10 QUESTIONS: Stephen Clingman


In your lecture titled Looking from South Africa to the Word: A Story for Identity in our Times, delivered at the ‘Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series’ at the University of Massachusetts you say, ‘I can say that my own searches in my professional life, my way forward has been a continual way of going back, to derive my topics from the world from which I came, to addressing them, to being answerable to them, both as an obligation and a way forward. For there is something here about accountability, giving account, turning an experience into something that counts. In that regard, I have written criticism about South African literature, I’ve tried my hand at biography of a South African political figure, and I’ve returned to criticism in the transnational arena. Underlying it all is the question of identity. How emerging from a broken world we might approach one another to make something more just and more human. The question came from the place of my birth and it has followed me here….The challenge of identity is not only my topic, it is my own challenge’. Birthmark is quite evidently a store of many personal, intimate, uncomfortable, nourishing and challenging memories; to what extent is it also an intellectual biography?

First, let me thank you for these thoughtful and searching questions, which I’m very pleased to have.

This first one is intriguing, and my instinctive response is to say that Birthmark is not really an intellectual biography: it’s a much more personal account, often written as if within the moments it describes. Much of it has to do with my childhood and early life. From those points of view it is the precursor, if you like, to the intellectual and professional life that followed.

However, the extract you’ve quoted from ‘Looking from South Africa to the World’ brings out another aspect, and another level, because there I make the case that it is impossible to separate the life one has lived from the intellectual pursuits one undertakes. Or, I should be more focused, more modest: it is hard for me to separate my life from my intellectual pursuits, as varied as these have been. But perhaps there are wider resonances. We all know the aphorism, or the truism masked as an aphorism: everything one writes is autobiography. But, truism or not, I think in various ways that is true!

But how, and in what ways? One way to think of intellectual (auto)biography is as a choice: this is my topic, this is what I am going to write about. That in turn implies a hierarchy: first comes the choice, and then what I select is the subject matter. However, if you take the other view, that autobiography is embedded in whatever one writes, then the hierarchy, and the notion of choice, gets inverted. From this perspective, it is deeply embedded, unconscious promptings that spark the writing one does, ranging from the most personal to (perhaps) the most academic. Or, at the least, that there is some combination of those promptings always mixed into conscious choices. So, I can say, there was no conscious choice to write intellectual autobiography in this book: it is very much a personal story. But in the very nature of the memories that came to me, in the whole way the book is structured, there is intellectual autobiography of another kind. This book is the product of the person who underwent all these experiences; these experiences made him the kind of person who would write this sort of book. From that point of view, the intellectual biography is something one discovers through the act of writing—and the act of reading. It’s quite important to me that the book, Birthmark, was an act of discovery as much as it was one of choice and creation.

If it is indeed an intellectual biography, to what extent was this a basis for selecting which reminiscences, anecdotes and observations to include in the text? Did you only select details from your past which bore significantly on the intellectual arc you have followed in your career? If this is the case, were there particular past events and memories which you consciously chose to occlude from Birthmark? I suppose what I am wondering is whether there is a paradox at the heart of your memoir: to expose one’s ‘self’ in such a frank way is a radical act of freedom. But what repressions were necessary in order to make this happen – specifically, which aspects of your biography have been excluded from the text? Can you see yourself writing another memoir including these unspoken elements?

I think I’ve answered part of this question in my remarks above, and I’ll say more about how the memories I’ve written about were not simply the product of a process of selection. My method overall was much more inchoate than that.

For the moment, though, let me focus on the issue of occlusion—whether there were aspects of my life that I excluded as I wrote, and whether this was the result of repression. You may be suggesting, very interestingly, that memory is itself inseparable from repression—that what emerges as we remember is outlined by what we cannot imagine or have forgotten. If so, and I don’t discount the possibility, by definition I do not and cannot know what I have repressed. Sure, there are details one can leave out, and here and there I have done so—to save others from embarrassment, perhaps, or to give figures who are not major characters in the book a degree of anonymity—something I feel they deserve. But there is the more challenging proposition about what I do remember, and remember publicly here. What is the ground against which those memories take place? What is there about my self that I do not know, or cannot remember? This is something I am fairly conscious of in the book, I think: at one point I ask the question, ‘How evasive is my honesty?’ This I feel is something we can never know—just how evasive we are when we think we are telling the truth. But the question of that evasion is built in, so at least it becomes an overt part of the story.

Overall, I would say the book is built around two major vectors: one is that of memory, and the other that of vision. A fundamental premise regarding both in the book is that neither comes to us whole or entire. And so memory/forgetting, vision/occlusion—these are intrinsically connected. If I were to write another memoir, it would only be if the previously hidden began to come into view. But if I do take to this kind of thing again, it might only be in another form.

A remarkable feature of Birthmark is the beautiful balance between chaos and order. Birthmark possesses a fractured quality: despite the calm, an occult freneticism percolates through the surface from below. The jumps across time, place and modes of address articulate – with the blend of wry and dark humour, poetic seriousness and the torrential flow of detailed remembrances – a kind of chaos. One can almost picture you hastily grasping at memories and putting them to paper before they flitter away. Nevertheless, each sentence is assiduously crafted and self-contained. Each signals a care at odds with the welter of form and memory. How did you manage to give form to your past without stunting the ecstatic flow of memory? Your prose is at once sensuous and languid as well as analytic and measured. How did you give order, but not too much order, to your past?

Again, you ask a probing and very good question, and I’m pleased that you have lit on the question of form, because that is an essential part of the book. I do like the idea that the flow and seemingly uncontainable current of memory is balanced by the structure of the book from sentence to sentence, part to part. That feels to me like a mix of past and present in a kind of combined perspective—and if the book does offer that, I couldn’t be more gratified.

As to the organizing principles of the book, I’ll say the following. I had only a few self-imposed rules while writing. One was that each segment should be relatively brief—only three to five pages double-spaced on my screen. And another was that each segment, each story, should end up somewhere other than where it began.

Why was that? To me, it had to do profoundly with the nature of memory—and a way of exploring it. For various reasons, I’ve become very interested in associative narrative, where one detail leads to another in a kind of unfolding journey; this is something I’ve explored in my critical writing as well. It seems to me that ‘travel’ is built into that kind of form. In Birthmark, it meant that the journey was built into each segment as it travelled down its own associative path. And of course, in the gaps between and across the segments, there is another kind of journey, which the reader as much as the writer is invited to undertake. I am sure memory works this way: it leads us on its wayward and unfinished paths all the time! And if we bring in the idea of vision, the fragmented and separate segments combine to create what I thought of, in writing the book, as a hologram: a series of perspectives from different places and times which fashion an image in space.

The order, if there is order in the book, then takes on a somewhat organic form as the memories and perspectives organize themselves and unfold. This may be what you refer to as ‘order, but not too much order’. At some level, one has to surrender control, but at the same time write each story with a sense of its own journey, its own view.

Did you keep to a particular routine, a daily regime, while writing Birthmark? Did you write in the mornings, afternoons or in the evenings? Where did you write? Did you have to develop certain strategies which put you in the right frame of mind for returning to the past, to fish for memories in the dark well of the unconscious?

As it happens, I did keep to a particular routine when writing the book. I’ve mentioned a couple of rules I followed in doing so. A third—not so much a rule as a habit—was that I would write only one segment a day (a habit I kept to for the most part, though on some days, when all was flowing, I wrote two). This would occur usually first thing in the morning. I happened to be on sabbatical when I started, so everything was auspicious from that point of view. I would write my segment, and then leave it. And then the next morning I would write another, and the following day another. What was the logic in this? Again, I feel it had to do with memory, and the unconscious promptings I spoke of, as well as the associative form. Though I was seldom sure, when I came to the end of each piece, where I would start the next morning, when I arrived at my computer, there it was, and I would begin. I don’t know how to think of this except as a kind of unconscious navigation, perhaps some of it aided by the night-time’s dreamworld, which would guide me on. One thing quite literally led to another. It was a self-fulfilling and perhaps self-probationary exercise in the associative method.

Your father figures more prominently in Birthmark than your mother – he seems to take up more time in the text, so to speak. Is there a specific reason for this? Was this a conscious decision? To what extent is this self-writing, autobiography, also other-writing, allography?

Yes, you are right: my father does take up more space and time in the book. There may be a number of reasons for this. One is that he is no longer alive, and so perhaps it felt more possible to write about him without too strong a sense of betrayal—though there was some of that, to be sure. Another is that, as you’ll know from reading the book, there was a certain drama in my father’s story which affected the rest of the family directly. This, in a way, was something I had to work through in my life, and so naturally my father’s story is there.

For all the complications, my father also taught me much that has stayed with me. For instance, when he taught me cricket, he did so through a kind of grammatical method—something I describe in the book. Although he himself was not a reader, and although for various reasons cricket disappeared for me, something of that underlying sensation of the ‘grammar’ in things has never left me. He was a confusing character, my father, lovable and sometimes hurtful, but in the end I was at peace with him, as I hope he is with me and all of us. And yes, he is, in that sense, very much a character in the book—one created in brushstrokes, suggestions, and fragments. I hope readers will join me in filling in the spaces to understand him.

You have written criticism about South African literature, you’ve written a biography about Bram Fischer, and of late you’ve turned your attention to literatures of the transnational boundary. These modes of writing have in common that the writer maintains a critical distance. As already mentioned, Birthmark covers tremendously personal as well as painful dimensions of your life, exploding that critical distance. Why did you choose to depart from the tried and tested and to share this intimate portrait of your life with the world now?

It may help to know that when I started writing, I wasn’t thinking of publication, or even of something taking the form of a book. Rather, there were a number of stories in my mind that I had always promised myself I would write, and so that was how it began. That released the pressure somewhat, and it meant I could write more personally. Overall, the writing became a form of exploration, to see where those stories would lead. As things developed, the book came into view, and I began to think perhaps it could be published, and in the event that is what happened. But it didn’t begin that way.

There are a couple of other relevant aspects, however. One may apply particularly to those who have travelled—who have ended up somewhere other in the world than where they began. Again, the impulse was partly personal, in that I didn’t want these stories of our lives to disappear. If my daughters, who are American, or if their children and children’s children want to know something of the world we came from, what would there be to tell them? In my case, the world of my grandparents and great-grandparents in Lithuania disappeared almost completely—because of the Holocaust and the virtually complete rupture it marked. But things can disappear for other reasons too. Underlying my book, at least at some level, is a cry of survival: this is how we lived, this is the world we came from. And so I wanted to record that in some form.

But still, why, as you say, share it more publicly? It is true that I have worked in more orthodox, perhaps less revealing modes, from literary criticism to biography. But underlying those works are some themes which are sustained—around identity, around boundaries, around connection and disjunction in an uneven world, around responsibility. Why not, then, tell that story more personally? Added to that were other impulses that come from my work as a literary critic and biographer, but turned in a different way. How does one understand the text and texture of one’s own life? What sort of narrative would one use? Could I write a book in which I was both inside and outside the story? Could I understand myself as a character—the story of just one life in the world, yet a story which may evoke something for others? From that point of view it was a bit like writing a novel, a bit like writing biography, a bit like writing history, but it was none of these things specifically. It was the book that it came to be. And I have to say, it was wonderful to feel free of the need for research—and the legitimacy of footnotes!

Would it be fair to say that in writing this memoir you entered into a form of self-administered psycho-analysis? If so, can you perceive any differences in the configuration of yourself and psyche before and after having gone through this process of writing and rewriting? What are these differences? Furthermore – given your conviction that life and vocation are existentially entwined – has it altered your intellectual focus in any way? Which boundaries have you crossed? Where do you find yourself now?

Again, very interesting, but let me take it from a slightly different perspective. In classic forms of psychoanalysis the relevant arena is the mind, its conscious and unconscious dynamics and relations. If the body comes into things, it is usually as symptom—the symptom that has to be cured through the analysis. However, in my case, things worked, if anything, the other way round. It was the experience of the birthmark, and the operation I had when I was two, that had various effects on both my body and mind. Mind and body, in other words, were much more of an integrated unit, and this book was an attempt to understand that.

One thing I will suggest by way of analogy, because psychonalysis offers itself as the talking cure, is that for me the book was a kind of writing cure. In many ways it was a liberating experience to talk about things so long unspoken, and while there was some trepidation about bringing it all into the open, somehow even writing the painful parts was therapeutic. That wasn’t the reason I wrote, but it was a happy byproduct. As to whether it’s altered my intellectual outlook, I suppose it has reinforced my feeling that body and mind cannot be separated in our analytic approaches. I am starting to do some work now on pathology in South African literature, but I am not really sure where that will go. I have also found other forms of writing, such as this book, very attractive.

Your project seems to take its cue from the starting point of psychoanalysis: we acquire knowledge about ourselves in relating to others. This is evident in the language of proximity you use in describing your relationships with family, friends and colleagues. It is also evident in your relation to books. In a section which touches on W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz you say, ‘as I read I returned to my own scene, of the operation on my eye when I was two, and some of Austerlitz’s sadness descended upon me. I relived those moments in my own place of recognition’ (205). Are there other thinkers, writers and specific books which have given you opportunities for self-analysis, recognition and growth?

Yes, most certainly there are books and writers who have led me on. These have ranged from the existential and relational—some aspects of Sartre and Buber early on—to the classics we can all think of. In the South African context it would run all the way from Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm to Gordimer’s The Conservationist, or Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K and Age of Iron, or Ndebele’s short stories and essays. One of the most powerful memoirs I have ever read is Amos Oz’s A Time of Love and Darkness. A book that affected me deeply is David Grossman’s See Under: Love; or more recently, his novel To The End of the Land. Not a semester goes by that I don’t hand out to my students something from Walter Benjamin.

What I find in Sebald, however, is something different: a consideration not only of lost and marginal stories but also of how to tell them through new modes of narrative that link first and third person, that develop a kind of circumambience in the telling. Austerlitz was so powerful for me for reasons I discuss in Birthmark. But my book has inevitably taken on inflections from some of the literature I have written about and which I teach: the constellated forms of Caryl Phillips; the nomadic forms and philosophies of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines. These books for me fuse something important about how to live in our disparate times; and also about how to tell the stories of our lives, and the lives of others.

One of the most intriguing formal aspects of Birthmark is the recurrent ambiguity of address. Chapters often begin with hesitation and prevarication with regard to who it is you are referring to – yourself or a past version of yourself which is not quite the same ‘you’ of the present moment? You shift from first to third person and back again. For instance, many sentences like this appear: ‘The boy – me, I – is transfixed for reasons he can’t quite understand but which slowly rise within him’. In the space of a single sentence you have gone through three gears of address, referring to yourself, ‘Stephen Clingman’ as ‘the boy’, ‘me’ and ‘I’. I spent a lot time while reading Birthmark trying to understand why you make the shifts when you do. Are there certain memories, events and acts from the past which you feel more comfortable uttering from the first person rather than the third person perspective? What do these pronominal shifts intimate about how you understand the nature of personal identity?

Yes, that was interesting for me too in the writing. I think in the South African context (and beyond) everyone knows by now of J. M. Coetzee’s Boyhood, written entirely in the third person, as if he were writing about a different character. That form of writing has come to be known as autre-biography¬—writing the self as if it were someone other. As extraordinary as I think Coetzee’s book is, however, it felt a little relentless to me, perhaps even somewhat monochromatic in terms of its perspective. The reality felt different to me. We see our stories both from the inside and the outside. Am the same person I was when I was four years old, or ten? The answer is yes, and no. Certainly some things have endured—those first-person impulses and passions. But I also have a perspective now which is coloured by so many different experiences, shifts in time and space. From that point of view, the perspective is in the third-person, the tense is past rather than present. In a sentence such as the one you quote, there is a recognition that these perspectives are not separate, but layered together: we are first- and third-person, past and present, subject and object, inside and outside, all together, all the time.

In a nutshell, then, I think the answer, which may only be partial, to your question is that when I felt myself writing in the moment of the experience—for instance, of that operation I underwent—then my writing self was first-person, present tense. But when there was a need for a shift—to see myself from outside, to wonder how others saw me—then it would change. But still, it is very complex, with various permutations. When I scored that goal in one of my soccer matches, I am certainly reliving the event, but I do it in the past tense until it enters the present as a relived moment that has never left me. And of course the entire structure of the book has to do with seeing from many different angles, many different times, many different perspectives.

You describe your identity during the years of apartheid as partial and unstable. You say ‘we weren’t entirely white because we were Jewish; we weren’t entirely Jewish because we were white; and of course we weren’t entirely African because we were both Jewish and white’. How has being an émigré in America altered how you relate to your ‘Jewishness’, ‘Africanness’, and ‘Whiteness’? How has the fabric of your being altered? What has changed, what has stayed the same?

For a talk I am presenting later in the year, I have been looking at Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, where he remarks, ‘Today…it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.’ That captures something extremely powerful: perhaps we cannot be, or feel, truly at home until everyone does so. Certainly it captures one aspect of the continuity for me from the South Africa I grew up in to my life in the USA now. For me, probably, there was always a dialectic involved, of both belonging and unbelonging, and that has continued in various ways. Strangely, for someone who has been away from South Africa for so long, I still feel remarkably attached to it. I love the feel of it, the landscape, the energies, the philosophical sharpness. And there are things I feel attached to in Amherst, where I live now, as well. But always there is that oscillation: belonging/unbelonging, being at home/not-at-home. And there are differences: being Jewish in America is not the same as being Jewish in South Africa. To what extent am I still African? Am I still trapped in my whiteness? Who knows: I would have to be outside my story to tell. But something I feel quite strongly, perhaps because of these experiences, is that belonging can also be in the spaces-between, the spaces of transition and navigation. No matter where we are, I think there is some truth in that for everyone.

Birthmark is published by Jacana.

One thought on “10 QUESTIONS: Stephen Clingman

  1. Thank you so much for this fascinating interview. I am a Canadian with a strong interest in South African lit, for whatever it’s worth. This year I finally made my first visit to the country to spend time with my best friend who lives in the Eastern Cape. However I planned for a week in Cape Town, primarily to shop for books! At each shop I visited I saw Birthmark, and each time I picked up, looked at it and thought about buying it. I knew nothing of the author but I was deeply intrigued. The day before I was due to fly home, after dropping close to R4000 on books and buying an extra bag to get my purchases home, I hurried over to a chain store near my B&B in Sea Point and picked up a copy. I have not read it yet but after this interview and particularly the reflections on memoir writing and self exploration in concert with what sounds like a fascinating story, I am ever so grateful I brought the book home and will endeavour to get to it soon.

    Thank you again.

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