Memoirs of Life in South Africa

English 162: Literature and Place (A Queens College Study Abroad Course)

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English 162: Literature and Place (Section number and course code TBA)

Memoirs of Life in South Africa

Professor Jason Tougaw

A Queens College Study Abroad Course at the University of Cape Town

Classroom: TBA

South African satirist and blogger Ndumisa Ngcobo enjoys stating the ridiculous: “I kinda like white people. In fact, some of my best friends are write.” Like all good satire, these two sentences encapsulate the pain, paradoxes, politics, and pleasures of living history in a nation less than twenty years between it and apartheid, one of the most outrightly racist and unjust political systems to arise in the wake of Europe’s colonial efforts. Shortly after the end of apartheid in 1994, the South African government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), to give “members of the public a chance to express their regret at failing to prevent human rights violations and to demonstrate their commitment to reconciliation.” The TRC recognized that no segment of South African society was untouched by the human rights abuses that proliferated under apartheid—and that the frank testimony of victims and victimizers was necessary for the country’s future.

In this course, we will read official testimonies, memoirs, and blogs by South African writers, activists, leaders, journalists, and artists—focusing on subjective, first-person accounts of their nation’s living history. Some of these writers, like Nelson Mandela and Steven Biko, were leaders in the fight against apartheid; others, like J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, used art to critique it; still others, like Annie Krog and Mark Mathabane, use their stories to let the world know what apartheid felt like, how it affected their psyches, families, and communities. Still others, like Steven Otter and Ndumiso Ngcobo insist that the ironies, contradictions, and possibilities of post-colonial life in South African should not be understood only in terms of the most infamous aspect of their nation’s history, even while acknowledging apartheid’s legacy as a dominant force in their day-to-day lives and in the culture that shapes them. Each week’s reading will be accompanied by a relevant film documentary, and students will keep weekly blogs of their own, documenting their encounters with South African life, culture, and history. Finally, students will complete research projects of their own devising (in consultation with me).


Blogs: 4 entries + 8 comments per week (40%)

Blog entries are intended to be informal. Be creative with them. Your grades will be based on engagement, not style or polish. You’ll write about four posts each week. Each time an entry is due, you will also be responsible for posting comments to the posts of at least two other students.

Oral presentation (20%)

Your oral presentation will introduce your ideas for your research project to the rest of us. It will also be your opportunity to receive suggestions and feedback. Plan on a ten-minute presentation, with five-minutes for discussion. Consider  using visuals of some kind, in a handout or slideshow (or even video).

Final project (40%)

Option 1: Write an essay making an argument how a South African memoirist uses particular formal techniques to mediate between his personal and national identities. The essay should be 6 – 8 pages.

Option 2: Create a South African travel memoir of your own, in a form or medium of your choice (travel diary, video documentary, narrated slide show / photo essay, podcast, or autobiographical essay). Include a 3 – 4 page preface that contextualizes your travel memoir in relation to course readings and reflects on how your particular experience reflects ideas explored in the course. Note: To do a good job with a travel memoir, it will need a clear focus and motive. It should not be a general overview of your trip, but an account of particular experiences that illustrate particular concepts.

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