Olive Schreiner, Bessie Head and Zoë Wicomb’
Reviewing James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Bessie Head noted his interest in the power of those labeled “black” to achieve a humanity beyond the reach of racist whites. Neither writer defined blackness in standard oppositional terms: for both, being black transcended what Fanon had diagnosed as the colonised’s desire to take “the settler’s place”. As Head quotes Baldwin, whites’ self-esteem could “scarcely be corroborated”: “a vast amount of the energy [of] what we call the Negro problem is produced by the White man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not White”. For Baldwin, the concept of “Negro” is not essentialist but a positive cultural construct. This, too, is the direction of Head’s writing: “identity […] as strategy”, as Zoë Wicomb puts it.
This essay opens by exploring certain modernist connections between Olive Schreiner and Head suggested by Jade Munslow Ong’s Olive Schreiner and African Modernism: experimentation with genre as politico-aesthetic revisionism, the centrality of creativity and dreams. Alongside its nascent critique of whiteness, From Man to Man stands back in the presence of the black foster-child’s alternative dreams. Head’s novel Maru, which portrays a comparable relation between foster-mother and child, serendipitously opens with a scene that recalls an episode in Schreiner’s life, where she assisted in a dark-skinned baby’s roadside birth. Head’s novel also deals with the aporia of the unconscious and the “crisis of representation” as dreams become real. Is this why Head calls herself the “Olive Schreiner [not] of Botswana” but “of South Africa”? Is she furnishing for South Africans a decolonial thinking, an African modernism, that Schreiner’s writing gestured towards but could not realise?
Head said she was a “reincarnation” of Schreiner, which fits her interest in Buddhism. I take the term metaphorically. My essay addresses Schreiner’s and Head’s (differently expressed) interest in recurring worlds—worlds characterised (again differently) by what Neil Lazarus calls the “apparatuses of domination”, the critique of which is so central to the African modernism under definition—and explores further similarities in their writing. At stake is the connection to ancestral land and its relation to a modern African experience and perspective and, especially, to Head’s developing aesthetic. Gordimer conceptualised an “African” perspective in “The Interpreters”, and practised it in The Conservationist, her great modernist text. But Wicomb is the writer after Head who most productively explores this line of thinking: revisionist subject-construction comes to depend on felt continuities between human and land. The near absence of Head and Wicomb from David Attwell’s otherwise compelling Rewriting Modernity speaks to his unfortunate insistence on reading them through what seems to be “the authority of experience”: their autobiographical “gender-positions” and “exilic relation to their material”. In the process of seeing these two writers as a feature of Schreiner’s afterlife (a feature she herself would have welcomed), I hope to repair this lacuna. Terminology will also be at stake: how do “de-racialised” (Wicomb’s occasional implication) and “hybrid” (Head’s term) fit with “African” modernism and its creation of a “black” aesthetic?