Histories of an African farm

Land and literary non-fiction from Sol Plaatje to Jonny Steinberg.

The ‘story of an African farm’ is one of the most overworked motifs in South African literary history. Within ‘white writing’ from the region, it seems that almost every novelist has (along the lines of Dinesen’s 1938 memoir) ‘had a farm in Africa’, whether actual or imagined. At the same time, from RRR Dhlomo’s An African Tragedy (1928) onward, much writing by black South Africans has been classed as fundamentally urban: underpinned by a move away from rural areas to the city, and taking as its subject the encounter with modernity that ensues. This paper hopes to unsettle these familiar trajectories, by tracking how South Africa’s arable land appears in long-form non-fiction... Ranging from Sol Plaatjes’s Native Life in South Africa (1916) to the work of Charles van Onselen and Jonny Steinberg, it considers major South African texts that return to the rural, and ways of writing about land that rely on testimony, oral history and reportage. As such it asks for an alternate genealogy of the African farm, one that includes the voices obscured or effaced by South African versions of the pastoral (or anti-pastoral). Yet at the same time, the complex projects of collaboration and cultural translation that produce texts like Van Onselen’s The Seed is Mine (1996) and Steinberg’s Midlands (2002) pose other, difficult questions about how access to land and access to narrative become implicated in each other.

A Land Divided | 24-27 March 2013 | University of Cape Town. Land and South African Society in 2013 | A Comparative Perspective.

‘What we talk about when we talk about writing’

Extracurricular workshops for students looking to develop their written skills. UCT Conference on Teaching and Learning | 2012.


Many who teach in the field of literary studies at UCT feel the need for a forum which provides writing support to students within our discipline, especially since our work requires a particular attention to the handling of language. We have noticed that quite serious problems with essay writing persist into third-year undergraduate courses, and would like to redress these. At the same time, we hope to develop a writing programme that goes beyond just remedial sessions or the idea of a ‘writing clinic’. Indeed, redefining the matter of (student) writing as a practice, a discipline and a long-term intellectual project – rather than a problem – will be central to the approach.

In this conference I hope to explore the idea of academic writing in a wider, more dynamic and creative way. Who says, after all, that scholarship should be any less ‘creative’ than the MA programme for novelists, playwrights and poets? ‘What we talk about when we talk about writing’ (apologies to Raymond Carver) will be aimed at committed students who are looking to hone their written work, to have it read regularly by their peers, and to become fluent in a range of different scholarly registers: from careful archival research and peer-reviewed journal articles to more public modes like the essay and the review.

Unpacking whose library? Borrowing history in the postcolony

Paper presented at Silence in the Post-World: Literature, Culture and Reimagining of Geography - A One-Day Symposium| Freie Universität Berlin | Friday 15 June 2012. Abstract.

I am unpacking my library.  Yes, I am. Walter Benjamin.

…Today a memorial by Micha Ullman consisting of a glass plate set into the cobbles, giving a view of empty bookcases, commemorates the book burning. Furthermore, a line of Heinrich Heine is engraved, stating ‘Das war ein vorspiel nur wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen’ (‘Where they burn books, they ultimately burn people’). Students at Humboldt University hold a book sale in the square every year to mark the anniversary…

 Walter Benjamin's library card.


The Chimurenga Library: An Introspective of Chimurenga Magazine  | Cape Town Central Library 21 May- 21 June 2009.

In Africa, when an old person dies, it is a library that burns.

Amadou Hampate Ba, UNESCO General Assembly, 1962.

[T]he boss of Credit Gone West doesn’t like ready-made phrases like ‘in Africa, when an old person dies, a library burns’, every time he hears that worn-out cliché he gets mad, he’ll say ‘depends which old person, don’t talk crap, I only trust what’s written down’…

Alain Mabanckou, Broken Glass, Serpent’s Tail, 2009.


...Which is what I love - the critical intelligence in the imaginative position... (i) Reality Hunger (ii) A Piece of Monologue.

Rachel Carson and the Perils of Simplicity

Programme of events | Papers by Rob Nixon, Lesley Green, Julia Martin, Frank Matose, Andre Goodrich, Hedley Twidle.

What is the legacy of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring? The Eco-Audit with Leo Hickmann. Valuable drawing together of online responses to the 50th anniversary at The Guardian website.

You smiled when I suggested that medicine could ever be scientific, but one of the things I appreciate in you, and one of the things I mean by ‘scientific’, is your awareness of what is not known and your unwillingness to rush in with procedures that may disrupt that unknown but all-important ecology of the body cells.  I appreciate, too, your having enough respect for my mentality and emotional stability to discuss this all frankly with me.

Rachel Carson to her doctor George Crile in 1960.


Beyond Rivalry: Fact | Fiction, Literature | History

Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies.Special issue on literary non-fiction in South Africa | Vol. 13:1-2 (2012).

Introduction by Rita Barnard.

‘In a Country Where You Couldn’t Make this Shit Up? Literary non-fiction in South Africa.’

The countryside clattered with the noise of its cruel politics, each new scene a micro-world of stubborn memories and pernicious games. I remembered my trip through the plantations with Jude Fowler. I had remarked on their beauty, he on their ugliness. I was looking at the blend of colours, as an outsider does; he understood things by their history and their function. For a brief moment as I drove back to the Benfield farm, I imbibed the landscape as a native does; everything marked by a thousand particulars; the history of power and people engraved in every mutation.

Jonny Steinberg, Midlands, (2002).

Cambridge History of South African Literature


“For the reader in Benoni, and the reader in Beijing” | UK launch of the The Cambridge History of South African Literature | Friday 3 February 2012 | University of York(LitNet).

Speaking with Many Voices | The Cambridge History of South African Literature Cape Town launch | Tuesday 13 March 2012 | Book Lounge (LitNet).

Transcript of opening address by Njabulo Ndebele.

The Many Voices of South Africa's Past David Attwell, Mail & Guardian (2 March 2012).

...As the editors, we hope that readers will be able to trace a path through the book, following experts in the field, and build a respectable impression of a particular literature but also that they will find many useful distractions along the way. Canonised figures such as Herbert Dhlomo, NP van Wyk Louw and Roy Campbell are juxtaposed as modernists of the same period. Commercially successful imperial adventure fiction published in London is placed alongside the painstaking growth of Afrikaans and African-language literatures. And so on, with many more examples: continuity is challenged and invigorated by contiguity. In this perspective, the blind spots and failures of mutual influence are as ­telling as the successes.

For some years now literary historiography has flourished in the relative absence of literary history. Which is to say, the question of how to do literary history and whether it could or should be done at all seemed more interesting than actually rolling up the sleeves. This is not surprising: theory always flourishes when empirical research loses its way, or loses confidence. But who was the historiography reaching?...Instead of more historiography, what the field needs now is narrative... [Continue reading]


‘Anodyne’ Cambridge history still hits the mark - Graham Riach | 23 July 2012 (SLiPnet).

Many literatures, few readers: The end of SA literary culture? - Nedine Moonsamy | Mail and Guardian Literary Festival | 2 September 2012 (SLiPnet).

Toward an inclusive literary history: Three scholars review The Cambridge History of South African Literature - Helize van Vuuren, Andries Oliphant and Linda Kwatsha | 26 September 2012 (LitNet).

From ‘Kipling of the Malay Archipelago’... Conrad of the Karoo: The making and unmaking of literary reputation in the late 19th century.


Outposts of Progress: Joseph Conrad, Modernism and (Post)colonialism. International Conference in Cape Town, December 2011.

...I sort of drifted up country looking at hospitals and wounded men and guns and generals and wondering as I have never wondered before at the huge size of the country. Try to imagine a railway journey (on a 3 ’6’’ track) of seven and eight hundred miles before you can get within spotting distance of your enemy. It was like a journey in a nightmare...

Kipling to James Conland, 24 July 1900.

Wilhelm Bleek and The Origin of Language

Subtitle here

Review of Representing Bushmen: South Africa and the Origin of Language, by Shane Moran. (Rochester NY: University of Rochester Press, 2009).

 Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History(Winter 2010). Full text here.

“We move upon a giddy height when we attempt to know the direction of the world’s development” – so runs the opening line of an 1868 monograph by the Prussian-born philologist Wilhelm Bleek, Über den Ursprung der Sprache (On the Origin of Language).  With a preface by the fervent Darwinist Ernst Haeckel (Bleek’s cousin), it was just one of a flood of nineteenth-century exercises in comparative philology which attempted to map evolutionary theory onto the study of language, and to divine linguistic origins as a master-key to human history: “the living and speaking witness of the whole history of our race”, as Friedrich Max Müller put it in 1862, “an unbroken chain of speech” carrying one back beyond cuneiform and hieroglyphics to “the first utterances of the human mind.” But Bleek’s unusual career would take him from the universities of Bonn and Berlin to southern Africa and from such rarefied (and now obsolete) theorising to a much more practical encounter with a specific language community... (Continue reading.)

Making the Changes

Marabi Nights, Merry Blackbirds, Epistles and Exiles: Jazz in South African Literature 1950-1970. Review article surveying works by Gwen Ansell, David Coplan, Michael Titlestad and others. English in Africa (October 2010). Full text here (PDF). At the end of But Beautiful – a 1991 collection of imaginative improvisations on the lives of great mid-20th century American jazzmen - Geoff Dyer quotes a thought experiment by George Steiner.  In his book Real Presences (1989)the intellectual asks us to “imagine a society in which all talk about the arts, music and literature is prohibited,” where only the real thing, the act of creation itself, is permitted. In this “republic for writers and readers,” there would be no secondary, parasitic discussion about the latest exhibitions or concerts, no more essays debating the finer points of Hamlet’s madness. Instead, in Steiner’s vision this would constitute an ideal artistic climate where the columns of reviewers and professional opinion makers would be abandoned in favour of listings of coming events, all other commentary rendered redundant since, Steiner maintains, the experience of any genuine work of art also constitutes the best critique in and of itself, and the continuum of which it is part. Yet while he dismisses this utopia and moves on – “the fantasy I have sketched is only that” – Dyer uses it as a starting point to explore a real place that for much of the century “has provided a global home for millions of people: It is a republic with a simple name: jazz” (183-4). (Continue reading...)