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Profile: Zimpande Kawanu

Zimpande Kawanu (2020, MSt World Literature)

Before coming to Univ, Zimpande Kawanu (2020, MSt World Literature) graduated with a Master of Studies in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. For two years, Zimpande worked as a Research Assistant to the President of the International Labour and Employment Relations Association and contributed to labour reform recommendations for Zambia’s informal economy. 

Why did you choose to study the MSt in World Literature?
I wanted to read contemporary literature, especially writers of the ’80s and ’90s and who are working on questions of witnessing, helping us to explore what it means to be an ethical witness to the suffering of others. The World Lit course seemed to offer a scope that allowed someone like me who (whilst still bound by time-period constraints) is interested in looking at writers hailing from and addressing disparate parts of the globe, spanning East and West, North and South — Sebald, Krog, Ratele, Coetzee, Han Kang, etcetera. I was also attracted by the academics who teach on the course, each of whom lived up to my expectations.

What did you focus on in your dissertation?
My dissertation explored what literature brings to the academic study of witnessing and, broadly, to theories of empathy. Writers such as W. G. Sebald, J. M. Coetzee, Nosisi Mpolweni (with Antjie Krog and Kopano Ratele in There was this Goat) show in their work that the ethics and politics of witnessing cannot be separated from ostensibly literary questions of writing as a medium. In exploring the ways these authors make us aware of writing as such, I was interested in how they invite us to reflect not only on what but how we witness. I was also testing the assumption that representation itself is sufficient to render variously marginalised characters or communities more visible or relatable. Additionally, it was important for me to explore how readers (audiences) are implicated in the contingent, generically, and culturally embedded ways of “seeing” (e.g., “novelizing”) writing affords. The main question I addressed was: how, and to what effect, does (the technologies of) writing shape and probe acts of witnessing in epistemological, ethical, and political terms.

What is your proudest achievement?
Curating the Nelson Mandela centenary exhibition for his 100th birthday celebrations in Cape Town, 2018. And, being a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, this too is one of my proudest achievements.

How do you hope to use what you learn in your degree in the future?
As an aspiring writer, I chose the focus of my dissertation based on the questions arising from reading and being engrossed by the aforementioned (motley) cast of writers. The World Lit course allowed me to intimately look at these writers’ work (and with the help of a seasoned academic, Peter McDonald, guiding me), and one of my chief motivations was simply to understand how they write so well and with such notable clarity. I’d like to think that I have some privileged insight into how they manage this, and I am using this to work through my own attempts at writing fiction. Additionally, I hope to use the research skills I have accumulated to bolster my own scholarly research as I intend to remain part of the academy, albeit tangentially. I have benefited immensely from the intensive and intimate tutoring system Oxford provided. I hope to use this as an example of what it means to be an attentive teacher and mentor to younger people.

How have you found the experience of studying at Oxford? Do you think being a Black man had an impact on your experience?
Yes, it did, but so did class (even though this may be masked, to a point). Oxford is truly international, and this was affirming to witness in College, in my department and amongst my student peers. However, having a “one of each” at the structural level is not enough. I am certain that I would have had a different experience were there more black students, and it was especially notable to observe the lack of black British students in Oxford, to say the least of Africans.

Sometimes (and perhaps more times than I am ready to admit) Oxford felt unwelcoming and it was as if the responsibility was solely on me to assimilate than it was for the university to make provision for foreign and minority people. I have a few anecdotes, but I will withhold those and rather direct the interested reader to Professor Ruth Chang’s recollections on being a minority in Oxford. I was immensely moved by her experiences, how I could relate to some of them. She articulates herself more eloquently than I can regarding such experiences, to quote her, she states, “Things have changed dramatically (…) at Oxford. But not completely.”

I will end with acknowledging that Covid-19 also had an immense effect in limiting movement and socialisation across the various Colleges. When we could finally mix and mingle, I found that there were a few more Black and African students in Oxford. Finding them and even integrating within such networks provided a great deal of comfort.

And lastly, I am from South Africa where two decades ago racism was enshrined in the political and legal system. The harmful effects of this legacy persist today and because of this, I came to Oxford with my own preconceived anxieties about race. It would be dishonest for me not to add that I was surprised at how race did not hinder me from making profound connections with non-black peers in Oxford. In a way, this society is more progressive and accepting than that in my own country, and I have learnt and benefitted immensely from being here. I am grateful for this, and a special shout-out goes to my housemates from 5 Magpie Lane and the Univ graduate community, friends who will remain some of my most cherished contacts. Their openness and generosity is evidence that Oxford can achieve its place in the world as an international, cosmopolitan and progressive hub contributing solutions to global problems. Univ also deserves special mentioning, I recall the keen interest the Master, the Chaplain and the staff showed whenever we had occasion to speak about issues of race.

How do you feel about the celebration of Black History Month?
It is a useful and needed initiative. More can be done to commemorate the contributions black people have made in Oxford. If one walks, for instance, into the Univ buttery and looks up at the foremost portraits hanging on the walls, one sees mostly old white men (as I can imagine is the case with other college halls). Beneath these (to the credit of Univ) now hang portraits of recent scholars and these new additions are more representative of the demographic in Oxford today, in terms of race, class and gender. The addition of the recent Univ graduate portraits acts as an inclusive form of commemoration and representation. The celebration of BHM can work in similar ways, spotlighting the presence and contribution of people who have not been historically highlighted and celebrated. Earlier in the year I was walking along Logic Lane and came across a plaque on the wall. It stated that in 1885, Christian Cole was the first black African to be awarded an Oxford degree. He practiced law in an English Court and was made a member of Univ in 1887. That is a piece of pertinent history, one which the BHM initiative can exhume and broadcast to a wider audience. Perhaps The Martlet, the annual magazine for all members and friends of Univ, can dedicate a publication (or run a profile) on the narrative of Christian Cole? I would be happy to assist with this! The institution of BHM celebrations can help with such endeavours.

Describe Univ in three words.
The oldest college! (to put the final word on the debate).

You can find out more about Christian Cole in our series of news items and features on him, which include: Plaque to a Univ pioneerCelebrating Christian ColeCole, Locke & Wilde ExhibitionReimagining Christian ColeBlack History Month, 1879Reflections on the Zulu WarChristian Cole’s Univ contactsChristian Cole enters the ODNB and Christian Cole film screening.

Published: 14 October 2021

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