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

‘The roominess of the term nonfiction:
an entire dresser labelled

…This, it strikes me, is the difficult paradox or double-take that one has to hold in mind when considering all those genres which fall under the ‘non-socks’ category.  On the one hand, the fiction / non-fiction divide is entirely inadequate and endlessly porous. Their centuries-long rivalry is best set aside for the idea of whole spectrum of different writings, each jostling for influence and primacy in the literary marketplace.  At the same time, though, it is inescapable. Provoking the complex play of responsibility and irresponsibility that lies at the heart of reading and writing, it reconstitutes itself endlessly: inhibiting and energising, inadequate and indispensable…

Read full essay.


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. SLiPnet (Stellenbosch Literary Project).

The 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change recently held in Durban (mercifully shortened to COP17) seemed to pose a something of a challenge for journalists. Much newsprint space was set aside in advance for supplements and special reports, but when the time came it seemed that those covering the event were casting about a little, struggling to make the gathering and all it meant (or didn’t mean) writeable and readable. Eventually, at the eleventh hour, a ‘narrative’ of sorts offered itself, or was concocted: the South African foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane drawing certain fractious nations into a dignified huddle in the early hours and salvaging…well, not a deal, but a ‘platform’ promising ‘a legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force’ (next time around) and the possibility of a deal, somewhere, somehow (next time around)…

The Future Eaters.  Streamlined version at The Daily Maverick. In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon performs a dense but stylish call to activism, writes HEDLEY TWIDLE.


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.  SLiPnet (Stellenbosch Literary Project).

In July 1964, during a wave of raids across the country, the apartheid security police picked up several members of the African Resistance Movement (ARM), an organization of liberals-become-radicals who had sabotaged pylons and other infrastructural targets in an effort to send a message, post-Sharpeville, that serious, principled resistance was still alive in (white) South Africa. Soon after being taken into detention, one of its members began to talk…
(Continue reading.)

See also: Facing the past: a politics of betrayal (Archive and Public Culture website).


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

South African poets calling the republic to account… reads the back cover blurb of this new collection from Umuzi: Venting their frustration…Howling in anguish…Confessing their loyalty.  The book is in part the result of a 2010 poetry festival in Stellenbosch, ‘Versindaba’, at which Marlene van Niekerk asked participants to rework Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 poem ‘America’ in order to ‘speak to’ contemporary South Africa. ‘When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?’ asked Ginsberg in Berkeley.  ‘When can I go grocery shopping with my white guilt?’ asks Willen Anker in Stellenbosch (and in translation).  ‘Two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956’ becomes ‘die car guard se R5 in my gatsak, hier op die 17de September / in die jaar van ons Here, sokker, sekswerkers en Jackie Selebi, 2010’. ‘You should have seen me reading Marx’ becomes ‘Jy moes my gesien Disgrace lees het’ (64).  The famous line ‘Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb’ is transmuted to ‘Go fuck yourself –’ (respectively) ‘without a condom’ (Erns Grundling), ‘with your child grant’ (Sindiwe Magona) and, in a particularly inspired moment from Anker, ‘tot die kraanse antwoord gee’. (Continue reading…)


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). (PDF).

In an introduction titled ‘Fault lines’, Chris Thurman quite candidly sets out the challenges to the would-be biographer of Guy Butler.  The many roles encompassed by his subject – as academic, essayist, poet, playwright, Christian, historian, autobiographer, cultural spokesman – form one set of difficulties.  Then there is the fact that the kind of embitterment, emotional turmoil and general spitefulness that one expects (and, dare one say, looks forward to) in a literary biography is largely absent: the subject was by most accounts a devoted husband and churchman who maintained that he spent ‘a good life in a lovable world’… (Continue reading)


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

At the end of But Beautiful – a 1991 collection of imaginative improvisations on the lives of great mid-20th century American jazzmen – Geoff Dyer quotes a thought experiment by George Steiner.  In his book Real Presences (1989), the intellectual asks us to “imagine a society in which all talk about the arts, music and literature is prohibited,” where only the real thing, the act of creation itself, is permitted. In this “republic for writers and readers,” there would be no secondary, parasitic discussion about the latest exhibitions or concerts, no more essays debating the finer points of Hamlet’s madness. Instead, in Steiner’s vision this would constitute an ideal artistic climate where the columns of reviewers and professional opinion makers would be abandoned in favour of listings of coming events, all other commentary rendered redundant since, Steiner maintains, the experience of any genuine work of art also constitutes the best critique in and of itself, and the continuum of which it is part. Yet while he dismisses this utopia and moves on – “the fantasy I have sketched is only that” – Dyer uses it as a starting point to explore a real place that for much of the century “has provided a global home for millions of people: It is a republic with a simple name: jazz” (183-4). (Continue reading…)


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). Full text here.

“We move upon a giddy height when we attempt to know the direction of the world’s development” – so runs the opening line of an 1868 monograph by the Prussian-born philologist Wilhelm Bleek, Über den Ursprung der Sprache (On the Origin of Language).  With a preface by the fervent Darwinist Ernst Haeckel (Bleek’s cousin), it was just one of a flood of nineteenth-century exercises in comparative philology which attempted to map evolutionary theory onto the study of language, and to divine linguistic origins as a master-key to human history: “the living and speaking witness of the whole history of our race”, as Friedrich Max Müller put it in 1862, “an unbroken chain of speech” carrying one back beyond cuneiform and hieroglyphics to “the first utterances of the human mind.” But Bleek’s unusual career would take him from the universities of Bonn and Berlin to southern Africa and from such rarefied (and now obsolete) theorising to a much more practical encounter with a specific language community… (Continue reading.)


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

A hedgehog, a bat, a fish in the stream of history, a quick weasel, a lounge-lizard – in Mark Gevisser’s long and fascinating biography of Thabo Mbeki, the author’s fervent desire to understand comes up against his subject’s legendary inscrutability, producing an almost unstoppable array of metaphors.  Quite apart from all the small, secretive animals, over the course of 800 pages we also see him described as a seducer (political and otherwise), a National Interferer, a polished gem (as opposed to the rough diamond Jacob Zuma), a Sussex Man, a Moscow Man, a modern-day Coriolanus, a black Englishman in tweeds and a perfectionist who in all his briefings, memos and position papers never so much as split an infinitive (the author has checked). (Continue reading…)


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

Faced with this brick-like anthology, and too daunted to traverse the huge cultural distance between ancient oral narratives and the modern short story in strict chronological order, one can conduct an intriguing experiment. In terms of sheer enjoyment, which authors do you gravitate to first? From the list of some 150 entries on the contents page, which get read easily and immediately, and which are put off for another time? (Continue reading…)


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). Full text here.

Masakanda and marabiisicathulo and isicathamiya, ndhlamu and ndunduma, famo and fochotsaba-tsaba and patha patha – the glossary of In Township Tonight! – gives a sense of the countless dance steps, guitar riffs and vocal styles which are lovingly detailed in David Coplan’s history of South African performance culture. First published by Ravan Press in 1985, the work was a landmark, “appearing in a desert of writing about South African music but rapidly becoming the most quoted source in the literature”. Over 20 years later we have a second edition, written in the voice of the same but different observer today, “reinstructing both his readers and himself from the vantage point of the future, at that time unimagined, but now demanding its own narration”. (Continue reading…)


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

…The rediscovery of the Bleek and Lloyd collection has been one of the major events of South African scholarship in the last decades, bringing archaeology, linguistics, literature, rock art studies and cultural politics together in an attempt to explicate this remarkable archive. And as the above suggests, the process was not without its controversial moments: poets have accused each other of plagiarism, professors have debated the finer points of shamanistic trance states, post-colonialists have reacted against romantic visions of cultural exchange in the Victorian garden village of Mowbray. (Continue reading…)


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

…The advantage of having all the columns in book format is that one is able to appreciate the comparative sweep of the author’s enquiries, a wide-angle perspective generated by the sense that southern Africa – an exaggerated, spatially distorted amalgam of First and Developing worlds – is a microcosm of “global apartheid” and a laboratory for competing economic doctrines of the 21st century. At the same time, Steinberg avoids the trap of seeing South Africa as a land apart, or a special case deserving of insular, undivided attention. In the “Abroad” section of his Notes we are taken to Manhattan and Hiroshima to consider the commemoration of mass historical trauma, to Buenos Aires in the wake of Argentina’s financial crash, and to Bogotá, “less a place than a sigh of relief” amongst the SAPS top brass in that it keeps Johannesburg off the number one spot on Interpol’s list of the most violent cities on the planet. (Continue reading…)

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