Research | Presentations | Work in progress

For a more up-to-date archive of work in progress, see Home page.

Full list of publications.

Unpacking whose library?
Borrowing history in the postcolony (Presentation). Silence in the Post-World: Literature, Culture and Reimagining of Geography.  A One-Day Symposium | Freie Universität Berlin | Friday 15 June 2012.

An even stranger arrangement later was chief warder Du Preez’s catalogue of purchased books.  Over time the books could not be traced because most were filed under “T” since so many titles started with “The”.  There was little improvement by the 1970s.  The library catalogue, for example, listed The Tempest as science fiction, and Romeo and Juliet appeared as “author anonymous”.

Archie Dick, ‘“Blood from Stones”: Censorship and the Reading Practices of South African Political Prisoners, 1960-1990’, Library History, (2008), 8.


Rachel Carson and the Perils of Simplicity: The Literary Ecology of Silent Spring. Symposium on the Environmental Humanities, HUMA, University of Cape Town, (21 May 2012): Silent Spring and the Making of Environmental Publics. A day-long event marking the 50th anniversary of Carson’s work.

To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple.

Arundhati Roy, ‘The End of Imagination’ (1998).


Don’t say ‘etc.’ Lost and found in the work of Ivan Vladislavić (Presentation).
Archive and Public Culture workshop | 18 – 20 April 2012 | University of Cape Town.

VLADISLAVIĆ: ‘I like a work that is engaged with the society in which it is written, but the question is really whether one has to write realism in order to engage with society adequately… It’s possible to engage deeply with your social reality without producing realism…I think there’s a case to be made for the work of fiction as a highly designed imaginative structure, with a more complicated relationship to its context than realism usually allows.’

‘Pleasures of the Imagination’: Interview by Shaun de Waal (1996), rep. Marginal Spaces, 101.


From ‘Kipling of the Malay Archipelago’ to Conrad of the Karoo: The making and unmaking of literary reputation in the late 19th century.

Outposts of Progress: Joseph Conrad, Modernism and Post(colonialism).  International Conference in Cape Town, December 2011.  Abstract.

…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.


Great Texts | Big Questions:
Nothing Extraordinary: E. M. Forster and the English Limit.

Public Lecture, Gordon Institute for the Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA), Thursday 13 October, Hiddingh Hall, University of Cape Town. Abstract.

E. M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. It is not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea.

Katherine Mansfield.


‘A Country Where You Couldn’t Make this Shit Up? Literary non-fiction in South Africa.’ Safundi, Special issue: Beyond Rivalry: Fact | Fiction, Literature | History’, with reponses by Stephen Clingman, Rob Nixon and others. Vol. 13:1-2 | 2012. (Read as PDF).

Presented at English Department Research Seminar, University of Cape Town, 23 August.  Abstract.

…The more interesting accusations were incest, homosexual tendencies, heterosexual debauchery, incompetence, deceit, murder, sissiness, ‘carbuncular’ practices, a secret alliance with the diabolical President Mbeki, spying for Inkatha, drinking too much, taking drugs and smelling bad.
What can I say? My name is Rian Malan and I called it as I saw it.

Rian Malan, Resident Alien, (2009).


‘The Sea Close By Natural Histories, Coastal Diaries and the Sensual Intelligence at the Cape.’  Alternation, Special Issue: Coastlines and Littoral Zones, (forthcoming 2012).

Paper presented at the 8th Annual Literature and Ecology Colloquium, Coastlines and Littoral Zones, 12-14 August 2011, Kleinmond, Western Cape.  Abstract.

Camus’s ‘no life lived in the sun can be a failure’ – I understand this now, having discovered the sun and the sea, and the long hot hours on the beach. Simply to go there involves me turning my back, literally and figuratively, on this room and table, this world where the words ‘success’ and ‘failure’ have meaning.  Down there on the white sands, with the long wind blowing and the taste of the sea in my mouth, they are empty sounds.
   A fine contempt is forged in the sun, tempered in the sea.

Athol Fugard, Notebooks 1960/1977.


Facing the past: a politics of betrayal (17 June 2011). Archive and Public Culture gazette.

Last weekend – 10 to 12 June – saw the Wits Philosophy Department and Centre for Ethics host an interdisciplinary conference, Living with the Past, which asked hard questions about South Africa’s much-vaunted, and internationally replicated, project of Truth and Reconciliation during the 1990s.

With many of its concerns echoing those raised in June last year at a forum organised by Professor Njabulo Ndebele – where four young South African writers were brought into dialogue with the Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman – it signals a widespread sense that South Africa’s official process of redress and amnesty was brought to an end too soon. This forced closure, it was suggested by several participants in Johannesburg, may have resulted from the well-meaning efforts of those like Archbishop Desmond Tutu to shepherd individual testimonies towards a Christian ideal of unconditional forgiveness; but it has dovetailed alarmingly with the kind of glib, business-minded amnesia which suggests that South Africans of all kinds just need to ‘move on’.  (Continue reading…)

See also: 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).


The Perils of the Archive: Peter D. McDonald and Hedley Twidle in conversation’, (20 April 2011). Opening a docket on apartheid’s literature police…  (Text by Alex Dodd for the Archive and Public Culture gazette)

McDonald seminar – 14.04.11 (Poster – PDF)

‘When we think about censorship, we imagine faceless, unimaginative bureaucrats, who ban things like Black Beauty or Noddy or who put the stars on the nipples of the women in Scope magazine,’ said Hedley Twidle in his opening remarks. ‘We have this stereotype of the faceless automaton, but Peter’s work shows us that the employees of the censorship board were not unsubtle brutes, but highly trained literary professionals and academics who believed themselves, in an uneasy hybrid of liberalism and nationalism, to be preserving and protecting the space of the literary…’


‘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.

Chapter proof – PDF.  (Please note that this proof version contains several minor errors.)

‘The Bushmen’s letters are in their bodies. They (the letters) speak, they move, they make their (the Bushmen’s) bodies move. They (the Bushmen) order the others to be silent; a man is altogether still, when he feels that ( ) his body is tapping (inside). A dream speaks falsely, it is (a thing) which deceives. The presentiment is that which speaks the truth; it is that by means of which the Bushman gets (or perceives) meat, when it has tapped.’

(Specimens of Bushman Folklore, 1911, pp. 331-3).

The digital Bleek and Lloyd:


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

Paper presented at international conference at the University of Cape Town, Hiddingh Hall Campus, 17 – 20 August 2011: The Courage of ||kabbo and a Century of Specimens of Bushman Folklore. Centre for Curating the Archive (UCT) in association with the Rock Art Research Institute (Wits).  Abstract.

‘It would be invidious to say that there are volumes so rare that one begrudges them to a distant Colony which might be served as well by ordinary editions as by scarce and perhaps unreadable specimens.  But such is the feeling which comes up first in the mind of a lover of books when he takes out and handles some of the treasures of Sir George Grey’s gift…’ 

Anthony Trollope, South Africa, 1874.


‘Writing the Company: From VOC Daghregister to Sleigh’s Eilande.’ Paper presented at the workshop of the Archive and Public Culture research initiative, Cape Town, 2010.  Abstract.

So the Castle with its unappeasable hunger for fuel and timber was beginning to gnaw at the land, One day it would start gnawing at the Company itself; Saturn devouring its own children, the present gnawing at the future…Teams of axemen were sent into the old yellow-wood forest at Hout Bay to cut firewood for the lime kilns and long beams for the jetty.  Every two or three days without interruption, a hooker or a flute brought the logs and fuel from Hout Bay, and laid it at the Castle’s feet, as if on an altar.

Dan Sleigh, Islands (trans. Andre Brink, 2002), 759.


Just So Stories? Green Imperialism, Evolution and the Literary Imagination at the Cape.’ Paper presented at UCT / UWC / Rhodes Literature, Film and Ecology Colloquium, Goedgedacht Organic Farm, 2010.

The title of Kipling’s Just So Story ‘How the Alphabet Was Made’ might well describe the learning process conducted in the suburban drawing rooms and verandas of The Hill where Bleek and especially Lloyd used children’s books, early Cape travelogues and even visits to the natural history museum to build vocabularies with the /Xam narrators. In the secondary literature surrounding each encounter one senses another powerful and enduring myth of a biblical, Adamic language: a perfect transaction of things for words in a colonial garden. In both, nineteenth-century evolutionary theory intersects with a quest for linguistic origins, all of it overlaid by the vividness of remembered colonial childhoods. These produce in the popular imagination, then as well as now, an instance of ideal cultural translation, what Andrew Bank has called a ‘garden myth’, yet one which constantly harks back to the troubled landscapes of the northern Cape…


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

Terrible movements, laws that underpin and organise tragedy and genocide, gods that present themselves in the guise of death and destitution, monsters lying in wait, corpses coming and going on the tide, infernal powers, threats of all sorts, abandonments, events without response, monstrous couplings, blind waves, impossible paths, terrible forces that every day tear human beings, animals, plants, and things from their sphere of life and condemn them to death…

Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (1992).


Prison and Garden: Cape Town, Natural History and the Literary Imagination.  PhD Thesis, University of York, 2010. Supervisor: David Attwell.  Examiners: Derek Attridge and Elleke Boehmer.

Abstract / Request a copy.

…their talk, their excessive talk about how they love South Africa has consistently been directed towards the land, that is, towards what is least likely to respond to love: mountains and deserts, birds and animals and flowers.

J. M. Coetzee, Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech, (1987). 


‘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).

…my life is like the penny whistle music spinning on eternally with the same repetitive persistency; it is deceptively happy, but all this is on the surface…beneath all this is the heavy storm-trooping rhythmic line, a jazzy knell tolling a structure of sadness into a pyramid of monotony…
Bloke Modisane, Blame Me on History (1986).


‘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.


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

Paper presented at international Kipling Conference marking centenary of his Nobel Prize, University of Kent, Canterbury, September 2007.  Abstract.

Winter in the Kloof – loafers among the bushes

The experiences of a child born on top of Table Mountain, looking down on the city (his father in charge of the reservoirs) for years and at last actually seeing the mysterious train cabs, etc. that he had watched so long – a sort of young savage Crusoe close to civilization

A dock study – crimps and boarding houses and the great silence and emptiness of the docks behind all…

Kipling to Stephen Black, 10 April 1908.

English in Africa | 39:2 | August 2012.


‘Taxi on Main’, (with Sean Christie)  in Stephen Watson (ed.),  A City Imagined: Cape Town and the Meanings of a Place,(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.

…The low roof of the vehicle blots out the spectacle of the mountain, fixing the gaze at street level: bucket shops, fried chicken outlets, exhaust fitters and the grey brutalist slab of the new Groote Schuur hospital obscuring the more graceful older building where the world’s first heart transplant took place in December 1967. “The Cape Peninsula particularly has neglected its opportunities,” complained the Empire-minded architect Herbert Baker in 1911, noting with regret that modern cities were haphazard affairs, no longer created by the fiat of a despot: “On its magnificent flats there is only one through road from sea to sea, and that is dangerously congested and slovenly in appearance.”

In his 1997 meditation on place, A Writer’s Diary, the poet and critic Stephen Watson quotes a friend from Paris who remarks that she could not really find Cape Town beautiful because “unlike that European city, the South African one did not have its Baudelaire or Utrillo (the artist who had represented much of the arrondissement where she’d lived). Hence it had never been transformed into a place in the mind, the imagination. The beauty of the place thus remained on the level of the merely spectacular, the touristic.”

Yet sat on a rumbling subwoofer with windows half-blocked by someone’s monthly shop, you are spared Cape Town’s grand gestures and sweeping panoramas. The taxi screens out the sheer sense data of the topography which threatens to outdo any act of the descriptive imagination, rendering the mind blank, content just to gaze and remain silent, or fumbling in cliché and outdated shorthands – the Mother City, the Fairest Cape, the Tavern of the Seas… [Continue reading]

See also The Taxi Diaries (The LIP Magazine, 2 March 2005).


Earlier reviews here…