Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, a small city much preoccupied in the 1980s (and still today) with a frontier culture of rodeos and Cowboys-versus-Indians, I was schooled in the histories and myths of the American West, in which the heroes were invariably white, save perhaps Sacajawea, who was presented less as a heroine than as an aid to heroes, winning her place in the schoolbooks only because of her service to those two white explorers, Lewis and Clark. The America of my childhood was and remains a culture whose heroes were usually adventurers, land-grabbers or warriors.
From an early age, I was aware that my father’s lack of military service in Vietnam – a bad knee effectively burned his draft card – marked our family, already vocal liberals, as somehow inadequately American in the dead centre of the continent’s conservative and fervently patriotic heartland.
Many have speculated, rightly or wrongly, about the similarities in the histories of South Africa and the US, both former colonies, both countries steeped in frontier culture, both disastrously scarred by the influence of white European settlers on indigenous populations. In the twentieth century, both countries were involved in indefensible wars ostensibly fought to halt the progress of Communism – South Africa in Angola, the US in Vietnam. The national mirroring, of course, is highly imperfect: in the US, the struggle for Native American rights was eclipsed by the Civil Rights movement. There was no Martin Luther King Jr. for the Pawnee, no Mandela for the Sioux, and the little progress that has been made in the last decades has been mostly economic. Since 1994, South Africa has faced its history with impressive candour; America’s reckoning is still pending.
Though J. M. Coetzee is now internationally fêted as South Africa’s second Nobel Laureate in Literature, his early novels remain largely ignored. His first, Dusklands, is especially worth rediscovering. Drawing a
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