South Park Self


It is a truth universally acknowledged that the department which spawned me also despises my academic interests, and thinks they are Fluffy and Frivolous and UnAfrican. I am aware of this, and invoke my superhero power of Sheer Cussedness to insist on simply bumbling along doing them anyway, with considerable satisfaction and in the teeth of the odds. And, to be perfectly fair, while I will defend to the death my belief that fairy tale and genre and Gothic and non-realist narrative are neither fluffy nor frivolous, and that popular forms are valid and interesting in their own right, in my heart of hearts I know bloody well that they are as unAfrican as all get-out, at least in the contexts and iterations in which I pursue them.

What I do is really very Western: it's rooted in Western fairy tale, Tolkien, Victorian fantasy, the English detective story, Edwardian children's literature, and a resolutely educated technophiliac access to internet culture. It would mean, I think, absolutely nothing to a black kid straight out of a township, or from a rural community. It would be alienating, confusing, a language and idiom which was part and parcel of the strange, only semi-permeable membrane which keeps university culture - or, at least, the culture of this particular university - in the little Europe-fixated bubble which forms its identity, try we never so hard to transform. Black kids don't sign up for my seminars. I completely get it.

And, of course, to simply say that I should study African fairy tale is not, to my mind, a solution. While black languages and cultures absolutely have their own rich and varied non-realist and generic traditions, my access to them is limited by a similar membrane, a cultural and linguistic remove which I'd have to permeate only by acquiring the several new languages and multiple layers of sociological and postcolonial theory which would effectively make me into an entirely different creature, academically speaking. It's actually a fascinating mirror of the first problem: a black kid trying to understand, for example, Mary Shelley, is having to acquire equally wholesale an entire universe of cultural experience simply to place the text in context, and they're doing it from a starting point a whole lot less privileged than mine.

All of which is not, unfortunately, going to persuade me to transform myself into the differently-shaped, less eccentric academic creature who might actually be able to talk to said black kid about fairy tale on something like his or her own terms. Because, unAfrican or not, I like the shape I am.

In darker moments, I despair of being relevant. But I can also take heart from the little moments which hold out hope of bridging, just for an instant, that cultural divide. We had a fire drill yesterday, which of course ends up with the contents of the entire building disgorged into the road outside, including those of the 450-seater lecture theatre in the basement. One of the kids from the lecture was wearing a t-shirt I immediately coveted. This one.

He was a black kid. I didn't talk to him, so couldn't gauge his background; he may well have been an international student. But I'm hoping that he wasn't; that he was, at least, a middle-class black South African whose upbringing and experience were enough to introduce him not only to the (have you noticed how lily-white? Native American Metaphors notwithstanding) world of Twilight, but to enough of the far more robust Gothic tradition which gave rise to it that he can regard sparkly vampires with ironic distaste. Because I do read about impundulu even if I don't feel competent to write about them, and I'm made happy to think that somehow, somewhere, his world and mine might gradually converge. That's a conversation I want to have.