Christine Giustizieri-Haberstroh: Writing the City. Narratives of Johannesburg’s Urban Space in Contemporary South African Literature

PhD-project in New English Literature, University of Basel, (2007-2012)

This doctoral thesis (supervised by Prof. Therese Steffen, Department of English and Prof. Patrick Harries, Department of History, University of Basel) focuses on the literary creation of Johannesburg’s urban space in contemporary South African literature.
The city and the countryside are crucial topoi in South African literature. The dichotomy of rural and urban space is a vital antagonism which forms part of many novels of the twentieth century. Parallel to the processes of industrialisation, urbanisation and migration, the city of Johannesburg – and the sub-topos of the mine – became central elements of South African literature. The so-called city of gold has been given a conspicuous face in the mining literature or later in the ‘Jim comes to Joburg’ stories. In the ‘Jim comes to Joburg’ novels the the city is described as a place of ultimate ambiguity: Migrating to the city may be the protagonists’ first step into the literal urban underworld of the mine, of drinking and gambling or it may be a realm for personal development, learning and prosperity.
In post-apartheid South African literature, however, the city has turned into a site of complexity and rapid transformations. Traditional urban literary topoi such as the mine have disappeared and have opened up the floor for new settings in the city: for the café, the supermarket, the skyscraper, the street life or the liquor store. The literary urban space has become a realm of visible and invisible changes, of liminality and re-imaginations emerging through fragmented descriptions, stream-of-consciousness-like images of urbanity and sharp observations and interpretations of inner-city change.
In my doctoral thesis I look at the different representations of Johannesburg and analyse how urban space is created in very recent novels dealing with Johannesburg. The main research questions are: How do urban places and spaces emerge in the selected novels? Which imagery and topoi do surface and by which literary strategies are they presented? Which entry points into the urban spaces do the examined novels offer and, ultimately, through which topoi is the literary post-Apartheid Johannesburg imagined?
The novels scrutinized include: Ivan Vladislavić’s works The Restless Supermarket (2001), The Exploded View (2004), Portrait with Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked (2006); Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to our Hillbrow (2001), Kgebetli Moele’s Room 207 (2007) and Kevin Bloom’s Ways of Staying (2009).
Taking on an interdisciplinary as well as comparative approach, the dissertation project examines how urban space is created and which spaces and images are evoked in recent city literature. By exploring the literary topography of Johannesburg it will contribute to a better understanding of the role the largest metropolitan area south of the Sahara plays in the South African and the global imagination.