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Writing “out of all the camps”: J. M. Coetzee's narratives of displacement

Laura Wright, University of Massachusetts Amherst


It would be overstatement to claim that all of South African literature is characterized by its attention to Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci's theoretical interregnum, the temporal period during which “the old is dying, and the new cannot be born” (Gramsci 276). Nonetheless, South African author Nadine Gordimer in her now famous essay, “Living in the Interregnum” (1982), situated the term—as the space between the end of apartheid and the beginning of a new and unforeseeable political paradigm—firmly within South African political consciousness. South African author J. M. Coetzee, on the other hand, evasive of overt politics and political representation in his fiction, writes about a different kind of interregnum, one not situated between two orders but instead located outside of all binary relationships. In this dissertation, I read Coetzee's works as political acts of performative displacement that attempt imagined identification with the other, in the form of not only the black characters who are often silent in his texts and white women who often narrate, but also in the form of animals, especially the dogs that populate almost all of his opus. These various entities—black, female, and animal—represent multiple ethnographic subjectivities, none of which belongs to the author who must imagine them. In order to represent this diversity of others, therefore, Coetzee's narrative strategies destabilize expectations and alienate the reader from the willing suspension of disbelief that generally accompanies readings of fiction. Such narrative strategies include free indirect discourse in many of his third-person narrated texts that feature male protagonists (Life & Times of Michael K, The Master of Petersburg, and Disgrace), various and differing first-person narrative accounts of the same story (Dusklands, In the Heart of the Country), the use of female narrators and female narrative personas (Age of Iron, The Lives of Animals), and unlocatable, ahistorical contexts (Waiting for the Barbarians). Such destabilization opens up a space for the audience to examine Coetzee's fiction as texts that allow for interplay between character, audience, and author; the texts function dialogically in the Bahktinian sense, performing various positions rather than presenting one controlling subjectivity.

Subject Area

African literature|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Wright, Laura, "Writing “out of all the camps”: J. M. Coetzee's narratives of displacement" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3136794.