Susan VanZanten – Reading A Different Story [Feature Review]

February 21, 2014

 

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0801039940″ locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41grYTj87NL._SL160_.jpg” width=”104″]Page 2: Susan VanZanten – Reading A Different Story

VanZanten’s burgeoning personal and professional interest in South African literature had a lot to do with her Dutch Reformed upbringing and with the unavoidable apartheid-related headlines of the day. She was haunted, it seems, by the ethnic and theological roots she shared with the oppressive and racist Afrikaners, and sensed an inescapable responsibility to do something.

 

As a Christian scholar of literature, she became fascinated with the themes of confession that ran through South African literature. Some authors whose work she studied related tales of coerced confessions—to political crimes that may or may not have occurred—under the apartheid regime. Others wrote of their own confessions of sin in the midst of their nation’s tumult. Confession can be a tool of injustice, VanZanten suggests, but it can also be life giving. “Properly practiced,” she writes, “confession fashions genuinely flourishing individual and communal identities.”

 

When the historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings got underway, confession took on new meaning entirely for those involved. Under the leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the TRC hearings constituted a watershed moment for post-apartheid South Africa, impacting, among many other aspects of society, the nation’s literature. Therefore, the hearings became a focal point of VanZanten’s work.

 

The TRC gave victims of brutality and gross human rights violations a chance to speak publicly about their horrific experiences, while also granting perpetrators an opportunity to confess to their crimes and to request amnesty. Though confessions were not necessarily Christian in any explicit sense, VanZanten notes that Christian confession shaped the reconciliation process in three crucial ways: “it provided a moral standard of good and evil, a set of images and rhetoric in which the process could be conducted, and a declaration of the centrality of community for personal identity.” VanZanten eventually expanded upon these observations in her later book, Truth and Reconciliation: The Confessional Mode in South African Literature.

 

Ultimately, VanZanten is an apologist for “Christian cosmopolitanism.” She wants believers’ allegiances to transcend geopolitical borders. Specifically, she wants us to read widely and well in order to better love God and to love our neighbors, both near and far. While she specifically appeals to her colleagues in academia, the principle applies to the rest of us just as well. “I have come to believe that Christian literary scholars should be cosmopolitans in their reading, teaching, research, and scholarship, moving from the excessive nationalism often found in literary studies to study cultural particulars found across the globe,” she writes.

 

While she acknowledges a continued need for the study of national identity and local traditions in the west, VanZanten urges scholars—and Christians generally—to expand our horizons. “Taking a global approach to literature allows us to balance our local identity—formed through our embodiment in a physical, social world—with a cosmopolitan identity endowed by our common creation in the image of God.”

 

VanZanten’s account in Reading a Different Story is intensely personal; the specific contours of her life will vary drastically from yours and mine. Further, as one whose daily work takes place outside the walls of academia, I found this book required a fair amount of “looking in.” But for those of us who read regularly—not to mention those who read (and write) book reviews— Susan VanZanten’s invitation to turn south in our literary interests is one we’d do well to heed.

———–

Tim Høiland is a writer, editor, and content strategist. Born in Guatemala City, he now lives in Tempe, Arizona. He tweets @tjhoiland.