Hybridity as a Problem in J. M. Coetzee’s Youth

by Birgitte Bjørnøy

Having first garnered attention as one of the leading contemporary post-colonial authors with his seminal Disgrace (1999), J. M. Coetzee proceeded with his follow-up effort in 2002, the semi-autobiographical novel entitled Youth. In the novel, John leaves a troubled South Africa in search of a new life and a new identity in London. This involves getting ‘rid of his old self’ (Coetzee: 111), or his erstwhile South African identity. Set in the early 1960s, the novel describes how John escapes the riots in his native Cape Town to pursue his own literary ambitions. He has a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics, and gets a job at IBM in order to make a living. But London is not as John imagines it to be. Instead of being a ‘city of romance’ (Coetzee: 44), London is a cold place where he feels both lonely and alienated. He tries to write poetry during his free time, but finds it more and more difficult, and eventually he is not able to write anything at all. This writer’s block can be viewed in the light of his problem with hybridity. He tries to find a new, ‘pure’ identity and a literary voice, influenced only by Western modernist writers such as Ezra Pound and Samuel Beckett, but the attempt to escape his South African identity and background leads to further alienation and loneliness. To write literature influenced by both his South African affiliations and the Western literary tradition is not a viable option for John. Ironically, most of Coetzee’s novels problematize this hybrid point of view. Why does the young John have such a problem with hybridity?

Post-colonial theory seeks to understand the relation between nations and races (nature), on the one hand, and literature (culture), on the other. Hybridity is one of the key concepts of post-colonialism, because it refers to a mixture of different nationalities and races. Coetzee the South African strikes us as somewhat of a hybrid figure, having both English and Afrikaner ancestors. In Youth, a youth named John struggles with the same hybrid and colonial background, while trying to fit into ‘the great world’ (Coetzee 2002: 62) of Western Europe.

In ‘The Cultural Politics of Hybridity,’ Robert Young looks at the historical background of the concept of hybridity. He looks at the use of the term in the period of increasing immigration and mixed-marriages in Britain and Europe. These forms of hybridization were, to an extent, the result of an expansion of the British Empire. In the nineteenth century the term ‘hybrid’ had negative connotations, and Young explains this by referring to the tendency to identify cultural hybridity with biological hybridity:

‘Hybridity is a making one of two distinct things, so that it becomes impossible for the eye to detect the hybridity of a geranium or a rose. Nevertheless, the rose exists, like the vine, only in so far as it is grafted onto the different stock. Neglect to prune either, and the plant eventually reverts back to its original state. In the nineteenth century, we have seen that a common analogous argument was made that the descendants of mixed-race unions would eventually relapse to one of the original races thus characterizing miscegenation as temporary in its effects as well as unnatural in its very nature’ (Young 2006: 158)

In Youth, John takes this cultural bias against hybridity even further. He imagines that he must write in either a Western or a South African context in order to write good literature, and to be able to do so he must choose between a Western and a South African identity. Which of these two identities he prefers is made evident early on in the novel. He thinks that South Africa is backward and primitive, and when he writes a story (involuntarily) set in South Africa he reacts thus:

‘It disquiets him to see that he is still writing about South Africa. He would prefer to leave his South African self behind as he has left South Africa itself behind. South Africa was a bad start, a handicap. […] He does not need to be reminded of South Africa. If a tidal wave were to sweep in from the Atlantic tomorrow and wash away the southern tip of the African continent, he will not shed a tear. He will be among the saved’ (Coetzee: 62)

John’s negative attitude towards his homeland is laced with the same assumptions that underlie the history of apartheid in South Africa, with its concomitant political turbulence. Possibly in an act of over-compensation, John tries to distance himself as much as possible from political issues, to be free from the ‘fury of politics’ (Coetzee: 85). However, as South Africa in the 1960s was historically polarized between the blacks and whites, John feels impelled by the occasion to take a stand and decide his allegiance. It becomes quite clear in the novel that he does not like the Afrikaners and their apartheid policy, but he also feels excluded and threatened by the radical resistance movements such as the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress). He interprets their message as: ‘Africa for the Africans! […] Drive the whites into the sea!’ (Coetzee: 38). Under the apartheid regime, a hybrid identity was not a real option, and John, clearly influenced by this view, thinks that the only solution to his ethnicity and loyalty problem is to flee the country and start over somewhere else.

There is a special kind of logic in the dichotomist division of races and nations illustrated above, and I will investigate this logic in order to explain how it is connected to John’s inability to write poetry. But it must also be mentioned that his tense relationship with South Africa is connected to a sense of complicity, a kind of historical guilt, on behalf of the white population’s treatment of the native Africans:

‘Between black and white there is a gulf fixed. Deeper than pity, deeper than honorable dealings, deeper even than goodwill, lies an awareness on both sides that people like Paul and himself, with their pianos and violins, are here on this earth, the earth of South Africa, on the shakiest of pretexts’ (Coetzee: 17)

This passage is a telling example of how complicated and deep-rooted the conflicts of South Africa are. Nevertheless, I think it is possible to say something about John’s problem with hybridity and his inability to write by investigating the logic behind the apartheid – a logic deeply grounded in colonialism, which haunts John even when he has emigrated to the other side of the equator.

In Orientalism (1978), Edward Said describes the West’s need to dominate the East. The West has created a pseudo-scientific discourse about the East, and this discourse clearly separates the Orient from the Occident. To quote Said: ‘Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, ‘them’)’ (Said 2003: 43). John is influenced by this way of thinking, but the dichotomy he operates with is between Africa and the West, and his version of orientalism is an inverted one because he comes from Africa and wants to belong to the West. He explicitly states his wish to become an Englishman: ‘Soon, if his progress continues and he is careful with his vowels, no one will be sparing him a second glance. In a crowd he will pass as a Londoner, perhaps even, in due course, as an Englishman’ (Coetzee: 51). But this wish is ironic because he also emphasizes how lonely and depressed London makes him feel. Why is it so important to be English when he does not even like England? This has both to do with the problem of hybridity and the consequences of the logic of orientalism and colonialism.

In the East/West dichotomy Said describes, the West and the East are attributed with contrasting qualities. Said traces this tendency back to ancient Greece, but emphasizes its importance in the expansion of the British Empire in the nineteenth century. During this period, a part of today’s South Africa, Cape Colony, was a British colony. As an example of how the logic of orientalism works, Said refers to Lord Cromer, England’s representative in colonized Egypt between 1882 and 1902. When Cromer argued against Egyptian nationalism, he described the Orientals as a people who did not have the necessary skills to govern themselves, and thus was in need of British domination. Orientalism, the body of pseudo-scientific knowledge about the Orient and the Orientals, was used as a way to legitimize colonialism. According to Cromer, ‘Orientals are inveterate liars, they are ‘lethargic and suspicious’, and in everything oppose the clarity, directness, and nobility of the Anglo-Saxon race’ (Said: 39). Because this binary relation between the East and West needed to be kept in place in order to defend the superiority of the British, it remained almost unchallenged until the de-colonization of the twentieth century. But even though South Africa was no longer a British colony in the 1960s, John remains affected by the thought of the West as culturally and economically superior, although his own experience with London suggests something else.

We have now seen that both the apartheid regime in South Africa and the colonialist logic of orientalism have little room for hybrid identities. Coetzee’s Youth illustrates why this is a problem, especially for someone who is a hybrid in two different ways. Today, hybrid voices in literature are quite common, but a lot has happened since the 60s. In Youth, John never finds a literary voice connected to his hybrid identity and background, but the book itself is an expression of such a voice. And herein lies the crux of Youth: the book is itself a solution to a problem its protagonist is unable to solve. As it is a hybrid product, it is also a critique of a colonial discourse where hybridity threatens the logic on which this discourse depends. Homi Bhabha expresses this elegantly: ‘Hybridity is a problematic of colonial representation and individuation that reverses the effects of the colonialist disavowal, so that other ‘denied’ knowledges enter upon the dominant discourse and estrange the basis of its authority’ (Bhabha 1994: 111). In other words, hybridity is able to dissolve the binary logic of colonialist discourses such as orientalism, and show that this logic is a flawed construct.

As aforementioned, Youth does not offer us a clear solution to John’s struggles with either hybridity or writing. However, there is an episode which anticipates a solution, and this episode involves, perhaps not surprisingly, a critique of British superiority. Homi Bhabha explains how the act of mimicry can have a subversive effect in criticizing colonialismi, and the episode in Youth is a miming of cricket, a game central to British culture and tradition. John plays cricket with his English colleagues and is surprised to see that they are not better at it: ‘He is better, much better, as a batsman and bowler too, than his fellow players. How, he asks himself, did these young Englishmen spend their school days? Must he, a colonial, teach them to play their own game?’ (159). By successfully miming something quintessentially English, he is able to really question their cultural (and racial) superiority. As post-colonial theorists such as Andrew Smith explain, mimicry shows us that no culture is naturally better than another, and that culture is in fact not natural at all. According to Smith:

‘If a culture is a thing learnt, created, and staged […] then it is also profoundly susceptible to the possibility of being aped, copied, or appropriated, in a fashion that disrupts the claim that it is the specific property or the unique expression of a single community’ (Smith 2008: 252).

With subversive strategies such as mimicry, the colonial can unmask the superiority of the colonizer as a social construct. Unfortunately, social constructions are often deeply rooted in people’s behaviour and mindsets. John is proof of this because even though he is against the apartheid policy he is still caught up in its colonialist and racist logic. This not only prevents him from writing but also, in a way, makes him dislike himself for being ‘a graceless colonial’ (86), aware of the inherent contradictions in his identity. On the other hand, much has changed since the 1960s, and cultural hybridity is no longer generally viewed as ‘unnatural in its very nature’ (Young: 158). Among others, I believe we can thank writers like J. M. Coetzee for that.


Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. ”Signs Taken for Wonders”. The Location of Culture. London and

New York. p. 102-22.

Coetzee, J. M. 2003. Youth [2002]. London.

Said, Edward W. 2003. Orientalism [1978]. London.

Smith, Andrew. 2008. ”Migrancy, hybridity and postcolonial literary studies”. The

Cambridge companion to postcolonial literary studies. Ed. Neil Lazarus. Cambridge. p. 241-261.

Young, Robert. 2008. “The cultural politics of hybridity” [1995]. The Post-Colonial

Studies Reader. 2nd Edition. Ed. Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. p. 158-162.

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