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Apr 10, 2011

Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism | La Guma, Alex - Introduction Alex La Guma 1925-1985
(Born Justin Alexander La Guma) South African novelist, short story writer, and journalist. The following entry presents an overview of La Guma's career through 1998. See also Alex La Guma Literary Criticism.

La Guma is best known for his fiction concerning racial oppression under the apartheid system in South Africa. In his novels and short stories, he conveys, as Nadine Gordimer says in her The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing (1973), “the sight, sound and smell of poverty and misery, so that the flesh-and-blood meaning of the colour bar becomes a shocking, sensuous

tenements. He was the son of Jimmy La Guma—president of the South African Coloured People's Congress and a member of the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party—and Wilhelmina Alexander La Guma. In March of 1960 there was the Sharpeville Massacre. That same year. a declaration of rights. which meant that they were classified as “Coloured” under the governmental policy of racial segregation. England. Then in 1962. In 1954 he married Blanche Herman. and in 1959 created a political cartoon strip called Little Libby: The Adventures of Liberation Chabalala. as well as plans for his autobiography. La Guma held several jobs. communicating with friends. and a state of emergency was declared. he came to the government's attention in helping to draw up the Freedom Charter. joined the Communist Party in the late 1940s and became a member of the Cape Town district committee before the Party was banned in 1950. “A Glass of Wine” (1960) tells of the unlawful courtship of a coloured girl by a white boy. he was arrested in 1956 and flown to Johannesburg on a charge of high treason. La Guma died on October 11. the African National Congress (ANC) and PanAfricanist Congress (PAC) were banned. his parents were of mixed race. 1985. During this last period he was barred from leaving his house. Prior to his arrest. a year later he was placed under house arrest for five years. Besides his news reports. before joining the staff of the leftist newspaper New Age (Cape Town) in 1955. Up My Alley. whether expressed through the immorality act or liquor raids by police. a worker in a cigarette factory. He grew up in a politically aware household and. He graduated from Upper Ashley primary school and attended Trafalgar High School. Biographical Information La Guma was born on February 20. and practicing journalism. In “Blankets” (1964) a young hoodlum. after many appearances at the famous Treason Trial. following his father. and factory hand. South Africa. when white policemen shot down unarmed blacks demonstrating against the apartheid “pass laws” that required nonwhites to carry identification documents. La Guma wrote the majority of his short stories. . he wrote a weekly column. a working-class ghetto of Cape Town. where he remained until 1979. he was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act. Along with 155 other delegates. a nurse and midwife. La Guma gained international recognition for his efforts to bring down white-minority rule in South Africa. 1925.impact. in District Six. however. leaving behind fragments of his sixth novel and several short stories. they reflect the author's preoccupation with the effects of the color bar. prison cells.” Driven into exile in the mid-1960s. Set in cheap cafés. In 1966 La Guma began a period of self-imposed exile in London. working as a clerk. La Guma continued to work as a journalist for New Age. and finally. but completed matriculation examinations in 1945 as a night student at Cape Technical College and in 1965 was a correspondence student at the London School of Journalism. when he moved to Cuba. Major Works During the time leading up to his house arrest and then afterward while in confinement. bookkeeper. South Africa was in crisis. The last of the defendants was finally acquitted in 1960. and backyards. participating in politics. La Guma was again arrested and detained for seven months. as a delegate to the Congress of the People. By this time. Like most members of their community. subsequently. however. In 1942 he left high school without graduating. with his books banned in his own country.

and journalism.” a dialect of Cape Town's mixed-race ghettos that blends Afrikaans with Inc. with prostitution. The Stone Country examines conditions in the South African prison system. not only for South Africa's black and coloured citizens. famine. alcoholism. ©2000-2011 Enotes. and anecdotes repeated. concerning itself with the South African resistance movement. All are portrayed as victims of a social system that ultimately robs them of their humanity. Critical Reception While La Guma and other black African writers were initially the objects of high praise and adulation by critics worldwide for their unflinching portrayals of the conditions in which blacks have been forced to live in Africa. scenes. bringing together elements of popular culture from such forms as pulp fiction. developing a style of writing in these works based on what has been termed “Englikaans. La Guma's most highly regarded novel. In the Fog of the Seasons' End (1972). American gangster movies. In these short stories. returns in his delirium to earlier scenes of despair and deprivation. In And a Threefold Cord (1964) La Guma portrayed life in a Cape Town slum in all its squalor. many critics continued to laud La Guma's artistic sensibilities. All Rights Reserved . one can find not only the language but also many of the themes and narrative devices that La Guma later employed in his longer fiction. is his most metaphorical. Collectively. critical reception turned on them in the 1980s. and he remains one of the most highly regarded South African writers of the twentieth century. unemployment. It was not uncommon for many black African writers of the time to move freely among different literary modes. recounting the history of an Afrikaaner family as represented by a white racist landowner whose eventual death at the hands of a black activist is portrayed as fully justified. Ultimately. Occasionally episodes were developed. when commentators began to question the aesthetic merit of their works beyond the bounds of social analysis. Published in 1967. His final work of published fiction. La Guma's novels expose the hopelessness and desperation of life under apartheid. The novella A Walk in the Night (1962) details the chain of events that occur after a black factory worker is fired from his job for talking back to his white supervisor. and acceptance of brutality toward blacks make the prison a microcosm of South Africa as a whole. and illness accepted as part of daily life for the inhabitants.stabbed three times by an old enemy. particularly in relation to the coloured community of Cape Town. the stories form a powerful indictment of the evils of apartheid. the hierarchical social system. Like his stories. violence. and in his journalism as well. but for the whites who refused to live harmoniously and respectfully with their fellow human beings. is also his most autobiographical. Time of the Butcherbird (1979). and certain phrases. La Guma combines these elements to startling effect. however. racial segregation.

This anonymity not only adds to the atmosphere of threat in the story. and the ways these policies affected human behaviour and relationships. The reader learns from snatches of dialogue that he is ‘educated’ and a ‘teacher’.The Lemon Orchard Many of la Guma’s novels and short stories show his political leanings and reflect his criticism of the racially discriminative policies of the government of South Africa at the time he was writing. but perhaps suggests that this is not a story of a particular event. but is granted no respect. unlike the final twist or revelation of so many short stories. . none of the characters is named. The companionship of the group of white men is compared with the solitary vulnerability of the ‘coloured man’ they hold captive. Its ending is open and inconclusive. In The Lemon Orchard. The undercurrent of threat and violence instead becomes more explicit as the story continues. who displays a ‘mixture of dignity and contempt’ for his tormentors. but is representative of a number of such events which occurred in many places at many times in South Africa under apartheid. You might encourage students to consider what the effects of this way of ending the story are.