Playing in the dark/ playing in the light: Coloured identity in the novels of Zoë Wicomb

Playing in the dark/ playing in the light: Coloured identity in the novels of Zoë Wicomb

Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa
Volume 20, Issue 1, 2008
pages 1-15
DOI: 10.1080/1013929X.2008.9678286

J. U. Jacobs, Senior Professor of English and Fellow
University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Zoë Wicomb’s three fictional works—You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town (1987), David’s Story (2000) and Playing in the Light (2006)—all engage with the question of a South African ‘coloured’ identity both under apartheid with its racialised discourse of black and white, and in the context of the post apartheid language of multiculturalism and creolisation. This essay examines the representation of ‘colouredness’ in Wicomb’s writing in terms of the two different conceptions of cultural identity that Stuart Hall has defined: an essential cultural identity based on a single, shared culture, and the recognition that cultural identity is based not only on points of similarity, but also on critical points of deep and significant difference and of separate histories of rupture and discontinuity. The politics of South African ‘coloured’ identity in Wicomb’s works reveals a tension between, on the one hand, acceptance of the complex discourse of colouredness with all its historical discontinuities, and, on the other, the desire for a more cohesive sense of cultural identity, drawn from a collective narrative of the past. In David’s Story the possibility of an essential cultural identity as an alternative to the unstable coloured one is considered with reference to the history of the Griqua ‘nation’ in the nineteenth century. And in Playing in the Light the alternative to colouredness is examined with reference to those coloured people under apartheid who were light enough to pass for white and crossed over, reinventing themselves as white South Africans. The essay approaches coloured identity through the lens of postcolonial diaspora theory, and more specifically, diasporic chaos theory.

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