Experiments with Truth

Narrative non-fiction and the coming of democracy in South Africa.

Published in the African Articulations series from James Currey / Boydell & Brewer, 2019.
African paperback edition available via
The Book Lounge and Clarke’s.

Over the last decades, South Africa has seen an outpouring of life-writing and narrative non-fiction. Authors like Panashe Chigumadzi, Jacob Dlamini, Mark Gevisser, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, Antjie Krog, Sisonke Msimang, Njabulo Ndebele, Jonny Steinberg and Ivan Vladislavić have produced a compelling and often controversial body of work, exploring the country’s ongoing transition with great ambition, texture and risk.

Experiments with Truth is the first book-length account of the new non-fiction in South Africa. It reads the transition as refracted through an array of documentary modes that are simultaneously refashioned and blurred into each other: long-form analytic journalism and reportage; experiments in oral history, microhistory and archival reconstruction; life-writing, memoir and the personal essay. The case studies here trace the strange and ethically complex process by which actual people, places and events are shuffled, patterned and plotted in long-form prose narrative.

While holding in mind the imperatives of testimony and witness so important to the struggle for liberation and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the book is increasingly drawn to a post-TRC aesthetic: to works that engage with difficult, inappropriate or unusable elements of the past, and with the unfinished project of social reconstruction in South Africa. The case studies place southern African materials in a global context, and in dialogue with other important non-fictional traditions that have emerged at moments of social rupture and transition.

The whole literary enterprise was a compromise between several desperate drives and urges, something even more profound than what is often referred to as ‘writing your way out of a situation’.
— Es’kia Mphahlele

Excerpts and extras

Journal articles linked to the project

Responses and reviews

Review in Sunday Times: ‘A seminal step in the right direction’: ‘an academic but highly readable reflection on modern SA that eschews jargon’, 14 July 2019.

In this wise and elegant book, one of South Africa’s prominent writers of non- fiction turns his academic eye on the field. The result is a superb volume by a scholar-craftsman that remaps the genealogies of southern African literature.
— Isabel Hofmeyr, Professor of African Literature, University of the Witwatersrand and Global Distinguished Professor, NYU
In a series of carefully crafted chapters, Hedley Twidle explores the full range of South African narrative non-fiction. It is the first serious, sustained intellectual engagement with this expanding corpus of texts. Twidle’s refusal to be trapped within the binary categories of fact and fiction leads to a cross-reading approach that enriches our understanding of the aesthetic and historical work that these texts perform. As the book’s final chapter shows, the major appeal of Experiments with Truth may lie in its own experimentation with the truths of the closure-driven academic monograph.
— Harry Garuba, Professor in African Studies and the English Department, University of Cape Town
Quite simply the best account we have of the complicated strategies of ‘truth’-speaking and position-taking at play – and at stake – in recent South African non-fiction. With verve and nuance, Twidle models how we ought to be writing about South African literature and culture now, showing what the payoffs might be for wider critical debates about authority, ethics, and representation.
— Andrew van der Vlies, Professor of Contemporary Literature and Postcolonial Studies, Department of English, Queen Mary University of London
Hedley Twidle’s lucid and sparkling book unsettles our thinking about the relationship between literature and democracy. Among the first serious studies of South African non-fictional forms, it roams through archives, memoirs, journalism and biography to make a decisive case for their literary qualities. But even more strikingly, it shows how literature animates the anti-colonial democratic process as much as democracy does literature.
— Upamanyu Pablo Mukherjee, Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies, Warwick University

Click to enlarge