A critically acclaimed novelist and critic—and an opponent of apartheid when it was the law of the land in South Africa—John Michael Coetzee (koo-ZEE) is one of the leading contemporary authors of South African literature. An Afrikaner who writes in English, he was born in Cape Town on February 9, 1940, and spent his childhood on his father’s isolated sheep farm in the stony semidesert of the Karroo.
Coetzee was educated at the University of Cape Town, receiving his B.A. in 1960 and his M.A. in 1963. From 1962 to 1963 he worked in London, England, as a computer programmer for the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM). He married in 1963 and fathered two children, Nicholas and Gisela, before divorcing in 1980. He attended the University of Texas at Austin on a Fulbright exchange program and received his Ph.D. in 1969. His dissertation was entitled “The English Fiction of Samuel Beckett: An Essay in Stylistic Analysis.” While studying Anglo-Saxon and linguistics, Coetzee began reading colonial accounts of the exploration of South West Africa. Among these histories of the Hottentots, he found an account written by a remote eighteenth century ancestor, Jacobus Coetzee, which was to give rise to his first novel, Dusklands.
After teaching as an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo from 1968 to 1971, Coetzee returned to South Africa to become a lecturer in English at the University of Cape Town from 1972 to 1982, when he became a professor of general literature. He returned to SUNY at Buffalo in 1984 and 1986 as Butler Professor of English, was twice Hinkley Professor of English at The Johns Hopkins University (1986, 1989), and was a visiting professor of English at Harvard University in 1991.
Returning to South Africa in 1972, he brought with him the half-finished manuscript of Dusklands, which he finished and published in 1974. As he published scholarly essays on linguistics, modern European literature, and South African literature, Coetzee also began to establish his reputation as a novelist. His second novel, In the Heart of the Country, won for him the premier South African Central News Agency (CNA) Award in 1977. His second novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, also won the 1980 CNA Award, as well as the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Award. In 1982, his novels were published outside South Africa and began reaching a broader audience. Since then, he has won numerous literary prizes, including the 1984 Booker Prize, CNA Award, and Prix Fémina Étranger for Life and Times of Michael K. Disgrace also garnered many awards, including the Booker Prize. He was awarded the 1987 Jerusalem Prize for the...
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John Michael Coetzee was born on February 9, 1940, in Cape Town, South Africa. His family soon moved to the Karoo, a dreary region of semiarid plains in Cape Town Province, and he was raised there and on his grandparents’ farm. His father was an unsuccessful lawyer, and his mother was a teacher. His family spoke English at home, but he studied Afrikaans, South Africa’s other official language, in school. Coetzee attended the University of Cape Town, earning degrees in both mathematics and English. Soon after graduation, he moved to London. There he took a job as a computer programmer and wrote a master’s thesis on the English writer Ford Madox Ford. He earned his master of arts degree from the University of Cape Town in 1963 but remained in London for two more years working with computers.
Coetzee returned to the academic world in 1965, joining the doctoral program in linguistics at the University of Texas in Austin. Significantly, he was in the United States to witness the dramatic events of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960’s at the same time that South Africa’s apartheid system and racial turmoil were drawing increased international attention. After completing his thesis on the playwright Samuel Beckett, he moved to the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he taught from 1968 to 1971 and began work on his first major work, Dusklands.
When Coetzee returned to South Africa in 1972, it was...
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