Cosmopolitanism and nation-building

Today, a commitment to remembering the very worst crimes against humanity – the Holocaust, slavery, genocides in Rwanda and Dafur, or the abuse of women and children – underpins modern nations’ claims to be legitimate members of the global community. Yet the mantra ‘Never Again!’ is not only an act of external self-definition, it can also contribute to an internal process of nation-building. Governments and civil society juxtapose ‘global’ Human Rights abuses – usually the Holocaust – with the nation’s own ‘difficult past’, whether dictatorship in South America, race in the United States, or apartheid in South Africa, in order to promote reconciliation, celebrate the dawn of a new era of democratic tolerance, or even create a sense of national identity.

At the heart of this three-year project is a comparison of the ways literary fiction emerging from Germany and South Africa is currently probing the tensions that can emerge between nation-building and this commitment to honour past victims by rejecting prejudice in the present. In both countries, an avowed openness to the world can sometimes co-exist with the reality of continued prejudice against refugees, asylum seekers or immigrants, or with a blindness to the fact that nation-building often marginalises, or even excludes, certain people. What this project seeks to do is to examine how writers from a variety of backgrounds in each country are confronting ‘the nation’ with its unfulfilled promises and its incomplete reckoning with the past. These writers will include both better and lesser-known figures such as Christa Wolf, Günter Grass, Feridun Zaimoglu, Zafer Senocak, Juli Zeh, Terézia Mora, Herta Müller, W. G. Sebald and Maxim Biller, and, in English and Afrikaans, J. M. Coetzee, Antjie Krog, André Brinck, Etienne van Heerden, Achmat Dangor, Zakes Mda, Marlene van Niekerk, Zoë Wicomb, Elleke Boehmer and Lisa Fugard.

South Africa and Germany are engaged in intensive debates on the significance of their difficult pasts. In South Africa, the death of Nelson Mandela in December 2013 has reinforced a widespread conviction that the post-apartheid period is coming to an end and that difficult questions need to be asked about the success of 'the new South Africa'. In Germany, generational shifts and changing understandings of the Nazi past are leading to a rethinking of national identity and to a critical focus on the gap between the country's commitment to cosmopolitan ideals and the reality of continued prejudice, especially towards refugees, asylum seekers and Muslims. This project aims to explore how literary fiction – which is often thought to ‘speak for the nation’, but also to gesture beyond it towards the universal – is reflecting on these debates on memory, identity and the future of the nation, while sometimes also itself intervening to shape the discussion.

The project has broader ambitions too: to build a team of researchers working comparatively on literary fiction, memory and nation-building in other world regions confronting difficult pasts, and to shape a broader discussion on whether writing of this kind from across the globe – ‘memory fiction’ – might be the paradigmatic world literature of the present moment.

Professor Stuart Taberner
University of Leeds