Experiments with Truth


Published in the African Articulations series, James Currey, 2019.

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 real 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.

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 of African Studies and English Literature, University of Cape Town


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A collection of essays and non-fiction. Kwela Books, 2017

Hedley Twidle's work is exquisitely crafted, clever, self-deprecating, and, above all, deeply thoughtful. We are lucky to have a writer of his calibre working on contemporary South African material.
Jonny Steinberg

Mentally exhilarating! A book I will return to again and again, both for its uncommon insights, and the quiet beauty of its prose.
Rebecca Davis

Hedley Twidle is an essayist of rare brilliance. His reach is remarkable. Whatever subject he touches, his writing is always luminous, astute and often darkly funny.
Rob Nixon

Funny, self-deprecating, some of the best prose I have read this year, an infectious curiosity about the seemingly mundane and everyday...The essays are stunning in their range, observation, playfulness, insight, and aesthetic qualities.
Eusebius Mckaiser

The sequence of the essays behaves almost as a collection of paintings – a polyptych of stories that are each exquisite and then add other layers as they ricochet against one another. 
Business Day


Essays, literary journalism and reviews

Barbarian Phase. A surfing half-life. Business Day, 27 August 2019. Locals only version and also published on Wavescape.

Monsoon Raag. Prufrock, final edition, May 2019.

A Literary Con. Rereading Dugmore Boetie’s Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost. Johannesburg Review of Books, 1 April 2019.

Shadow of a Drought: Cape Town's water crisis and its aftermath. Financial Times, 27 July 2018. With photographs by Kent Andreasen.

The Firepool: Hedley Twidle on scandal, Jacob Zuma and swimming in South Africa.  Financial Times, 18 August 2017. Water: A Summer Special.

‘Three great hopes for a post-apartheid culture, gone too soon’ – On Phaswane Mpe, Moses Taiwa Molelekwa and K Sello Duiker (excerpt from Firepool). Johannesburg Review of Books, 3 July 2017.

Journey's End. Review of Mohsin Hamid, Exit WestFinancial Times, 25 February 2017.

The Sound of Islay. Introducing the FT / Bodley Head essay competition. Financial Times, 11 November 2016.

The Institute for the Less Good Idea. Profile of William Kentridge for Financial Times magazine, 2 September 2016.

Half-lives, Half Truths. Svetlana Alexievich and the nuclear imagination. South Africa PEN essay series, 18 August 2016.

A Visit to a Deconstruction Site. Diary, Financial Times, 15 April 2016.

An Interview with Rustum Kozain. Wasafiri, 31:2 (2016).

Nuclear Summer. A walk through South Africa's nuclear pasts and futures. Sunday Times, 7 February 2016.

The Art of Fear. Review of Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time. Financial Times, 15 January 2016.

The Swimmer's Progress. Openings column. Financial Times, 8 January 2016.

27 Years. Listening to Moses Taiwa Molelekwa. Prufrock magazine, September 2015.

A Mighty Fry Up. Review of Chigozie Obioma, The Fishermen. New Statesman, 15 September 2015.

I’m Generalizing, But… Openings Column. Financial Times, 14 August 2015.

Confession of the Lioness. By Mia Couto, translated by David Brookshaw. Review, 31 July 2015, Financial Times.

That Middling Line. Review of Alberto Fernández Carbajal, Compromise and Resistance in Postcolonial Writing: E.M. Forster's Legacy. Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 2015.

The Marvellous Real. Review of E. C. Osondu, This House is Not for Sale. Financial Times, 5 June 2015. 

An Unnatural History. Review of Henrietta Rose-Innes, Green Lion. Sunday Times. 9 May 2015.

Distant Horizons. MAN Booker International Prize Finalists and Rhodes Must Fall at the University of Cape Town. Financial Times, 3 April 2015.

Lapsed South Africans. Review of Eben Venter, Wolf, Wolf, translated by Michiel Heyns. Financial Times, 13 March, 2015.

Parliament of Fouls. Unparliamentary Language, Tsafendas and Penny Siopis's 'Obscure White Messenger'.  Sunday Times, 18 January 2015.

Lost in Joburg. Reissue of Ivan Vladislavic, The Restless Supermarket. New Statesman, 9-15 January, 2015.

The ‘I’ in Writer. Meeting Geoff Dyer. Mail&Guardian, 23 December 2014.

Prince Pro. In Object Relations: Essays and Images, edited and photographed by Stephen Inggs (Michaelis School of Fine Art, 2014). Reprinted in Monday Monthly, 1 December 2014.

The Life of the Mine. Remembering Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014). Business Day, 22 July 2014.

N2: A Literature Review. Narratives of the Road in South Africa. Cityscapes. Issue 05, April 2014.

New Maps of Africa. Review of Teju Cole, Every Day is for the Thief (Faber, 2014) and Mark Gevisser, Dispatcher: Lost and Found in Johannesburg. (Granta, 2014). New Statesman, 13-19 June, 2014.

Closed City. Walking through Cape Town with Teju Cole. Financial Times, 24 January 2014.

Indefinite Delay. The Last Days of Nelson Mandela. New Statesman, 10 October 2013. Cover story.

Highway N2 Revisited. Financial Times, 20 September 2013.

Night Rider. Review of Rawi Hage, CarnivalFinancial Times, 6 September 2013.

Alchemists of the Ordinary. Review of Isabel Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading + Archie Dick, The Hidden History of South Africa’s Book and Reading CulturesMail & Guardian, 23 August 2013.

The Enlightenment, the colonial Cape and post-apartheid discourse. Review of David Johnson, Imagining the Cape Colony: History, Literature and the South African Nation. Cape Town, UCT Press, 2012. Historia, 58:1, May 2013.

Train Wreck. Review of Paul Theroux, Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola. New Statesman, 23 May 2013.

Modern Mystery Play. Review of J. M. Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus. Financial Times, 8 March 2013.

The Oscar Pistorius Case: History Written on a Woman’s Body. New Statesman, Cover Story, 7 March 2013.

Don’t Say Etc: Lost and Found in the Work of Ivan Vladislavic. Public Books, 6 March 2013.

Getting Past Coetzee. Winner of the inaugural Financial Times / Bodley Head Essay Competition, 2012. Also published as digital e-short by Bodley Head. First appeared in Norwegian as å Komme forbi Coetzee.  Bokvennen litterært magasin | Oslo | nr. 3.12.

For real? Arguing with David Shields. Reading Reality Hunger from Africa South. Rhodes Journalism Review, no. 32 (2012).

How the right-wing co-opts the lexicon of social justice. Review of Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press: 2011) for SLiPnet (Stellenbosch Literary Project). The Future Eaters.  Streamlined version at The Daily Maverick.

Elegy on trial: Writing the African Resistance Movement. Review of Hugh Lewin, Stones Against the Mirror: Friendship in the Time of the South African Struggle (Cape Town: Umuzi, 2011) for SLiPnet (Stellenbosch Literary Project).

Between a Howl and a Whine. Review of Letter to South Africa: Poets Calling the State to Order (Cape Town: Umuzi, 2011) for SLiPnet (Stellenbosch Literary Project).

What the Butler Didn’t See. Review of Guy Butler: Reassessing a South African Literary Life, by Chris Thurman (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2010) in South African Journal of Science, (2011).

Marabi Nights, Merry Blackbirds, Epistles and Exiles: Jazz in South African Literature 1950-1970. Review surveying works by Gwen Ansell, David Coplan, Michael Titlestad and others. English in Africa (October 2010).

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).

Mixed Metaphors: Review of Mark Gevisser, Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2007) in Journal of Southern African Studies 34:4 (2008).

Guilty Pleasures: Review of Michael Chapman, Omnibus of a Century of South African Short Stories (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2007). LitNet website.

Isigingc’ asakh’ umuzi – (A guitar does not build a homestead): Review of David Coplan, In Township Tonight! Three Centuries of South African Black City Music and Theatre (University of Chicago Press, second edn. 2008). LitNet website.

Love in the Archive: Review of Pippa Skotnes, Claim to the Country: The Archive of Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd (Ohio University Press, 2007). LitNet website.

A Doggy Dog World: Review of Jonny Steinberg, Notes from a Fractured Country: Selected Journalism (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2007).  LitNet website.

‘Main Road, Kapstadt’ Neue Rundschau 120:2 (2009) Special issue on Africa. A translated version of the piece in A City Imagined (see below), placed alongside contributions by Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila and Binyavanga Wainaina.

‘Taxi on Main’ in A City Imagined: Cape Town and the Meanings of a Place, ed. Stephen Watson (Penguin, 2005). A sketch of the literary history of Cape Town (as seen from the window of a minibus taxi) in an anthology which includes pieces by André Brink, Justin Cartwright and Damon Galgut.

Academic articles and book chapters

Experiments with Truth: Narrative Nonfiction in South Africa. Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa, 31:2 (2019).

Impossible Images: Radio Astronomy, the SKA and the Limits of Representation. Journal of Southern African Studies 45:2 (2019).

‘A Very Strange Relationship’: Life writing, overwriting and the scandal of biography in the Gordimer-Roberts Affair. Biography, 41:1 (2018).

Thirteen Ways: Teaching writing, creative and otherwise. At the Foot of the Volcano: Reflections on Teaching at a South African University. ed. Susan Levine. HSRC Press, 2018.

N2: Reading and Writing the South African Highway. Social Dynamics, 43:1 (2017).

An Interview with Rustum Kozain. Wasafiri, 31:2 (2016).

Nothing ExtraordinaryE.M. Forster and the English limit, in Relocations: Reading Culture in South Africa (University of Cape Town Press, 2015).

Unusable Pasts: Life-writing, Literary Non-fiction and the Case of Demetrios Tsafendas. Research in African Literatures, 46:3 (2015).

Invasive Narratives and the Inverse of Slow Violence: Alien Species in Science and Society. Environmental Humanities, vol. 7 (2015). Co-authored with Susanna Lidström, Simon West, Tania Katzschner and M. Isabel Pérez-Ramos (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden).

Visions of Tsafendas: Literary Biography and the Limits of ‘Research’. Safundi, 16:4 (2015).

Sea Point Contact: Preface to a Literary History of Cape Town (Never Written). Weeds and Viruses: Ecopolitics and the Demands of Theory. Editors: Cordula Lemke and Jennifer Wawrzinek (2015). Foreword by Dipesh Chakrabarty.

Rachel Carson and the Perils of Simplicity: Reading Silent Spring from the global South. Ariel. Special Issue on Postcolonial Ecologies, 44:4 (2014).

Nothing Extraordinary: E. M. Forster and the English Limit. English in Africa, 40:2 (2013).

‘The Sea Close By: The Coastal Diaries of Albert Camus, Athol Fugard and Stephen Watson.’ Alternation, Special Issue: Coastlines and Littoral Zones, (2013).

‘Writing the Company: From VOC Daghregister to Sleigh’s Eilande. South African Historical Journal, 65:1 (2013).

‘A Country Where You Couldn’t Make this Shit Up? Literary Non-fiction in South Africa’, with responses by Stephen Clingman, Rob Nixon and others. Safundi, Special Issue: Beyond Rivalry: Fact | Fiction, Literature | History (2012).

‘The Bushmen’s Letters: |Xam Narratives of the Bleek and Lloyd Collection and their Afterlives.’ Chapter One, The Cambridge History of South African Literature (2012), ed. David Attwell and Derek Attridge.

'From the Origin of Language to a Language of Origina Prologue to the Grey Collection’, in Print, Text and Book Cultures in South Africa, ed. Andrew van der Vlies, (Johannesburg: Wits Press, 2012).

‘First Lives, First Words: Camões, Magical Realism and the Limits of Invention’, Scrutiny2, 17:1 (2012).

All like and yet unlike the old country: Kipling in Cape Town 1891-1908: A Reappraisal.’  English in Africa, 39:2 (2012)