Language, education, and transformation in Bianca Marais’s Hum If You Don’t Know the Words
Keywords:Soweto Uprising 1976, language ownership, Bakhtin’s Art and Answerability, implied author, narrative manipulation anticipating post-apartheid world
In this article, I analyse Bianca Marais’s debut novel Hum If You Don’t Know the Words (2017). I consider first its relation to the historical events of the Soweto Uprising of 1976, and then examine its methods of composition. The issue precipitating the Soweto Uprising, when hundreds of black schoolchildren were gunned down by the police, was the refusal of blacks in Soweto to be taught in Afrikaans rather than in their home languages. Their revolt was both tragic and triumphant: tragic because of the sacrifice of young lives, triumphant because it marked Sowetans’ new power to insist on their ownership of language. In the spirit of this linguistic autonomy, Marais celebrates the power of language to create intercultural and intergenerational encounters, scripting dialogue which marries social diversity with linguistic elasticity. In this marriage her writing is strongly consonant with the work of the Russian linguist and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, whose text Art and Answerability examines the ethics of writing and helps the reader to piece together the agency of the implied author. Searching for the perspectives of the implied author reveals Marais’s political activism as well as her mastery of dialogue. Her novel belongs to the tradition created by writers in the 1970s and 1980s—when apartheid was in full force—to anticipate a post-apartheid world. Marais’s novel illustrates a political, cultural, and linguistic reinvention through its manipulation of narrative.
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