reading sylvia plath in south africa

one of my favourite undergraduate literature professors once told me that when a moment in a text disturbs you, doesn’t quite align with your argument, or constitutes a point of tension with which you are reluctant to deal, the last thing you should do is try to forget about it and move on. that moment is, more often than not, worthy of investigation.

part of what attracted me to returning home to study literature at the university of cape town was the certainty that doing so would diversify my educational experience. my high school followed an american system, and i simply did not learn south african history. though we did read chinua achebe and frederick douglass for english, our set works were prevailingly those of european white men. at NYU, my literature classes were comparatively global – we travelled through time and space from the bible to the bhagavad gita, john locke to frantz fanon, jane austen to toni morrison – but i would still say that any discussion of resistance and postcolonial literature was either too sanitary or still contextualised and framed within the borders of the united states, a country that is frequently demographically, socially, and politically quite incomparable to countries like south africa. indeed, my professors at UCT are almost all experts in the sort of literature that has troubled the philosophical and semantic certainties of the European canon, and it has been glorious. we have been able to dissect texts with a view to the contemporary moment in this country and discover, with a shudder, that they are still strikingly relevant.

recently, we read kimberlé crenshaw’s mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. particularly struck by the following sentence, i jotted it down in my companionable yellow notebook along with a few parenthetical exclamation marks:

The failure of feminism to interrogate race means that the resistance strategies of feminism will often replicate and reinforce the subordination of people of color, and the failure of antiracism to interrogate patriarchy means that antiracism will frequently reproduce the subordination of women.

here, crenshaw identifies the devastating operational implications of white feminism’s lack of intersectionality. she points to the way in which ignorance has directly harmful effects (and i could go on about the way in which the colonial agenda is often excused as ignorance when it was actually a very deliberate move to self-assure and dominate during a period of great epistemological uncertainty). with all this in mind, i recognised how, reading sylvia plath in south africa, there have been moments of tension in her words that my undergrad literature professor would be disappointed to learn i have been conveniently ignoring.

i was reminded of crenshaw again when, the other day, i happened upon marianne egeland’s claiming sylvia plath: the poet as exemplary figure. i have discovered a sylvia plath shelf in the library, and i go there intermittently when the commotion of a full day on campus makes me feel like i need the comfort of a familiar voice and books and quiet. sitting cross-legged on the floor between the stacks, i stopped skimming and began reading when egeland spent some time discussing the large amount of contestation over whether plath can be considered a political (oh, the nebulousness of this term!) writer. egeland notes that while plath adopts what is contemporarily considered problematic language – we’re talking words like ‘colored’ (US context) and ‘indian’ (instead of ‘native american’) – she was nonetheless ‘race-conscious’. she also notes that renée r. curry in white women writing white considers plath to be blind to her own whiteness, though egeland does remark on what she sees as curry’s dubious methods for arriving at such a conclusion.

what does it mean to be at a university where i’m continually trying to critically distance myself from the whiteness of the canon while also trying to make sense of what i still view as trailblazing femininity in the work of my beloved author and poet? i am trying to consider the way in which my contemporary reading is going to inherently be more critical, while also questioning whether and when that new layer of questioning is good or bad. can we be forgiving? if so, when? considering the context? but then does this context not bleed into the same problem crenshaw identifies happening precisely at that moment in history (and still happening)? and even then, is plath only writing white as much as curry wants us to believe? what do we make of the bell jar, which contains a number of problematic racial epithets, but also inspires this? what about how i taught my tutorial students “lady lazarus” recently, and after class, some of them came up to tell me how much it had affected them and asked what else i would recommend reading (and this is in south africa)?

clearly, i still have a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. but, perhaps, more anon.





figs, or how it all began

i think figs were the reason i first paid attention to sylvia plath. as much as i’d like to say it was something more scholarly, some trailblazing analytical epiphany, i have to be honest and admit that the figs are probably what did it. i had just spent ten months studying in florence, italy, where i made my way to class along pathways that wove between olive groves and where one might be fortunate enough to happen upon the occasional fig tree. my favourite tree to steal from had purple figs – more rare and flavourful than the ubiquitous green – situated on the left hand side of a route we affectionately called ‘death valley’ for its steep climb in both directions. in the lingering heat of late summer and early autumn evenings, when all the low-hanging figs had already been plundered by other hungry students who had now retired to their dorm rooms or gone to the city centre for weekend festivities (or to escape the mutant mosquitoes lurking in the tall grass), i’d spend a few minutes reaching for the remaining sun ripened ones on higher branches or the ones concealed by dutiful, large leaves. pricking and pressing with my thumbnails, their supple flesh would give way and their sticky milk would leak out and spill over my fingers, obstinately refusing to come off for a few hours afterwards. i would only eat the inside, fearing pesticides but adoring the ambrosial interior, all pink and replete with seeds. biting into a fig, i have a hard time believing the forbidden fruit could have possibly been something as unexciting as an apple.

my friend has conjured up a definition for her own version of the sylvia plath effect (a reductive notion about [women] poets and mental health). to my friend, though, the sylvia effect is the way in which plath’s writing engenders a feeling of familiarity with her words and thoughts, such that the reader immediately identifies her own life in them. indeed, i think jaime’s sylvia effect worked its magic on me the day i read the following quote from the bell jar during a period of continual existential crises about what to do with my life (standard), and the image of the fig tree never quite wore off:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.

what is perhaps more cause for concern than the fact that my academic pursuits stem from my favourite fruit is the fact that i read andrew wilson’s mad girl’s love song before i even had the good sense to pick up the bell jar. i hear the latter is a staple high school read for the average american teenager, along with the catcher in the rye, whereas i, regrettably, read both of these only in my senior year of college. the real tragedy is that it seems i fell into the very trap i now despise terribly – cultivating an interest first and foremost in plath’s life, as opposed to her writing. ah, yes. the fetishization of feminine literary figures. i was there, doing just that. but let it be known that i did, eventually, recognize that my long-sustained interest in plath was not, after all, tied to ted hughes or her suicide. rather, the writing i was so quick to dismiss in high school, as quotes from her journals would crop up on just about every social media platform i used, was becoming genuinely dynamic and enthralling to me. i have spent the subsequent two years religiously devoting myself to reading and re-reading the unabridged journals, the collected poems, the ariel poems, and, when i’m really in the mood, the occasional academic essay. i do get a little flustered with enthusiasm when trying to relay my thoughts to professors who ask about my research interests, but most seem to at least be encouraging of this obsession, so long as it can be channeled into a promising pursuit.

which brings me to the direction of my dissertation. remember how i mentioned i’d read a few (really, just a few) academic essays concerning plath? one of them, in representing sylvia plath, edited by sally bayley and tracy brain, is called ‘coming to terms with colour: plath’s visual aesthetic’, by laure de nervaux-gavoty. in a mode of thought much like that of my friend nina, who wrote her master’s dissertation on hybridization in postmodern women’s work, de nervaux-gavoty suggests that plath’s ekphrastic poems are worth framing as confrontations with her literary fathers through her visual sensibility. further, she points to plath’s journals as the place in which this visual sensibility is most apparent. until well into her undergraduate career, plath was on the fence about whether or not to become a poet or a visual artist, and she has quite the visual archive. while an enormous amount of study has been dedicated to plath’s written work, comparatively little analysis has been devoted to the intersection of her visual and written archives. as glad as i am that she pursued writing in the end, i am certain there is much more to be said for plath’s knowledge of the visual and the way in which she incorporates it into her written work, especially when we consider her journals. this is my point of departure for my next year of research.

view some of plath’s art here:

or get your hands on
eye rhymes: sylvia plath’s art of the visual by kathleen connors and sally bayley
(my current bible)