English with a South African accent

2013-04-03 00:00

FOR an academic, such as Michael Chapman, to be A-rated is a confirmation that he is regarded by his peers both locally and internationally as a world leader in his field of research. Something already evident from his many publications, including influential anthologies such as A New Century of South African Poetry, studies on the Drum writers of the 1950s and the Soweto poetry of the 1970s, and articles on the Nobel laureates Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee.

When Chapman joined the university as a professor in 1984, it marked a return to the city in which he was born. “Though I was born in Durban, my father was a civil servant and he got transferred around, so I spent my school days in Kimberley from around the age of four.”

Chapman matriculated from Kimberley High School. “I was then shunted into the army for nine months.”

Chapman’s family couldn’t afford to send him to university. “But there was sponsorship available from Sons of England (a benevolent society) to train as a teacher to teach English, so that was what I did.” And so Chapman trained to be an English teacher at Durban Teachers’ Training College.

Chapman’s first teaching post was at New Forest High in Woodlands, a white working-class boy’s school on the border of Chatsworth. “As a new teacher, I was given the worst class in the school — in this case 6E — and I was told it contained the ‘worst behaved guy in the school’, who turned out be the future Bafana coach Gordon Igesund.”

Chapman decided teaching wasn’t for him. “I had to do something; I couldn’t be Standard 6 teacher forever. I decided to pursue an academic career in English.

“The teachers’ training college was really a training ground for the Broederbond, but there was an English teacher there who had inculcated an interest in the subject in me.”

Finding the Unisa BA requirements didn’t suit, Chapman became a distance student studying English with honours at the University of London. Eventually he relocated to London, funding his studies by becoming a credit controller for a company making fashion clothing. “Boutiques were opening up everywhere in Holland and I said I could understand Dutch.”

Once he had taken his degree, Chapman returned to South Africa and to a teaching post at Pitlochry Primary in Westville. “But then I found the South African education system didn’t recognise my degree. They couldn’t understand how you could do a degree with honours.”

Chapman decided to do a masters degree at Rhodes University on the Durban-based poet Douglas Livingstone. However, Guy Butler, then head of the English department at Rhodes, wasn’t keen and suggested instead World War 2 poets — “which really meant him — but that wasn’t for me”.

Then Chapman contacted Colin Gardner in the English department at the then University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, “and he took me on as my supervisor”.

In 1979, Chapman obtained a post lecturing at Unisa. “There I encountered a situation, a ‘colonial cringe’: English departments then were more interested in British literature than in writing from South Africa or, indeed, from Africa.”

While at Unisa, Chapman came into contact with the publisher Ad Donker, who published Chapman’s first book, Douglas Livingstone: A Critical Study of His Poetry.

Chapman considers Livingstone, who died in 1996, a poet of global significance. “His environmental awareness was well ahead of its time, but Douglas was caught up in a history larger than the writer. He was seen as in opposition to black poetry; he was judged an elitist and his environmental vision got lost in all that.”

The time has come to acknowledge Livingstone’s stature and in A New Century of South African Poetry ,Chapman suggests Livingstone was South Africa’s first 21st century poet.

Following publication of the book on Livingstone, Donker and Chapman forged a close link and further titles followed, including the anthology A Century of South African Poetry in 1981, a successor to A New Book of South African Verse in English (1979), edited by Guy Butler and Chris Mann.

Chapman recalls Butler writing, admittedly with regret, that poetry was an “educated man’s affair”. Chapman responded to that as a challenge.

“I went into newspapers and pulled out ballads,” he recalls. “I moved towards a broader concept and was also able to bring in black poetry. It was important to open up those areas.”

Chapman came to the University of Natal as a professor in 1984. “It was an interesting time,” says Chapman. The end of “colonial cringe” was in sight, the “Great Tradition” of F.R. Leavis that had held sway for so long was toppling and the study of English was opening to contributions from all over Africa, including South Africa.

“Then French philosophy came in and everyone was writing ‘as Foucault says …’.”

Another landmark book for Chapman was Southern African Literatures, which investigated South African writing across language divisions. “I had been involved in projects looking at writing in English in West and East Africa and wanted to take on South African writing.” Chapman wanted to demonstrate that writing in the different languages of South Africa were all part of the same history. Publishers were not keen. Then in 1994 Mandela was released, and everything changed. “The publishers said ‘do it!’”

Published in 1996, the book “dislodged Afrikaners as the master narrative,” says Chapman. “It caused a lot of fuss.” Despite that it went on to win the coveted Bill Venter/Altron Literary Award, the premier South African prize for academic writing. The fuss was not only about what constituted South African literature, but also a South African identity.

“The book came out of a time when everyone was insecure and wanted their identity,” says Chapman, who adds that there is no pat answer to the questions of what is or is there a South African identity or identities. “I recall an anthropologist who said one reason why South Africa didn’t implode was that there were not two strong enough sides.”

Chapman says even if there was such a thing as a strong South African identity, it would be wrong to retreat into it. “If you do that, you can’t move forward — you get locked in.”

“When I arrived in Durban 30 years ago, I was described as the first professor to speak with a South African accent. Well, what today would typify a ‘South African accent’? We have been enriched by our multiculturalism.”

That enrichment is reflected in A New Century of South African Poetry, which broadened the focus of the earlier anthology. “I brought in oral poetry, songs and translations,” says Chapman, “breaking down the idea that poetry existed in a hermetically sealed world for educated persons.”

Chapman retired in 2010 and, ironically, having earlier sensed the shift from Shakespeare to Soweto poetry, ended his career teaching Shakespeare. “He is a figure who was, and who remains, ahead of his time. Unfortunately, his plays are too often taught badly in schools and universities.”

Despite his achievements, Chapman sometimes feels he may have failed in what he considers his primary responsibility: “to communicate the value of literature to a wider audience.”

“A literary education challenges easy certainties. It replaces sloganeering with reflection. This is valuable, whatever the society, whatever one’s role in society.”

Chapman’s belief in the importance of the use of literature in the education of lawyers, doctors and business people has seen him turn life coach, running leadership enhancement courses for managers. “It fascinates me as to how one can bring in an understanding of language and literature there.”

“What I said about a literary education challenging easy certainties is also true for philosophy and history, but literature is closer to the experiential, to people’s lives and emotions.”


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