Interview with Professor Jade Munslow Ong

Ahead of the 2024 Percival Lecture, we had the chance to ask Jade Munslow Ong a few questions

professor jade munslow ong

Q: Modernism was a hugely significant art movement that produced ground-breaking, experimental works. How would you define it and what does it stand for?

A: Modernism is typically defined as an artistic, cultural, and philosophical movement that emerged around the turn of the twentieth century. It’s associated primarily with European and American creatives and thinkers who used experimental forms to represent, and respond to, a modern world shaped by empire, industrialisation and urbanisation.

This included new technologies and transport, wars, shifts in scientific and political thinking, the rise of the New Woman and women’s rights. One of the mantras of the movement is Ezra Pound’s slogan ‘Make It New’, which captures the idea that modernism breaks with tradition, revising and reworking older forms to create new and innovative art, music, literature and architecture.


Q: How did you come to be particularly interested in South African modernism?

A: I spent a lot of time in South Africa when I was growing up, so I developed an interest in its literatures, histories and cultures. I then studied postcolonial literature and theory at university and wrote my PhD thesis and first book on the first South African novelist, Olive Schreiner (1855-1920).

“My particular interest in the role played by South African writers in the development of literary modernism came about through my work on Schreiner’s fiction because she uses techniques and ideas that are now considered hallmarks of modernism. What’s so fascinating about this is that she’s doing so as early as the 1870s, and from the colonial peripheries. So, she’s writing from outside of the times and places that we traditionally associate with the modernist movement.”

Building on this earlier work, I’m now leading an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project that investigates the forms and politics of South African literary modernism from the nineteenth century to the present day. There are various South African writers that our team consider as both theorists and practitioners of modernism – Solomon Plaatje, William Plomer, Lewis Nkosi, Bessie Head, JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer and Damon Galgut, to name but a few. These writers are connected both personally and textually to other global modernists and modernisms from all over the world, and part of our work involves tracing some of those connections.


Q: To this day, South Africa remains tormented by deep-seated, long-standing socio-political problems. What role, if any, did Modernism play in healing or hindering these problems?

A: Modernist forms are so malleable and varied that they have been mobilised in support of a wide spectrum of political ideas and ideologies, and in many cases, refused any political or social function or allegiance whatsoever.

I think the reason that South African literature emerged in a modernist idiom has to do with South Africa’s uniquely prolonged colonial condition, that arguably stretched all the way from the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck and the Dutch East India Company in 1652, to the end of apartheid in the 1990s.

“Modernism, with its interest in cross-cultural representations, fragmentation, and combinations of tradition and innovation, became the mode through which to represent the unevenness of this experience, in which European economic, political, and cultural structures so detached from their African worldviews and ways of life were imposed and enforced over centuries. I’d argue that there is a connection between modernist expression and anti-colonial and anti-apartheid resistance that can be traced across the works of many of the writers that I mentioned earlier.”


Q: If we want to begin to appreciate and understand South African Modernism, through its literature and poetry, where should we start?

A: I’ve already mentioned a few, but would also add the English-language writers H.I.E. Dhlomo, Athol Fugard, Can Themba, Njabulo Ndebele and Ivan Vladislavić; plus Xhosa-language writer S.E.K. Mqhayi; and Afrikaans writers André Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, Adam Small, Karel Schoeman and Marlene van Niekerk. I’m currently working on a co-edited collection with Professor Andrew van der Vlies (University of Adelaide) on South African modernisms and we have solicited chapters about many of these and other writers.

We’ve got some exciting contributions on South African modernist art and photography too, including by Irma Stern, Dumile Feni, Nichols Hlobo, William Kentridge, David Goldblatt and Albert Adams.  The University of Salford Art Collections holds one of the largest archives of Adams’s work – including paintings, prints and studio ephemera – and there is a permanent display of his paintings in the Albert Adams room at The Old Fire Station (where the Percival lecture is taking place).


Q: What research project/s are you working on in 2024? Is there one project that you’re particularly looking forward to? If so, why?

A: I have lots of things that I’m really excited about this year! I was in Johannesburg with filmmaker Simon Stanton-Sharma in January making a documentary film about female e-hailing (using a smartphone app to request a ride) drivers that we’re currently editing to send to film festivals.

I’m also working with an international research team, Further Education colleges in the Northwest, and exam boards AQA and WJEC Eduqas, on a project to decolonise the English Literature A-Level. We’ll be travelling to Sweden, South Africa and Australia over the next 18 months, working with 16–18-year-old learners and their teachers to create a range of resources to support this – everything from recorded lectures and teacher toolkits to video essays, podcasts and TikToks!

And I’m really looking forward to my co-authored book with Matthew Whittle, Global Literature and the Environment, coming out with Routledge in August. So, all in all, a lovely combination of celebrations, collaborations and activities to be getting on with!


Thank you to Jade for taking the time to answer our questions.

Jade Munslow Ong will be giving this year’s Percival Lecture – South Africa’s Modernism, Modernism’s South Africa – at the University of Salford on the 18th April 2024.

professor jade munslow ong

Professor Jade Munslow Ong

Jade Munslow Ong is Professor of World Literatures in English at the University of Salford. She is author of Olive Schreiner and African Modernism: Allegory, Empire and Postcolonial Writing (Routledge, 2018), co-editor (with Andrew van der Vlies) of Olive Schreiner: Writing Networks and Global Contexts (Edinburgh University Press, 2024). Her latest book – Global Literatures and the Environment: Twenty-First Century Perspectives – is co-authored with Matthew Whittle and will be published in 2024.

Jade is currently Principal Investigator on the AHRC-funded research project, South African Modernism 1880-2020 and is an BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker who regularly appears on BBC Radio 3. She has published and presented widely.

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