Of Land, Bones, and Money

Cover image: Of Land, Bones, and MoneyUniversity of Virginia Press, 2019

Honourable mention for the 2020 Alanna Bondar Memorial Book Prize in the Environmental Humanties and Creative Writing awarded by the Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada

Jury’s Citation: “McGiffin’s account of the role of the iimbongi—the oral poets of the amaXhosa people—provides a welcome, historically grounded introduction to the environmental and social justice concerns of contemporary South Africa. Treating issues like mining and urban development, McGiffin highlights the ways in which European colonialism and its aftermaths have affected the role of the iimbongi and its relationship to power, privilege, and resistance, especially with regard to gendered violence. This book is an important contribution to thinking environmental concerns in diverse global contexts. A glossary and appendices provide useful tools for a North American readership.”

The South African literature of iimbongi, the oral poets of the amaXhosa people, has long shaped understandings of landscape and history and offered a forum for grappling with change. Of Land, Bones, and Money examines the shifting role of these poets in South African society and their responses to segregation, apartheid, the injustices of extractive capitalism, and contemporary politics in South Africa.

Emily McGiffin first discusses the history of the amaXhosa people and the environment of their homelands before moving on to the arrival of the British, who began a relentless campaign to annex land and resources in the region. Drawing on scholarship in the fields of human geography, political ecology, and postcolonial ecocriticism, she considers isiXhosa poetry in translation within its cultural, historical, and environmental contexts, investigating how these poems struggle with the arrival and expansion of the exploitation of natural resources in South Africa and the entrenchment of profoundly racist politics that the process entailed. In contemporary South Africa, iimbongi remain a respected source of knowledge and cultural identity. Their ongoing practice of producing complex, spiritually rich literature continues to have a profound social effect, contributing directly to the healing and well-being of their audiences, to political transformation, and to environmental justice.


Garnier, Xavier « MCGIFFIN (Emily), Of Land, Bones and Money: Towards a South African Ecopoetics. Charlottesville; London: University of Virginia Press, 2019, 249 p. – ISBN 978-0-813-94277-3 ». Études littéraires africaines no 48 (2019) : 265–267. https://doi.org/10.7202/1068459ar

Klein, Benjamin. “Review of Of Land, Bones, and Money: Toward a South African Ecopoetics, by Emily McGiffin.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 51 no. 2, 2020, p. 224-225. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/777447.

Poyner, Jane. “Emily McGiffin, Of Land, Bones, and Money: Towards a South African Ecopoetics.” Literature & History, vol. 29, no. 2, Nov. 2020, pp. 234–236, doi:10.1177/0306197320947843.

“McGiffin sets out to fill a serious gap in South African literary criticism, particularly that of ecocriticism, which has largely ignored indigenous forms and productions. Local ecocriticism still generally is attracted to writing that is recognizably ‘nature’-oriented or ‘environmentalist’ along the lines of (mostly) North American ecocritical models – that is, mostly ‘white’ writing. McGiffin’s exploration of Xhosa praise poetry challenges the appropriateness of these approaches. She also answers a call among postcolonial ecocritics for a more politicised ecocriticism, one concerned less with preservation of natural resources than with social justice, as well as a sturdier valorization of indigenous modes of being and thought.” Daniel Wylie, Rhodes University, editor of Toxic Belonging? Identity and Ecology in Southern Africa

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