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.
Excerpts and extras
Load shedding in Johannesburg, 2007: an account of the origin of the project.
An A-Z of deleted scenes, outtakes, fragments.
A Literary Con: Rereading Dugmore Boetie’s Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost. Excerpt in the Johannesburg Review of Books, 1 April 2019.
Re: Visions of Tsafendas: Reading Harris Dousemetzis’s The Man Who Killed Apartheid (2018).
‘Missing chapter’ on writers’ diaries and the nature of the everyday:
A Minor Form: the notebooks of Stephen Watson and Athol Fugard.
Journal articles linked to the project
An early piece on literary non-fiction in South Africa. Safundi, Special Issue: Beyond Rivalry: Fact | Fiction, Literature | History (2012).
A condensed version of / excerpt from the introduction. Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa, 31:2 (2019).
‘Unusable Pasts’: an article on literary and artistic responses to Demetrios Tsafendas, assassin of Hendrik Verwoerd. Research in African Literatures, 46:3 (2015). See also Visions of Tsafendas: Literary Biography and the Limits of ‘Research’. Safundi, 16:4 (2015), about the challenges and limits of biographical method.
‘A Very Strange Relationship’: an account of a controversial, ‘deauthorised’ biography of Nadine Gordimer. Biography, 41:1 (2018). A response to my article by biographer Ronald Suresh Roberts.
Special issue on ‘Awkward biography’ in post-apartheid South Africa. African Studies, 78:2 (2019), with several links to my research.
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.
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