“The Provisionality of Home”: Memorial Lecture for Academic and Author Margaret Lenta
The tone of the English Academy of Southern Africa Commemorative Lecture in honour of the late Professor Margaret Lenta was simultaneously sombre and affectionate.
Held in the Howard College Theatre on the UKZN campus on Thursday night last week, the lecture was attended by well-wishers, colleagues and friends, some of whom had travelled from far to pay their respects to the highly-respected academic. Professor Cheryl Potgieter, UKZN Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Humanities, opened the proceedings, emphasising that it is important to recognise the work of those in the English Academy “who are still living”. Professor Colin Gardner, formerly of the English Department at UKZN, fleshed out the role of the English Academy for the audience, explaining that “there are still many things to do”.
Professor Johann Jacobs, former Dean of Humanities at UKZN, was next to speak, paying tribute to Lenta by detailing her academic career. He explained that she completed her post-graduate studies at UKZN and went on to spend her entire academic life at the institution. He described her as an “outstanding teacher”, and commended her on her “excellent editing skills,” saying that she had “a special genius for pruning away excess and enhancing spare strong argument”. Lenta co-edited SA Lit Beyond 200 with Michael Chapman in 2011.
Lenta was the founder of the well-known SA journal Current Writing in 1989. He praised her for her considerable research output over 40 years at the university, which continued into retirement. Humourously, Jacobs commented that it was a pity Professor Lenta never got to publish her favourite recipes in a book she had planned to title “The Empire Cooks Back”. He noted that although she loved her home Durban, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, she always remembered the dialects and folklore of her native Northumberland in England.
Professor Margaret Daymond, also formerly of the English Department at UKZN, took the stand here, to deliver a lecture entitled: “Home, Exile and Resistance in letters from Bessie Head, Dora
Taylor and Lillian Ngoyi”. She noted that home as a “spatial imaginary” gets flak from the post-colonial theorists because they think it is “built on a pattern of inclusion and exclusion, which becomes a process of eliminating difference”. Daymond’s tenet is that “the idea of home could be a source of sustenance for those fighting oppression”. She analysed the letters of these three women writers who all lived in SA at some time, in order to substantiate her theory, saying that she thinks these letters are “primary texts in themselves, and shouldn’t be considered a sub-species of biography”. She quoted Bessie Head, who in a letter to English novelist Paddy Kitchings, said “a house is someplace to put things you love intensely”. Daymond explored the idea of a “doubled vision” , a term coined by US feminist writer Bell Hooks – where readers and writers of letters can look “both in and out” of their respective cultures, to understand their position in society.
Mr Thayalan Reddy gave a vote of thanks at the end of the lecture, expressing appreciation for Jacobs and Daymonds’ professional insights into Lenta’s life and works.