Half-lives, Half-truths

Svetlana Alexievich and the nuclear imagination.


Reflecting on Voices from Chernobyl for the South Africa PEN essay series.
18 August 2016.

In my twenties I worked for a while as an usher at a small cinema in Edinburgh. My job was to tear tickets, sit through the screening to make sure that projection and sound went ok, then clear up any trash. It was a beautifully pure way of absorbing film: you never paid; you never chose. You never worried whether the person next to you was enjoying it. You were alone, dressed in black, invisible.

I watched hundreds of films in those dark winter afternoons – from Korea and Cameroon, Iran and Italy, Russia and Romania – most of which I have never seen any trace of since. It was an education. One was about a group of three young anti-capitalists who break into the homes of rich businessmen and leave messages that “The Fat Years Are Over” – this is the original German title. At some point the good-looking threesome (they are also in a love triangle) end up kidnapping some heartless industrialist. They take him to a remote cabin and try some political re-education, intent on making him see the error of his ways. (It turns out, of course, that he was once a passionate anarchist in his youth.)
I can’t remember how the film ends, but this narrative premise – this fantasy of abducting the powerful and forcing them into dialogue – is one that many frustrated citizens must indulge in at some point… [Read more]

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Kingdom of Rain

An interview with Rustum Kozain.

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 12.32.18 PM

The following conversation took place on 31 July 2015 at Rustum Kozain’s flat in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town. Prior to my arrival, Rustum had prepared a chicken balti with cabbage according to a recipe from Birmingham, and also a cauliflower and potato curry. During our discussion (lasting one and a half hours, condensed and lightly edited here) he occasionally got up to check on the dishes — which we ate afterwards with freshly prepared sambals…

Wasafiri, 31:2 | 2016 | 76-80.

RK […] The idea of sonority — I have to agree with you. I do have a thing for the sound of words. So the sound of a word often plays a large part in its choice in a line or a poem. Why don’t I sound like Linton Kwesi Johnson? That’s one of my greatest frustrations in life [laughs] — that I can’t write like LKJ in any believable way. Part of that is because I don’t have a Caribbean background. A large part of Johnson’s charm has got to do with the language he is using, which is tied so closely to drum rhythms in the Caribbean. He has a gift but he also has that legacy or that inheritance that he can work with. I’ve tried writing parodic poems in [my reggae-sourced] Jamaican Creole, but it’s rubbish. I’ve tried writing hip hop as well, but there is a particular skill in composing for oral performance that I don’t have.

HT I was raising the question of slowness, but certainly not as a lack. Because, in a sense, what I find when reading poetry nowadays is the need to remind myself to slow down. I think we’re all programmed to read so fast now – online and on screens – to read instrumentally and for content. So I sense the kind of syntactical mechanisms you put in place to ensure a certain productive slowness…

Dagga (An Extract)African Cities Reader 1 

The shame of being a man – is there any better reason to write?

Gilles Deleuze

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Literatures of Betrayal

Risk, collaboration and collapse in post-TRC narrative.

Lits of Betrayal

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.

The TRC’s purpose was not to dispense justice but rather, as its grandiose name suggests, to extract from its witnesses a collective historical truth with which to reconcile a divided country. But what if the truth is not comforting? What if the truth is useless? What if too much of that truth is irretrievably lost to the past, because the only people who knew it were killed by it?

Philip Gourevitch, Review of Patrick Flanery’s Absolution
New Yorker 30 April 2012.


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. Hugh Lewin’s Stones Against the Mirror (2011) meditates on the collapse of the African Resistance Movement after one of its key members betrayed his closest friends in the mid-1960s. Jacob Dlamini’s Askari (2014) explores ‘The Strange Saga of Mr X1’, a man who defected from the ANC’s armed struggle to become one of the most notorious collaborators with apartheid’s deaths squads. The co-authored work There Was this Goat (2009) addresses itself to an ostensibly ‘strange’ or ill-fitting TRC testimony by Notrose Nobomvu Konile, the mother of a young man betrayed and killed by apartheid operatives as one of the Gugulethu Seven in 1986. Each of these texts is about an historical act of betrayal; but at the same time their ambitious and experimental ways of telling risk other forms of unstable, contentious or ‘disloyal’ disclosure in the public sphere. As such, I argue for an idea of the literary as a work of betrayal in multiple senses: one which allows us to glimpse what the act of assembling and responding to cultural texts might involuntarily reveal about the post-apartheid settlement in a larger sense: its conditions of rhetorical possibility, its cultural strictures and the contours of increasingly fragile expressive spaces.

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Xolobeni and the Violence of ‘Development’

Screening and panel discussion hosted by Environmental Humanities South.
Poster - Xolobeni
For over a decade, members of the Amadiba community in Xolobeni have expressed their opposition to mining titanium on the sand dunes of Pondoland, on the Wild Coast of South Africa. This community is also opposing the extension on the N2 toll highway that will be required to transport the minerals from this remote rural area.

In screening ‘The Shore Break’ documentary, we hope to open a conversation about how to think beyond the language of ‘development’, with its many binaries and trade-offs. How to listen to those affected? How to engage without imposing? How to imbue political voice? How to overcome the binary language of development discourse, which is framed as for or against, either/or, mining versus ecotourism?




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The True Confessions of a First Year Convenor

Curriculum change: problems and possibilities. 

3rd Space

Third Space Symposium: Decolonisation and the Creative Arts.
ICA | Hiddingh Hall, University of Cape Town | 13-14 May 2016.

Institute for Creative Arts and Black Academic Caucus “seize the decolonial nettle.”

Italo Calvino, Why Read the Classics? | New York Review of Books | 9 October 1986:

Let us begin with a few suggested definitions.

The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: “I am rereading…” and never “I am reading…”

If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love. Except at school. And school should enable you to know, either well or badly, a certain number of classics among which—or in reference to which—you can then choose your classics. School is obliged to give you the instruments needed to make a choice, but the choices that count are those that occur outside and after school.

It is only by reading without bias that you might possibly come across the book that becomes your book.

What is this thing called ‘literature’, and how does it work? What does it mean to read the classics from where we are – Shakespeare and 19th-century novels transplanted to southern Africa like those street signs, DICKENS, COLERIDGE, KIPLING, set down incongruously in the suburbs of Woodstock, Observatory and Salt River? Are we dealing with ‘English literature’ or ‘literature in English’? What is the purpose of it all anyway, when others in the university are working on solar panels or vaccines for drug-resistant TB? What will be in the exam?

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Negative Spaces

A visit to a deconstruction site.


Diary, Financial Times, 15 April 2016. [PDF]

Deconstruction: a notoriously hard-to-define mode of textual analysis associated with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, distantly descended (my Dictionary of Critical Theory tells me) from Friedrich Nietzsche’s dictum that there are no facts, only interpretations.

But also, I recently learned, a term in architecture and building. Deconstruction means the selective dismantlement, repurposing and reimagining of existing physical structures. The other day I was shown around a deconstruction site in the docklands of Cape Town, where a 90-year-old grain silo complex is slowly being converted into the biggest museum for modern art on the African continent.

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Nuclear Summer

A walk through South Africa’s nuclear pasts and futures.


Power Trip: Where will Zuma’s nuclear dreams take us?
Sunday Times, 7 Feb 2016 | Photographs by Neil Overy (above) and Barry Christianson.

Recently I took part in a “walking residency”, making my way from Cape Point to the centre of Cape Town. Writers, artists, archaeologists, architects, academics – 12 of us hiked along coastlines and firebreaks and through informal settlements.

We visited ancient shell middens and ruined stone cottages, the site of forced removals. Huge cloudbanks filled up False Bay and broke against the landmass; weather systems came and went. We got sunburnt, argumentative, sentimental, sunburnt again. We put away our electronic devices and began remembering our dreams… [Continue reading]

[PDF / Print layout 1/2] | [3]

Sources and further reading…

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