experiments with truth

Experiments with Truth

Reading non-fiction across South Africa’s unfinished transition.

Forthcoming in the African Articulations series from James Currey / Boydell & Brewer, 2019.

I began working on this project in 2007, a time I remember very clearly since I was starting my PhD and living in Johannesburg during the first great era of ‘load shedding’. I would pilot a tiny, bright green Isuzu buggy with a hole in the exhaust and no second gear up Constitution Hill and over the brow of Hillbrow, round the taxi rank and across the tracks to the Johannesburg Central Library.  

After I had parked underground at GAME, found a desk and ordered up some books via a laborious card index system, the power in the whole CBD would invariably go down: all the traffic lights out, the city suddenly plunged into a mood of civic disorder but also a strange euphoria. I would then have to thread the Isuzu back through the chaos. Sometimes traffic police would roll down their window and say: ‘Your car…’ and I expected the worst because it was unroadworthy in so many ways. But the follow up would normally be: ‘I like your car. Is it for sale?’

Load shedding, then Polokwane and the downfall of Thabo Mbeki, then outbreaks of xenophobic violence against African nationals in 2008: it was a moment when the story of post-apartheid South Africa modulated into a more dissonant, diminished key. For some it was the onset of a more fractious and difficult ‘second transition’, as it became clear that the truths and reconciliations of the Mandela years were in some ways illusory, and that the 1990s project of social reckoning and reconstruction had not been nearly deep, honest or durable enough. As an over-stressed national grid struggled to cope and the rolling blackouts continued, it seemed like the whole national project was teetering on the edge of massive system failure. But there were also lots of nice candlelit dinners.

At the time, I was reading across a wide range of non-fiction from or about South Africa: dense and passionately researched biographies, memoirs, essays, narrative journalism, social history and more. I was overwhelmed by the ambition and richness of non-fictional forms across 20th century and contemporary South Africa, particularly since this is a place where the most important intellectual work has often taken place outside of formal institutions: in marginalised, covert, non-academic or exile spaces.

This book is an attempt to give more critical attention to all those kinds of writing that get classed under the dull and inadequate term ‘non-fiction’. It is drawn to those works which are not carriers of pre-existing information but creative treatments of actuality: restless, unstable and even experimental mixtures of the found and the imagined, the received and the wrought.

My alternate title for the book was ‘Unusable Pasts’, which is meant to signal all those stories that don’t fit easy templates of nationalist or public history-making. I am intrigued by those works that can in some way honour the strangeness and resistance that past lives and events should offer to our current desires and projections; that resist the crushingly predictable narrative shapes, orthodox vocabularies and punctual timescales of much public discussion; that seek to reveal human lives as complexly symptomatic of the past, not as simply emblematic of it.

At the heart of the project is Njabulo Ndebele’s insight that the death of apartheid (and the coming of democracy) should be imagined not as an event but a social process: on-going and uneven, happening in different ways and at different tempos, split across institutions and individuals, ranging from the most public languages to the finest tissues of subjectivity, and one that will reach across generations.

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Historical knowledge streams in unceasingly from inexhaustible wells... The strange and incoherent forces its way forward, memory opens all its gates and yet is not open wide enough, nature struggles to receive, arrange and honour these strange guests.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations

A Very Strange Relationship

A Very Strange Relationship

Life writing, overwriting and the scandal of biography.

Reflecting on the Gordimer-Roberts affair: Biography, 41:1 (2018). Abstract.

Letter from Nadine Gordimer to an ‘importuning friend - or at least acquaintance’ (1973):

About our longstanding but tenuous relationship. You know, Ben, we have never been intimate friends. My intimates are very few indeed, and as time goes by and life gets shorter and art runs tantalisingly ahead and can't ever be firmly grasped, I see even my intimates more and more infrequently. And I don't make new ones. As for coming out to lunch with you, I can tell you again quite honestly that I never go out to lunch with anyone. It upsets my whole day. In the morning, I am conscious that at 12:30 I must go and change and paint my face; and in the afternoon, I'm drowsy from the luncheon wine or distracted by the talk. I've had to fight to keep myself to myself - after all, I've lived for more than twenty years in a family surrounded by husbands, children, and the need to consider and feed and listen to them. I've had, perforce, to create a self-discipline. And now I can't live any other way. That's how it is. You seem to have some sort of social inferiority complex (God knows why) that makes you believe that I snub you or don't like you. This is not the case at all, but I am embarrassed by your persistence in wanting to claim more from me than I am prepared to give. I don't want heart-to-heart talks, I don't want to be analysed and assessed, even though some might find that sort of close interest flattering. I don't want to enlarge the very small circle of friends for whom, once in a long while, I must take the trouble to cook dinner. So forgive me and accept our old, friendly acquaintance for what it is.

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Sea Power

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From Cape Town to Dar es Salaam, and back again.

Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard (excerpts) | Africa is a Country | 10 September 2013.
With photographs by David Southwood | Memory Card Sea Power.

A genre-busting book, Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard does a rare thing: it is non-fiction that breaks the mould of works that look in on the continent from the outside. It shows the ancient and complex connections that exist within and beyond African borders in emotional, historical, cultural and metaphysical ways that others shirk from.
Billy Kahora

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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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