Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee

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J. M. Coetzee

Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee speaks of his time in Austin and censorship in South Africa

J. M. Coetzee, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature, returned to Austin on May 5, 2010 in a rare appearance to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Graduate School. He captivated his audience with reminiscences of his time as a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin and a fascinating account of the censorship of three of his novels during the apartheid years in South Africa.

Introductions were made by Victoria Rodríguez, Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Studies, Tom Staley, Director of the Harry Ransom Center and James Magnuson, Director of the Michener Center for Writers.

In his remarks, Staley quoted Irish author John Banville’s description of Coetzee. “As a novelist he is a remarkable phenomenon: an austere and uncompromising intellectual whose books are international bestsellers. He has received pretty well every significant literary award it is possible to win. His success is an encouragement for those writers who persist, despite these hard times, in the conviction that the novel is still a serious art form, capable of delineating not only the inner landscape of an individual consciousness but also of reflecting something of the human condition in general.” Staley added, “Known for his spare, striking, and powerful prose, Coetzee has left an indelible mark on our culture. He writes often, and brilliantly, of his native home of South Africa, but the themes and conflicts he explores in his works are indeed universal.”

Coetzee, who earned his Ph.D. in English in 1969, called his time as a student at the university both formative and productive. His distinguished career as an author, academic and literary critic makes him one of the university’s most distinguished alumni. Upon the announcement of his Nobel Prize, the university lit the Tower in his honor.

He recalls, “In 2003, shortly after I heard of the award of the Nobel Prize, I received in the mail a photograph of the tower at UT lit up. We’re all lit up because of you, said the unsigned note at the back. Should I believe it? I didn’t have the courage to inquire. It seemed hard to believe that the tower would be lit up for an obscure foreigner, who decades ago, had passed through these halls. But perhaps tonight I’ve heard the truth, the official truth. Yes, it was, indeed, lit up for me. I am touched, even in retrospect.”

However, it was the topic of censorship that was the focus of Coetzee’s talk. For historical perspective, Coetzee explained, “The law at that time required importers of all semiotic material from books and films at the one end to printed T shirts at the other to submit these materials to be checked for immoral or subversive content. When it came to books, the checking was masterminded by the so called directorate of publications, which would allocate a given book to one or other of its committees of expert readers for scrutiny. So much for background. We now come to the part that interests me. The three books of mine I want to revisit, In the Heart of the Country, Waiting for the Barbarians, and Life and Times of Michael K, were all published in the UK and exported to South Africa. On arrival, they were transmitted via the directorate into the hands of committees of censors. All three books, in due course, passed scrutiny, and were okayed for sale in bookshops. End of story. The system had spoken. End of story, except for the following.”

In 1994, when political power in South Africa shifted to a popularly elected government, the files from the apartheid years were released and Coetzee was asked whether he was interested in seeing the censor’s reports on his books. He “leapt at the offer” wondering “who exactly were the half dozen people who had secretly, that is to say without revealing their identity, sat in judgment on my books?”

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Coetzee speaks of the people who were his censors and why his books were ultimately approved for sale in South Africa.


May 5, 2010
6 to 7:30 p.m.
LBJ Auditorium

Introductions, and proudly hosted by:

Victoria E. Rodriguez, Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Studies

James Magnuson, Director, James A. Michener Center for Writers

Thomas F. Staley, Director, Harry Ransom Center

J. M. Coetzee photo by Bert Nienhuis.

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