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Inkhaba Yahko Iphi?—Where is Your Navel?
This phrase is a traditional greeting of the amaXhosa of
This idea of belonging is at the heart of Peter Midgley’s research about the literature of
Peter is originally from
One of the biggest challenges for Peter in his research was to learn to read isiXhosa. “The grammar has changed a lot over the two hundred years since the language was first written down. They also have four different orthographies for this literature. In reading early works, I had to learn obsolete grammar systems and orthographies before I could understand what was written.” However, this was not the end of the challenge. “Written isiXhosa is based on the Rharabhe and Gcaleka dialects. There are about thirty-two spoken dialects, of which eight or nine are written. Because of important cultural nuances, it was not sufficient to simply learn one dialect.” Corresponding with mother-tongue speakers and cultural workers who could explain these subtle differences was crucial to the process of understanding isiXhosa literature.
The impact of Peter’s research is in giving a new understanding to South African literature. “The tendency was to look at the different literatures as separate from each other: English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu, etc. What I’ve achieved is to show there is a lot of cross-cultural, mutual influencing in all directions, without assigning a language to a particular culture. This is important to understand, as some writers who speak isiXhosa will choose to write in Afrikaans, or vice versa.” Another impact is in finding appropriate critical terms for discussing the literature of
Currently, Peter is working on a monograph on the South African author André P. Brink, as well as a critical edition of Sol T. Plaatje’s novel, Mhudi, the first novel in English by a black South African. For Peter, it has always been important in his research to translate the theoretical into the practical. “You reach a point when you realize that a Ph.D. is not so much about improving your marketability but more about self-fulfillment. Yes, it makes you more marketable, but it is certainly about becoming a more developed human being and making a contribution to society. You must try and find some way of letting your research affect people’s lives on a daily basis.”
By David Martin, Research Profile Project