10 QUESTIONS: Nancy Richards

Nancy Richards, executive director of Woman Zone, tells us about The Woman’s Library Cape Town which the NGO launched in 2015.

Firstly — why a Women’s Library?

Why not? Women’s Marches, Men’s Clubs… it’s a focus. But it’s more than a Women’s Library: it’s a hub – a meeting, workshopping, sharing space. And just to be clear, at this stage, it’s a reference not a lending library.

How did it come about, and who was involved in getting it up and running?

Working on a woman’s magazine and a woman’s radio show for many years, as a journalist (and founder of Woman Zone), I acquired a huge amount of books relating to women. As a collection and a resource, they cried out for a room of their own. The Woman Zone team – whose goal is to unite the women of Cape Town and celebrate their achievements – looked long and hard for such a space. Eventually, after partnering with Artscape and their Women’s Humanity Festival, CEO Marlene le Roux kindly offered us the cube-shaped office we occupy now, conveniently next to the Box Office on the ground floor of the theatre complex.

How many books are there and where were they sourced from?

We’ve stopped counting, but well over 1000 and the figure rises. So they’ve come from my original original collection, from donations, and authors who have had launches at the Library. Initially we had no shelves – just lots of boxes and a small mobile tin unit, courtesy Qualibooks which held 100 or so volumes, and at the launch guests sat on the floor! When the Cape Town World Design capital team broke up their office space at the end of 2014, they donated us some furniture and Steven Harris of Furnspace donated us book shelves. We’ve since bought more – but still more are needed (if you have any to spare).

What kind of books have been selected and what were the reasons for their selection.

Like many of the best things in life, they were less selected than happened. As mentioned above, they are the fruit of collections and donations. Having said that, there are some we have declined, as you can imagine. What kind of books? Hmm, how do we single any out without showing favouritism? Well, there are books that can help – on law, self-assertion, rape, divorce, cooking etc. Novels that can inspire, transport, delight, reveal, charm, make you understand or angry. A very good selection from most of South Africa’s best known women writers – Antjie Krog, Matshilo Motsei, Rehana Roussow, Ingrid Jonker, Angela Makholwa etc etc – as we speak, the very latest addition is Always Another Country: memoir of exile and home by Sisonke Msimang. International authors are also well represented.  But special are the ones that have been donated by the authors – sometimes self-published. Like Surviving Lavender Hill – a collection of personal stories from the women living there and facilitated by the New World Foundation. And although we don’t have a hard copy, Frances Brown from Atlantis came in recently and brought her Afrikaans science fiction novel on a flash stick, motivational speaker Makini Smith from the US came to launch her book and leave behind copies and  another woman popped in to drop off her sister’s book written in isiXhosa… the list goes on. Modestly, might we add that you can also buy here a copy of our own book, Being a woman in Cape Town: Telling your story (Cover2Cover).

What kind of events are hosted in the space?

Glad you asked that question – because for the last year we’ve been hosting a series of Story Cafés. It’s a blanket term, coined by chief librarian Beryl Eichenberger, to cover book launches, panel discussions, story sharing, informal gatherings, writing and poetry workshops, tributes, book clubs, presentations etc. They’ve been very successful and we look forward to more. Our database and Facebook page keep everyone informed about what’s upcoming and the press have been good about putting out word.

Woman Zone is also working on the Everywoman Project – a collaborative textile artwork made out of fabric yo-yos. Yo-yo making workshops have been happening at the Library and elsewhere.

A poetry workshop
Jolyn Philips and Karin Schimke run a poetry workshop.

What have been some of the main challenges in getting the Library operational?

A: The challenges have been outweighed by the joy of having a home for the Library, especially at buzzing and creative Artscape. But it took a while – for a couple of years the books languished in plastic bags in a friend’s garage. Until we were donated the shelves, they burst out of boxes and the mobile tin unit – and even now they’re doubling up on shelves like refugees in an overcrowded tent. A big challenge was cataloguing them. Then a pair of winged libris angels came  along – Anna van der Riet and partner Ilse Arends rallied a team of retired librarians who corralled the titles into the Dewey system, dotted and stamped every one and add to the list with every fresh intake.  Phewy, thanka guys. Biggest challenge however is woman-power. Volunteers open up from 12-2 Thursdays and Fridays – for Story Cafes and other events or ‘by appointment’. Monday and Wednesdays mornings the Library is used for beauty therapy workshops. More volunteers mean more opening hours – and maybe, one day, lending facilities.

What has been the most rewarding moment of working on it?

Having people pop in and discover us. Hosting a Story Café workshop once, a woman got up and said ‘I’m so glad I bothered to get out of bed and come here today, it’s changed my life.’ I mean…!

Describe the library’s typical user.

Women of all ages, colours, backgrounds, beliefs and persuasions have been in an out of our Library. It kind of validates the Woman Zone mandate which is officially to “bring together all women from the Mother City’s cultural kaleidoscope. To get to know one another better, to share stories and experiences, work together, learn from each other – and above all to highlight and promote their past, present and future achievements, not their victimhood. Cape Town’s women are for unity.”

Are there enough women writers in SA? And if not, how can we change this?

How many is enough? Who knows. What we do know is not every woman is born to write a book, but every woman has a story. Our aim is to encourage as many as possible to share her story, through workshops or just by listening – for her own, or the benefit of others who may relate, learn and grow from it. If it gets written we will celebrate it. If it gets published we will launch it. We will always welcome it onto our shelves.

What’s your vision for the Library’s future?

To take the concept of sharing stories, spoken or in print,  into other communities around Cape Town. We call it “sistering”, a female form of “partnering”. We did it in 2014 – every month for the year we went to a different community from Muizenberg to Nyanga, Woodstock to Kuils River and in each,  listened to one woman tell her story. We recorded and transcribed them into our book (co-edited by myself and Carol du Toit, designed by  Lorraine de Villiers). We would like to do more sistering – so get in touch if it can work for your community. We would also like to become a lending Library – and like our inspirational sister, The Glasgow Women’s Library in Scotland, grow into a bigger and still bigger space to become a fully-fledged women’s centre with exhibition and archive space. Imagine that for the Mother City! Our other role model is the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics. Breathtaking in its scope. If ever you’re in London, do visit. Meanwhile, if ever in Cape Town and you’d like to visit our own Women’s Library, give us a call on 083 431 9986/082 490 6652 or mail info@womanzonect.co.za.


10 QUESTIONS: Paul McNally

Paul McNally


Paul McNally is a journalist living in Johannesburg covering criminal justice, health and science. A 2016 Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard, he’s also the founder of The Citizen Justice Network, which develops journalism in under-reported areas in indigenous languages. The Street – which zeroes in on the crime and punishment unfolding in Ontdekkers Road, Johannesburg – is his first book.

What inspired you to write The Street?

The moment when I realised that what was happening in Johannesburg (and possibly the rest of the country) should be a book rather than an article (as was originally intended) was when I saw that the bribes happening between the police and the drug dealers was for small amounts. These weren’t occasional and large amounts of money, but rather constant and small – just enough for a police officer to buy lunch, or a few groceries to take home. That is when I realised that the problem was systemic and was really the fuel for a much larger ecosystem that involved the police, the drug dealers and the South African public.

You demonstrate through your writing what appears to be a close personal bond with Raymond (a shop-owner), Khaba (a middle-aged police officer) and Wendy (ageing police reservist). Did this make it difficult to maintain objectivity when conducting research?

Absolutely. You are committed to being as objective as possible, but you find yourself spending a great deal of time with people that you are committed to figuring out. And the strategy I took was to be upfront with what I was feeling about the different people I was interviewing. The book developed into a journalist’s journey into this world of drugs and corrupt cops and then when they are brought into that story the reader can make a judgement call as to how good a job the journalist is doing, but the honestly is key.The Street

The Street is non-fiction, but it uses narrative techniques usually found in novels, such as a careful focus on character, place and emotion. What was the motivation for this?

The way we engage with narrative is we have a character that we empathise with and then we see how they endure challenges and change. That’s the type of story that is exciting to read. This trajectory happens in real life all the time. You don’t need to contrive this to happen. You just need to wait and wait and eventually you’ll see.

What were you reading as you prepared for and wrote the book?

I read a few books from the amazing Jonny Steinberg (Midlands, A Man of Good Hope). Also, I am a big fan of trying to read things that are out of your usual comfort sphere while you are writing so you don’t get too locked on to a specific style – this can be copies of You magazine or forcing yourself through a Dan Brown paperback, just to hear different voices.

What’s the thing that surprised you the most while you were researching the book?

I think how people could be brave and optimistic in the face of incredible adversity.

What would you like South African readers to take as a key lesson in the book?

During writing the book I developed a strong sympathy for the police. And though the book’s premise is about the police being involved in taking bribes from drug dealers there are dimensions to how the police live and what they are forced to endure that truly shocked me. I don’t want to preach to readers, but I hope that they feel from reading The Street that they are given moments of insight into the police that they didn’t have before. It feels like these huge structural problems of our country need to be crowd-sourced – we all need to be thinking about what could be shifted to make our lives better.

Do you think vigilante justice (like that of Raymond) is a valid way of combating crime?

Well, I don’t think he’s a vigilante. I think he is someone who reached out repeatedly and his cries went largely ignored. The decisions he makes in the book and his actions feel like they come from a host of places. There is a difference when someone is being violent with a sense of self- righteousness (I think Raymond is aware of how peculiar his actions are). I think some pockets of community policing (which I visit in the book) have this vigilante problem of believing they are doing the law’s work when they are putting drug dealers in the boots of cars and driving them around (a lot of community policing people and neighbourhood watch folk were incredibly friendly and scornful of this activity).

How can the South African police force conquer corruption within its own ranks?

What I discovered is that conquering corruption isn’t about raising wages. You can’t fight corruption, you need to neutralise it by building up morale from within. There needs to be a sense of accountability brought into the police from station level all the way to the top (and ideally up to the president).

How did you adjust from your work as a journalist focusing on shorter pieces, to writing your first book, and what were the contrasts and similarities between each process?

I spent the last year or so developing a citizen journalism organisation called Citizen Justice Network. We train paralegals in areas around South Africa to be radio journalists. So my job became largely managing people and budget reports and figuring out how to manage work flow. So writing the book became a good contrast to this type of work.

In a country where newsrooms are facing enormous financial and staffing constraints, what are the ways in which considered, long-form reportage can be kept alive?

People have to buy the books. That’s the long and short of it. But I think because it’s a time and place when long-form is struggling in the newsroom that should mean narrative non-fiction books have become relatively unique. I don’t think people have lost their attention span, but they just need to have what they are reading framed properly. It is an exciting time that you can access all the books that have ever been written by using a kindle and still people are drawn to the new as long as it is relevant and interesting for them.

The Street is published by Picador Africa.

10 QUESTIONS: Nick Mulgrew


Nick Mulgrew is a local literary super-hero — if there’s an independent wordy initiative going on in South Africa, odds are he’s involved. He’s associate editor of literary journal Prufrock, is a pivotal member of Short Story Day Africa (and co-edited Water, its new anthology) — all the while completing his MA in English Language & Literature as a Mandela Rhodes scholar.

A prolific short story writer and poet, his poetry collection, the myth of this is that we’re all in this together, came out last year, while his debut short story collection, Trains, will launch next month. Mulgrew has also founded uHlanga: a poetry press that showcases first-time poets.

uHlanga started out life as a poetry journal. Perhaps you could kick off with telling us a bit more about what made you decide to launch that.

While working at Prufrock magazine, I realised that there weren’t nearly enough publications that were publishing new poets – and especially poets from KwaZulu-Natal, where I’m originally from. I envisioned uHlanga as a yearly journal that would publish poetry from, of and about KZN.

uHlanga issue 1 was launched at Poetry Africa in 2014, where our reading was upstaged by a freestyle slam by some teenagers playing beats on their cellphones. Almost immediately I realised I needed a different angle, even though the magazine was beautiful and affordable and ended up selling well.

What made you decide to transform it into a fully-fledged poetry press?

Even though we have few poetry publications, we have even fewer poetry publishers. Which is a shame, because the only way – well, not the only way, but the most effective way – to build a career as a written poet is through publishing single-author collections. You need visibility and prestige and a publication, and a book is the best way to confer these onto a poet, especially a younger one, or someone who is in the early-building stages of their career.

So far you’ve published three collections. How did you go about choosing who to publish?

Thabo Jijana and Genna Gardini were two poets who I had worked with at Prufrock, whose writing I admired, and who I thought were two of the best young poets in SA who had not yet been published for their poetry. It wasn’t a difficult decision to make.

Who will be the next poet?

I can’t say just yet because I’m waiting on funding, but there will be a book from someone whose career is gaining momentum, and one from someone no one knows very much, in Xhosa and English.

Tell us a bit about what the role of publisher or editor entails — is putting together a collection a very collaborative process?

For me it is. As well as being the publisher of uHlanga, I work as the commissioner, designer and usually also the editor. I work with the author to make sure the book is as polished and beautiful as possible, and that the poems are tight, their rhythm right, and that no word is wasted. I love to collaborate with authors, because I get to learn a lot about their writing processes and what makes them tick. It makes me a better editor and writer, and I hope it’s a pleasurable experience for the authors too.Matric Rage

What are the biggest challenges you face in publishing poetry?

I’m going to be blunt here: it’s a lack of support from major booksellers. Go into any major bookstore and look at the poetry section. If there is one, it’s usually pitifully small. The refrain goes that poetry doesn’t sell. I say it doesn’t sell because booksellers don’t try to sell it. Vicious cycle, et cetera.

We’ve had mainstream exposure for the books (from Superbalist and City Press and GQ and so on) and exposure at literary festivals – but chain booksellers won’t bite. We’re about to start distributing these books in the UK, but still you can’t easily find a copy in my hometown. From next week it will be easier for my gran in Scotland to buy one of our books than my mum in Durban North!

Independent bookstores, however, and a number of Western Cape-based chain stores have been very supportive. I love those guys. Maybe I just have to work harder to convince everyone else.

You’re also involved in Short Story Day Africa and Prufrock. What are some of the lessons you’ve gained along the way?

In publishing, you can only rely on yourself. You have to assume no one is on your side until, over time, through actions, they prove they are. And once you have people on your side – like my colleagues at SSDA and Prufrock – you hold onto them jealously.

The other thing is that people in the publishing and literary industry now have to have a diverse skill set. You can’t just be a writer or a publisher. You need to also know how to design, or edit, or typeset, or market, or distribute, or events organise. The days of the single-skilled publishing professional are very much gone.
Failing Maths

What are the things you dig most about being involved in literary initiatives?

Making people happy. Not just writers – whose work me and my colleagues try our best to champion – but also readers, and helping introduce people to new, current work that reflects their lives or their contemporaries’ lives, and books that make people feel that they are part of a particular, definable point in history and politics and nationhood. We live in a discombobulated age, and I think good books can be a great comfort. Our world isn’t very joyous. Literature could do well to trade in more joy.

You write both your own prose and poetry. Who and want have influenced your own work? 

Flannery O’Connor, Catholic dogma, Njabulo Ndebele, four years of unsuccessfully trying to be a popular folk guitarist, MasterChef, Bruce Chatwin, the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal, Manchester United, Zadie Smith, Rustum Kozain, Sufjan Stevens, Ivan Vladislavic, public transport systems in foreign cities, Richard Rive, Sam Riviere, and the Recurring Tragedies of the Natal Sharks. My church is a broad one, evidently.

The Myth of ThisThere has been much debate around the polarised literary landscape in South Africa. What are ways in which it could be “decolonised”?

It doesn’t just need to be decolonised. It needs to be deglobalised, decapitalised and deapartheid-ised. (What a horrible trio of neologisms I’ve made there, but you get the point.)

There are more sinister forces at work than just the long and heavy shadow of colonial structure and ethos that falls over the publishing industry and the literary landscape. Yes, our publishing industry was imported wholesale from the colonial project and has re-inforced prejudicial and linguistic barriers over centuries. But unless we also address the way we cede our power and agency to positions of global prestige and power; and unless we address the cost-benefit analysis-driven modes of publishing that have become de rigeur (which in turn squash creativity and risk-taking) and the centralisation and suburbification of bookselling; and unless we do sustained work in introducing more black-led and intersectional works and initiatives into our industry, anything new and ostensibly decolonial will still uphold the greater part of our current status quo.

How do we go about that? Well, I think that’s another interview entirely.

Stations launches on 3 March at the Book Lounge in Cape Town.

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.