(Published - 21 February 2019)
A lifelong love of South African literature, and an attempt to share that love with the world, has earned University of the Western Cape (UWC) Extraordinary Professor of English David Attwell a prestigious A-rating from the country’s National Research Foundation – an honour awarded only to those who do top-quality internationally-respected and field-transforming work.
“I'm thrilled by this news, and very grateful for the support and friendship of colleagues old and new at UWC,” he says. “This means a great deal to me, especially because I began my academic career at UWC in the heady Gerwel years, having been appointed by our esteemed colleague and friend, the late Stan Ridge.”
Attwell is only UWC’s fifth A-rated researcher - and the only one with an A1 rating - and also the first outside the natural sciences. His main research interests are in postcolonial studies: postcolonial theory, critical formations in postcolonial countries, anglophone African writing, South African literature, and theories and practices of cultural translation.
“David has unique academic expertise and an illuminating understanding of the literary landscape,” says Prof Burtram Fielding, Director of UWC’s Research Office. “This recognition shows the commitment of Arts to expand the supervisory capacity of the faculty by appointing extraordinary researchers of this calibre.”
Fittingly for a man of words, Prof Attwell had a few of his own to share on his work, his time at UWC, and more…
What brought you to your love of literature?
Coming from a humanities background, with siblings in journalism, education and the church, all of us sharing an interest in literature (let’s call it ‘strong language’), I was unlikely to escape literary studies. I’ve never dabbled—it’s been a compulsion.
What is it about this field that excites/interests you so?
Much of my work has been on J.M. Coetzee. He is by far the most influential writer South Africa has ever produced. He has a complicated reception in South Africa, but he is a figure of real stature in world literature. What moves me in his work is its depth and probity, its keenly felt textures. I am also absorbed in South African literature more broadly, all its languages and traditions, not only in English. I’m interested in what South African literature is, how it interprets itself. The future of literary studies in South Africa will be multilingual, I have no doubt, and UWC is well-placed to take advantage of that fact, and to develop it.
What made you decide to come to UWC?
My academic career started at UWC, and I have gone back many times to my roots here, for reflection and re-orientation. I trained as a teacher and was at a high school in Cape Town in 1980 when the opportunity came up to move to UWC. Culturally, morally, politically, it felt right to do so. I taught, but in fact was also educated here, by an institution that was undergoing the transformations of the Jakes Gerwel years. It was a visionary and collegial environment.
What are you most proud of accomplishing (so far)?
While I was at UWC I wrote and edited two books: one a monograph called J.M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing; the other a collection of Coetzee’s essays, which included lengthy written dialogues with him, called Doubling the Point. Looking back on them, these books have an intellectual intensity that I would attribute partly to working at UWC through the turbulent 1980s.
Any role models, or folks you’d like to send a shout out to?
There are so many people I would acknowledge, it would be embarrassing to start naming them all. Teachers, supervisors, friends, loved ones, students, rivals, interlocutors of all kinds - one learns from them all, every day. It’s at a moment like this that one is interrupted, gratefully, and encouraged to think that the universe is benign, after all.
Any advice for other researchers who might want to become “A”- grade?
To students I would say, resist being pinned down to a vocational track too early. Use the time at university to read widely, to explore, to question, to participate, to love (with some caution), and - especially - learn how to write. If you write well, you will do well in your career, whatever it is. Young literary colleagues don't need my advice, but I would say find the thing that worries you most and make that the basis of your research. Doing well as a writer or critic is about responding to an existential itch.