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Victoria Collis-Buthelezi

I cannot remember a time when I did not know some version of the story of my father's arrival on the Caribbean island of Trinidad in 1947; how, as a small boy of six, he arrived with his aunt, Patience, and uncle, Darryl, who had decided to move his family so that he could work on the docks of Port of Spain. But, when faced with the reality that their son was stout and strong, while my father ‘could not bear hunger too tough', they left their son with my grandparents and took a chance on my father. He went on to pass Exhibition (an exam at the end of primary school meant to determine whether one was suitable for secondary education and the type of institution for which one was suited), go to teachers' training college and, eventually, headed to the United States with my mother – both intending to study further.

Though neither of my parents fulfilled this dream, this story, or some version of it, has been repeated at every major family gathering that I can remember. Theirs was a colonial world. It was their ‘small place’, like the Antigua to which Jamaica Kincaid returns in A Small Place. When my father went to secondary school he did so on a community raised scholarship put together by all of Laventille – a forgotten sore of a hill pimpled with shacks of corrugated iron, like ‘that village’ in Aimé Césaire's Cahier – Laventille celebrated.

Growing up, I was caught between the Caribbean archipelago and the United States of America, I understood this ritualised storytelling of our familial migrations – detours and returns – to offer me a historical understanding of ourselves and the historicity of my being in the larger world. My conceptualisation of myself as diasporic or transnational comes from imbibing this epic of migration, striving and denial. If the notion of self at which I arrived through this tale recognises the co-existence of the racial and gender identities in which I participate, the act of reading is the mode by which I construct meaning around these identities. It is this practice of reading mythical and historical narratives that led me to literary scholarship, theory and criticism.

My particular theoretical interests are in the Global South and in exploring relationships among countries and regions of the South to understand how these may complicate current theory and practices of reading.

I earned my Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Princeton University, where I was a Mellon Mays Fellow and received the Kennedy prize for my senior thesis on national allegory in Valerie Belgrave’s Ti Marie. I earned my Master of Arts, Master of Philosophy, and PhD (2013) in English and Comparative Literature and Society from Columbia University.

Now living and teaching in South Africa, I am a product of three spaces – the United States, the Caribbean, and South Africa. My current book project, Empire, Nation, Diaspora: Constituting a Black Archive, interweaves them. A revision of my PhD dissertation, ‘Anxious Records: Race, Imperial Belonging and the Black Literary Imagination, 1900 – 1946’, this project excavates prior, understudied moments of black solidarity across the Atlantic to rethink our conceptual paradigms in African and African diaspora studies. Taking archival research begun for my PhD as my point of departure, I use the archival material gathered over the course of my dissertation to examine this construction of Africa and the silence around fin du siècle Cape Town as an important fixture in discussions of black modernity.

I contend that this silence persists because of the distribution of intellectual labour across the fields of African American, Caribbean, African, and South African cultural studies as well as the protocols of constituting a ‘black archive’. Cognizant of the solidarities that empire afforded some of the very people it oppressed, the book not only documents this moment in black intellectual and literary/cultural practice, it delineates what empire meant and means to articulations of blackness and asks how we might ‘refigure the archive’ of black modernity in this new era of black transnationalism and disrupt the myopia of nation through comparative linguistic and literary analysis of lost or discarded imagined futures.

I like to think of myself as a palimpsest onto which the likes of CLR James, Frantz Fanon and Maryse Condé are written, blurring the lines between the 'critical' and 'creative' intellectual. When I grow up, I want to start a printing press. My latest venture involves blogging about what it means to be a thinking mother in post-apartheid South Africa at www.mamaloguer.wordpress.com.
victoria.collis-buthelezi@uct.ac.za