conferences

Literatures of Betrayal

Literatures of Betrayal

Risk, collaboration and collapse in post-TRC narrative.

The Eleventh International Conference for Literary Journalism Studies
‘Literary Journalism: Telling the Untold Stories’. Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Rio Grande so Sul. Porto Alegre, Brazil, 19-21 May 2016.

While the first decade of post-apartheid South African literary production saw a range of works which responded with journalistic and impressionistic immediacy to the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the second decade of democracy has been marked by a wave of what might be called post-TRC texts: more distant and recessed forms of accounting for the ‘unfinished business’ of the transition. This piece explores a series of texts that grapple with questions of betrayal and collaboration in the varied and complex senses of those words.

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White Papers, Necessary Noises

White Papers, Necessary Noises

The Strange and Surprising Adventures of Jeremy Cronin.

Paper delivered at Craft Wars: Comparative Perspectives on Poetry '74 | University of Cape Town, 19 September 2014.

Jeremy Cronin, Deputy General Secretary of the South African Communist Party, MP and poet, describes reading his work to learners in 2007. From an interview with Andrew van der Vlies in Contemporary Literature, vol. 49 (2008):

Over several years now, at least one of my poems has been set in the national matriculation syllabus, and for some reason (perhaps because it is conveniently short), it often appears in the examination paper itself. So these school events involve a captive audience. I am not deluding myself that the majority of learners are present for the sheer love of poetry, or that, as I step into the venue, I have an extensive and passionate school readership; I try to respect these realities [. . .] Over the recent period there has been a certain predictability about these engagements. 

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A Literary Con

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A Literary Con: The ‘memoirs’ of Herman Charles Bosman and Dugmore Boetie. Conference of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA), New York University, 20-23 March 2014.

After a while, I think, the wit begins to pall. Ironic inversions are worked compulsively just once too often. Irony, as Roland Barthes has noted, remains safe, it keeps its distance [...] There are too many knowing winks travelling between narrator and reader. Prison and its ways are held at a comfortable distance. We find ourselves laughing when sometimes we should, perhaps, be asking questions [...] This irony touches upon awkward questions – innocence (what is innocence?), justice (whose justice?), prison (is it really rehabilitative?) – but lets them all pass in laughter. (142)

Yes, Bosman, you old lag, with your wheedling voice, half conning us, half conning yourself, talking out of the side of your mouth, wink, wink, wink, popping your eyes and whispering down the decades out of that Cold Stone Jug. (143)

Jeremy Cronin, ‘Inside Out: Bosman’s Cold Stone Jug. In Stephen Gray (ed.), Herman Charles Bosman. Johannesburg: MacGraw-Hill, 1986.

Abstract

In How Fiction Works, James Wood distinguishes between reliably unreliable narrators in literature (fairly common and generally identifiable) and the rarer, more disquieting case of unreliably unreliable narrators. This paper relocates his insight to the ostensibly non-fictional works of two South African comic writers: the urban sketches of Herman Charles Bosman, collected in A Cask of Jerepigo (1957), and the prose cycle that makes up Dugmore Boetie’s ‘experimental autobiography’ Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost (1969). Often compared in South Africa, yet little known elsewhere, Bosman and Boetie trade in forms of comedy and irony that, I suggest, are uniquely unstable. With satiric targets and strategies liable to shift disconcertingly from paragraph to paragraph, a ‘politics’ that is wilfully opaque and illegible, and a deliberately cultivated sense of tastelessness and irresponsibility – their texts are perhaps best described as elaborately rigged confidence tricks, often at the expense of the earnest, bien pensant reader. Nonetheless (as glutton for punishment), I will attempt to trace the workings of a complicitous and guilty narrative pleasure: a strain of South African comic vernacular that is echoed in the work of later writers like John Matshikiza, Marlene van Niekerk and Ivan Vladislavic. I will also reflect on the difficulty of teaching (and then resolving never to teach) Bosman and Boetie in the multiracial context of a South African university – perhaps out of an anxiety that students might not ‘get the joke’; or perhaps because they have intuited that some jokes are not worth getting.

The Lives of Objects

10-throne-of-weapons_544Oxford Centre for Life Writing | 20 - 22 September 2013 | Archive and Public Culture gazette. ...Stories, like objects, have contours and patterns. And certain objects might allow us to tell stories that are shaped more irregularly and are more interestingly patterned than the vast, over-arching narratives we are often saddled with. As the objects circulated through the auditorium, he spoke evocatively of the ‘synapse’ of cultural energy that links an object with the place from which it has come...

See also: The Lives of Objects in the History of Cape TownMolo (Dec 2013).

“Jews are to history,” Philip Roth once wrote, “what Eskimos are to snow.” I have often thought that the remark could just as well apply to South Africans...

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.

Abstract

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.

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The Chimurenga Library: An Introspective of Chimurenga Magazine  | Cape Town Central Library 21 May- 21 June 2009. http://www.chimurengalibrary.co.za/about.php

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.

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

From ‘Kipling of the Malay Archipelago’...

...to Conrad of the Karoo: The making and unmaking of literary reputation in the late 19th century.

Abstract.

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.