10 QUESTIONS: Larry Siems


Larry Siems, the editor of the still-incarcerated Mohamedou Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary discusses this remarkable account of life in the US prison.

You’ve worked on narratives of torture in your previous work, so what in particular distinguished Slahi’s diary to you? Was it its uncommon depth? Its personality? Or simply the fact that it was an unprecedented look into conditions at Guantanamo? I read it in one sitting, transfixed – but perhaps that’s because I was a layperson from a country far from Mauritania or Cuba or the United States, and every section brought something new to my eyes. I wonder what the experience was like for you personally, reading Slahi’s diary for the first time?

I was transfixed, too. It was like hearing a voice from the deepest void. To this day no Guantánamo prisoner has been able to talk with a writer or reporter, let alone address the public directly. Every word a GTMO prisoner speaks or writes is considered classified from the moment it is uttered, and every piece of writing gets locked in a secure facility near Washington, DC, where it accessible only to lawyers with top secret securities clearances. Mohamedou wrote the 466 page manuscript for Guantánamo Diary in the summer of 2005, and it took Mohamedou’s lawyers years of litigation and negotation to win the release of the redacted version they were finally able to hand me in the summer of 2012.

So it was a wonder to be reading the manuscript at all, let alone listening to this particular voice, which is so incredibly open and accessible and which engaged me completely on both a human and on a literary level. The whole Guantánamo system was set up to dehumanise, to negate the humanity of the prisoners, and suddenly Mohamedou speaks, and just in the way he tells his story he humanises that entire world.

I remember one moment early in the manuscript where I realised I was holding something extraordinary. It’s right after Mohamedou and 34 other men have been delivered to Guantánamo. They’re blindfolded and shackled and piled in the backs of trucks. The guards are shouting orders: Walk! Sit Down! Cross Your Legs! A female guard is shouting “No Talking,” while a male guard is yelling “Do Not Talk!” In the extremity of that moment, the physical agony, the fear, Mohamedou writes, “I was completely annoyed by the American way of talking.” And yet, he continues, “I was thinking about how they gave the same order two different ways: ‘Do Not Talk’ and ‘No Talking.’ That was interesting.” That curiosity, that attentiveness to his environment, that fascination with language, the tool that both unites us and divides us as human beings—I identified with those impulses on the very deepest level. I’d been reading for years about Guantánamo and the abuse of prisoners in the United States’ post-9/11 detention operations around the world, but I had never been able to feel or locate myself in what was reading—and suddenly I was right in the middle of it.

What I find extraordinary about Guantanamo Diary, beyond the haunting and harrowing events it depicts, is that Slahi wrote this in his fourth language. In your introduction to the text, you favourably compare Slahi’s vocabulary to translations of Homer’s Odyssey – and I find it an apt comparison in a number of ways. Beyond his compact, compelling turns of phrase, Slahi conjures an epic. But, perhaps, it’s more Dante than Homeric? It’s a special vision of hell.

I see what you mean—it’s a vision of hell, for sure, and a kind of catalogue of torments, which in its way the Inferno is, too. But there’s a kind of aloofness to the Divine Comedy in the relation of the protagonist to those he encounters. Dante is being guided through hell in order to observe the torments of others; he’s a privileged tourist.

So for me, the strongest echoes were of Homer. There was, as you mention, the similarity to the Homeric Epics, in the size of the vocabulary and the use of formulaic phrases (almost every cell he is ushered into has a “thin, word, hundred year-old mattress”, for example), and in the larger repetition of catastrophe, if we can call it that. Odysseus goes from shipwreck to shipwreck and captivity to captivity, according to the whims of capricious and very flawed gods; Mohamedou gets shuffled from country to country and captivity to captivity, according to the whims of the CIA and Pentagon. And then there is the overall narrative arc of homecoming—an arc that is fulfilled in the Odyssey, but that remains achingly and shamefully unresolved in Guantánamo Diary.

All of this exaggerates the parallels, of course; I studied classics in college, and still see Homer everywhere. But it was an interesting touchstone for me as I edited the manuscript. It reminded me all the time that this is an unfinished story and an unresolved epic, both for Mohamedou and for the United States. And for Mohamedou, that irresolution is the real hell.

Perhaps the most curious (and disturbing) aspect of the US censors’ redactions to Slahi’s diary is their seeming attempts to disguise, through redactions, the fact that female soldiers were employed interrogate and sexually assault detainees. Guantanamo is a place in which detainees and detainers alike are stripped of their humanity, and the different levels of exploitation detailed by Slahi is, frankly, sickening. There appears to be incredible naivety on the US authorities’ part, in that they would attempt to hide something like this, but make such a cack-handed job of concealing it. This brings up a cynical question: is this seeming cack-handedness a manipulative tactic? In other words, do they perhaps simulate incompetence in an attempt to plead that Guantanamo is simply an ill-advised project that got out of control?

Not that cynicism isn’t in order, but I think it’s more likely that the redaction system just mirrors the GTMO system as a whole—a system of massive incompetence and arbitrariness. The United States government knew by the time Mohamedou was shipped to Guantánamo in August 2002—just eight months after GTMO opened—that the vast majority of men it was imprisoning were there by mistake. Instead of acknowledging this and righting the ship, the Pentagon turned to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and to torture in an effort to wring confessions from its prisoners, another terrible mistake and also a grave violation of US and international law. Censorship, which created the space for these mistakes and abuses to happen in the first place, has remained in place primarily to cover up those mistakes and abuses.

The redactions are the vestiges or fingerprints of that censorship regime, and some are no doubt meant to conceal embarrassing aspects of Mohamedou’s treatment—as when they try to obscure the role female interrogators played during his so-called “Special Interrogation.” It is so obviously absurd: the two interrogators who remove their uniform tops and sexually assault Mohamedou in one infamous scene are clearly female, and redacting the female pronouns only emphasises their sex. But I understand the impulse: there’s a particular shame to the fact that female professional soldiers were asked to participate in the sexual abuse and humiliation of prisoners. For years the Pentagon has been under fire in the United States for not doing enough to prevent the sexual abuse of women the armed forces, and here we learn that it not only has failed to protect women from abuse, but has actually enlisted female soldiers in the sexual abuse of others. That is exactly the kind of thing that gets institutional censors reaching for their black pens.

At the same time, the censors aren’t just institutional, they’re also human—which means they sometimes just plain miss a “she” or a “her” or a “Mr. X,” or forget they obscured a reference earlier and this time let it through. In a strange way, I find this human error poignant. There were even a few places where it felt like the redactions came not from an institutional brain at all, but from an on-the-spot, visceral human reaction. I keep thinking that is what must have happened with this redaction in this passage:

“How you been?” said one of the Puerto Rican escorting guards in his weak English.

“I’m OK, thanks, and you?”

“No worry, you gonna back to your family,” he said. When he said that I couldn’t help breaking in        . Lately, I’d become so vulnerable. What was wrong with me? Just one soothing word in this ocean of agony was enough to make me cry.

What word could that possibly be but tears? And why censor that? All I can think of is that the man or woman who was working on that passage had a strong personal response to the emotion, and reached for the black pen in a kind of reflex reaction to any sense of personal connection. So it’s not random or cynical: it’s a censorship system that was created to obscure the humanity of prisoners, internalised and enacted on the most human level.

There is a striking amount of emotional and thematic resonance between Guantanamo Diary and the prison memoirs of South African political detainees during apartheid. I’m thinking particularly of the likes of Breyten Breytenbach’s True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, which was published during apartheid, and incidentally also had portions of it redacted by censors. The torturing and killing of prisoners during apartheid was partially confronted during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but I wonder if the United States will conduct such a moment of public reckoning once the tally of Guantanamo has been taken? Do you have faith that such a thing would or could happen?

I go back and forth in my own mind on whether or not I think we will manage some kind of truth and reconciliation process in the United States; some days I’m more hopeful than others. I do know that whether or not it happens will determine a lot about my country’s future.

The prohibitions against the kind of treatment Mohamedou endured – enforced disappearance; arbitrary detention; cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; torture – are universal and absolute. No special circumstances can be invoked to justify these abuses. When they happen, those who orchestrate and carry them out must be called to account and those who are subjected to the abuses must be made whole. In the eyes of the world, we have thrown a big brick through the window of international human rights norms, and so far we have been running away from what we’ve done. It is not a pretty picture. It’s worse than embarrassing: it’s corrosive to our institutions, to the rule of law, and to our understanding of who we are.

I think if we do manage to embark on the kind of essential truth-telling process South Africa has gone through, Guantánamo Diary will have played a part, just as literature was essential to the process in South Africa. In so many ways it points the way to just such a process, in its tone of mutual recognition, empathy, and forgiveness. It is already changing the way individual readers understand Guantánamo. I get notes all the time from readers describing the same experience that you and I had when we first read the manuscript, that experience of seeing what this all means on a human level—which is the only true level, after all. In a way, I think the American people had drawn a kind of curtain in our minds around Guantánamo; we know it is a world of mistakes and wrongs and pain, and we are reluctant to pull that curtain and look. But Mohemedou pulls back that curtain for us—and yes, he shows us this world of egregious mistakes and grievous wrongs and terrible pain, but he also shows us that there are redemptive moments as well. It is just easier, after reading Guantánamo Diary, to believe that truth and reconciliation are possible.

Moving on to your editing of the diary, there appears to be a tension throughout the book between your attempts to make Slahi’s narrative as coherent as possible, but also to preserve the immediacy and imperfection of his original handwritten manuscript. Where some curse words are starred out – apparently by Slahi – in early chapters, they appear in full – “fuck”, “bullshit” – in later passages. It seems clever, this, not standardising the manuscript as one would in a traditional memoir. On a textual level, it emphasises the cathartic experience that Slahi has in writing his diary. Obviously this was intentional?

One of the joys of Mohamedou’s book is his incredible sensitivity to language, and one of its crucial narrative threads his experience of acquiring English—his fourth language, after Arabic, French, and German—in the strangest of circumstances, in US captivity.

His facility with and ear for languages is obviously exceptional; he was a hafiz [a Muslim who knows the Koran by heart] by the time he was a teenager, and seems to have had a lifelong fascination with the little nuances of languages. There’s a great scene in the book when the Mauritanian director of state security is handing Mohamedou over to a Jordanian rendition team on the tarmac in Nouakchott, and Mohamedou finds himself interpreting between the head of the Jordanian team and the DSE. “He said he needs fuel,” Mohamedou steps in. Both spoke Arabic, but as Mohamedou explains, “The DSE wasn’t used to the Jordanian dialect, nor was the Jordanian guest used to the Mauritanian way of speaking. I had an advantage over both of them: there is hardly any Arabic dialect I don’t understand because I used to have many friends from different cultural backgrounds.”

I like that word, “advantage,” and I thought about it a lot in relation to Mohamedou’s acquisition of English in Guantánamo. Mastering English meant Mohamedou could communicate directly with every one of his guards and interrogators, without a third person, an interpreter, in the room; it opened the way to the extraordinary relationships that develop during and after his “Special Interrogation.” At the same time, it was a way for Mohamedou to decode and understand the language of the power that controls his fate. And decode it he does: he catches many, many of the pitches of American English and recognises how they reflect class, ethnic, and geographic fault-lines in American society, for instance. And his observations about the way we speak are among the book’s funniest. You mention the cursing. There’s that great passage where he describes how difficult it was for him to join in the cursing, especially with a female interrogator, “But later I learned that there was no way to speak colloquial English without F—ing this and F—ing that.”

So, because the experience of acquiring English is so central to the story as a whole, I tried really hard to preserve that experience as it is captured in the writing itself. Basically, I tried to fulfil what I think every writer expects of an editor, which is that the editing will minimise mistakes and distractions while sharpening the voice and vision. In Mohamedou’s case, the voice is so clear and compelling from the outset that this process often felt easy: it got so I really felt like I was following his lead. I learned very early on, when in doubt, leave it—and interestingly, as I worked through various drafts, the editing process very often involved undoing my own edits. I definitely came to see things like standardising text as a mistake. Mohamedou was creating a language for himself as he wrote, and inconsistency is a dynamic and thrilling part of that.

What are the challenges inherent in transforming a diary into a manuscript? Technically, because you’re handed a sprawling, handwritten, redacted document, and editorially, because you cannot confer with your writer? It must have been a unique challenge.

It certainly was. And nervewracking. For many years I directed the Freedom to Write Program at PEN American Center, and as a longtime advocate for writers, I have a bedrock conviction in the right of writers everywhere to control the way their work appears in print. And here I was, editing a manuscript by a living writer who would not be allowed to participate the process or approve the edits.

But those conditions were an extension of the massive censorship regime that has shaped Mohamedou’s life and story for the past 13 years, and so to work with the manuscript was also to grapple with this core reality, this force. Not being able to access and work with Mohamedou was just another twist in that story. Like the 2,600 redactions, the lack of access was both a mirror of the extreme conditions under which the manuscript was created and a blunt reminder that the ordeal Mohamedou narrates in Guantánamo Diary has not ended.

So in a way, my job was both to accept these redactions and restrictions, preserving them and the uncertainties that they create as an essential element of his ongoing narrative, and to rebel against them as well. In a sense, the footnotes are the record of that rebellion—of my efforts to reconstruct in my own mind the full narrative that Mohamedou wrote in his isolation in the summer of 2005, to colour in things in my imagination that would have been appeared in colour had I been able to read the unredacted original or to confer with Mohamedou, and not been forced to stare at the black boxes of the censors.

So in the strange way of censorship regimes, I think the redactions and restrictions made me more alert, and forced me to look deeper and listen harder to the text. They certainly brought me a little closer to one of the central dramas of the book, which is of an individual facing an overwhelming state power.

Slahi’s document has potentially damaging implications for the US government and its supporters, but of course, its power rests in the apparent truth of the narrative. In the book, it seems as though you’ve gone to significant lengths to corroborate – through Slahi’s previous testimonies as well as government records – as much of the narrative as possible. Did you come across much opposition while doing this?

No, not really. Almost all of the materials that I drew on or cited in the introduction and footnotes had been declassified by the US government itself, and anything else had been published elsewhere and was in the public realm.

So in cross-referencing Mohamedou’s account with this documentary record, I was really just making sure that readers were able to explore that record, too, and see, as I had when I first read the manuscript, how accurately Mohamedou chronicles his experience. “I have only written what I experienced, what I saw, and what I learned firsthand,” he writes near the end of the book. “I have tried not to exaggerate, nor to understate I have tried to be as fair as possible, to the US government, to my brothers, and to myself.” When you read his account alongside the government’s own records, it is clear this is exactly what he has done. You’ll read his description of being shackled in a dark, strobe-lit room and forced to listen to Drowning Pool’s “When the Bodies Hit the Floor” at ear-splitting volumes for hours, for instance, and you can find in the Senate Intelligence Committee 2008 report on detainee treatment that on 8 July, 2003: “Slahi was interrogated by Mr. X and was ‘exposed to variable lighting patterns and rock music, to the tune of Drowning Pool’s ‘Let the Bodies Hit [the] Floor.’” Overall, the precision of his recollections is staggering, when you think about trauma involved in those experiences.

As for where the U.S government stands on the book now, I’ve been very encouraged by the official response that accompanied its release. In the government’s first comment, the day before publication, a Pentagon spokesman acknowledged that the government had released the manuscript in its redacted form—that it was authentic, in essence—and also that Mohamedou’s “allegations of abuse are under review” and that the government’s investigation has analysed “thousands of documents, medical records, hundreds of interviews of Guantanamo personnel, and statements relevant to any allegations of abuse occurring at Guantanamo”—the very record that I’ve drawn from in the footnotes.

A few days later, that same spokesman told a reporter, “I haven’t yet read the book, but I look forward to reading it. It’s of interest to many of us in the Defense Department who follow Guantanamo issues, and it’s part of our country’s history.” I can’t describe how emotional it was for me to read that, and to have that kind of official acknowledgement that this often incredible-seeming, and deeply disturbing narrative is in fact a part of American history. To me, that is as close as we have come so far to taking a step toward a truth and reconciliation process.

Following on, were there any initial worries that portions of Slahi’s narrative were not truthful? One wants to give him the benefit of the doubt, not only because through his words he comes across as a reasonable intellect and a likable man, but chiefly because, as you related in a piece in the The Guardian, “he proves again and again to be a reliable narrator”. But much of his diary concerns events in Mauritania and Jordan, where presumably you wouldn’t have access to documentation to corroborate his experiences. Or are his experiences outside of US hands beside the point?

It’s funny: even though I could see in my first read how accurately Mohamedou’s manuscript tracked the official records, I still went through a two-year-long process of learning to trust him as a narrator. I just kept having to learn that things were pretty much always as he described them or reported them. At one point, for example, he is shown a photograph of someone he knew in Montreal who was then being held in US immigration custody in Florida, and Mohamedou described bursting into laughter at “the expression on his face and the Bob Barker–Calvin Klein prison uniform.” The only Bob Barker I knew was a longtime game show host on American television, and I couldn’t figure out the connection. I was debating with my editor at Little, Brown what the reference might mean—and then my editor just turned and Googled Bob Barker, and we learned that Bob Barker Company Incorporated is America’s largest supplier of prison uniforms.

At another point, during that disturbing scene of sexual assault by two female interrogators, Mohamedou recounts how he went on a kind of mini hunger strike, and how the supervising interrogator was unimpressed. “You’re not going to die, we’re going to feed up up your ass,” Mohamedou is warned. I always took that to be a brand of locker room tough talk; we all know guys whose favorite threats have to do with shoving things up your ass. And then, in December, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report about torture in the CIA’s black sites, and we learned about the practice euphemistically called “rectal rehydration”—and I learned, once again, my understanding of Mohamedou’s words was incomplete, and that I hadn’t grasped the full truth of what he was relating.

As for the pre-GTMO sections, it’s true that we don’t have interrogations plans and memoranda for the record from the Mauritanian and Jordanian security services describing what happened during his detentions there. We do have US press reports announcing his detentions and releases in Mauritania, and a Human Rights Watch report confirming that Mohamedou was one of at least 14 prisoners renditioned to Jordan and interrogated at the Jordan’s General Intelligence Department’s Wadi Sir prison in Amman—a report that describes a layout almost identical to the one Mohamedou describes. And at one point, Mohamedou describes that prison suddenly filling up and hearing through the prison grapevine that the head of Jordanian’s antiterrorism unit had been targeted in an assassination attempt; a little research revealed that there had been just such an assassination attempt at just that time, and very much as Mohamedou describes it. So I certainly see no reason to doubt Mohamedou’s narration of his time in Mauritanian or Jordanian custody.

And far from beside the point, for me these pre-Guantánamo scenes are among the most important, fascinating, and illuminating parts of the book. They offer a kind of comparative study of intelligence prisons, which mirror each other in interesting and unsettling ways—in their social structures and in the dynamics between guards, interrogators, administrators, and prisoners, for example, and in the way abusive practices are clearly copied back and forth, as when Mohemdou is hidden from delegations of the International Committee of the Red Cross by both the Jordanians and the United States. This copying points to larger questions of collusion, of course, and the role of the United States in the legal and intelligence systems of other countries and in the lives of their citizens. Mohamedou moves through these detention facilities not because Mauritania or Jordan want him in prison, but because the United States wants him there. These are supposed to be separate prison systems, distinct legal proceedings, sovereign nations; instead, the U.S. and U.S. anti-terror operations have drawn them into a kind of global archipelago of clandestine prisons that serve its own intelligence purposes. Speaking as an American, we don’t often get such a clear view of the reach of American power, and how the power influences and disrupts individual lives. For me, one of the most vivid revelations in Guantánamo Diary is how it felt for Mauritanians and Jordanians, from senior government officials to prison administrators to interrogators and guards, to be made complicit in Mohamedou’s ordeal.

An obvious and asinine question, perhaps, but one that has to be asked: what do you ultimately hope that the release of this book will achieve? And what has it already achieved?

Not asinine at all. The immediate goal, of course, is to see Mohamedou released. You just cannot read Guantánamo Diary and not see that this man deserves the same honest judgement that he has afforded us. That is one of its great achievements: it recalibrates what in the United States are treated as policy and security questions into a question of individual, fundamental justice. With Guantánamo Diary coming out this year not just in the United States but in 24 other countries, and with readers everywhere experiencing this voice and recognising its dignity and endurance and wit and faith, I have to believe that Mohamedou will finally have his homecoming.

But I also believe we’ll be reading Guantánamo Diary long after Mohamedou’s case is resolved, and that when we read it years from now, we’ll see how much more this book has done—to speed the releases of other prisoners, to build public support to close Guantánamo and end arbitrary and indefinite detention, and to usher in a real process for reckoning with the torture and human rights abuses that have taken place in US detention facilities since 9/11. That’s a lot to hope for from one book, I know. So you can take it as a measure of how I feel about this book that it’ll honestly surprise me if I am wrong.

And what about Slahi? Beyond the royalties that will be held for him until his release, I mean. He is a man that seems spiritually undamaged by his experiences, and one hopes that the knowledge that millions of people understand more of his and his fellow detainees’ plight could bring some small amount of comfort.

Guantánamo’s walls remain thick: over two months after its US release, Mohamedou still hasn’t been able to see the published version of his words. He has been able to meet with members of his legal team, and so he knows something about the reviews and the response the book is receiving, and you’re right, that has to be heartening. But nobody goes through what Mohamedou has gone through—and is still going through—unscathed, and at this point, almost a decade since he wrote the manuscript for Guantánamo Diary, I think the only real comfort will come with action on his case. Writing his manuscript in the same isolation cell where he endured one of Guantánamo’s ugliest and most deliberate tortures was a tremendous act of faith: faith that the truth would somehow leap GTMO’s thick walls of censorship and make its way to us; and faith in us, that once we read these words, we would answer their simple demand for justice. Years of waiting and hoping he would be heard are over. I imagine it’s a different kind of hoping now, and a harder one. I do know he’s tired, and his family is tired, and he really should be home.

Guantánamo Diary is published by Little, Brown in the US, and Canongate in the UK.

Photograph by: Donna F. Aceto

10 QUESTIONS: Mark Lewis and Tanya Zack


Urban planner Tanya Zack and photographer Mark Lewis are behind Wake up, this is Joburg, a 10-book series of stories about people living in Johannesburg.

Mark and Tanya, tell me about your relationship with Johannesburg.

Tanya Zack: I have always had a passion for the inner city (I was raised in Bertrams so some of this may well be a cathartic interest). I have always lived in Johannesburg. But from around 2008 I had the opportunity through my work – doing research and policy – to work on some of the big issue areas of the inner city – such as so-called “bad buildings”. My approach has been to try to understand the underlying conditions and causes of the challenges that face Johannesburg. Of course this sounds like and is policy speak but at a more personal level it is also true. I have become convinced that I need to spend more time in understanding and in diagnosing what I see in the city before I can hope to respond to it as an urban planning practitioner.

I started walking the streets of the inner city and I was overwhelmed with the excitement of it. I learnt so much, saw so much I didn’t know existed in Johannesburg and also simply encountered these incredible experiences of interacting with people or of just watching.

Photography became a natural extension for me in the act of watching and I spent many months taking photos. This was also vehicle of access because each photo required conversation, and permissions and so I got talking to people. The next stage in this unplanned journey was the collection of stories. In some cases the stories popped up because I encountered them in my wanderings. In other cases I set out specifically to understand a specific activity or person life and livelihood in the city. For instance, I followed recyclers over a number of days and in some cases followed their stories over many months. Not every story is intended for publication. In fact most are just my personal encounter with my city.

Mark Lewis: I was born and schooled in Klerksdorp and then moved to Joburg where I lived in Yeoville and Berea. I then moved into the inner city and lived and worked in Jeppe Street and Wanderers Street from 1979 through to 1983.The city then moved to a very different soundtrack. I then left Joburg and only returned to live 3 years ago. My association with the city in the beginning was witnessed through a closed window in and out of Maboneng but I became increasingly excited by what I saw and was looking for an excuse to start walking and experiencing the newly occupied spaces. So my reintroduction to the city was largely facilitated by Tanya as we began trawling the streets for stories and I finally had found the excuse that I had been looking for.

How did Wake up, this is Joburg come about?

TZ: Mark Lewis and I found a common interest in the collection of stories as he has done a great deal of documentary photography and so we embarked on a conscious journey of collecting stories of Joburg. We are both taken with Johannesburg as a city of surprise and a city constantly in the making and in the remaking. It remodels itself, it changes uses, it attracts new people and it is constantly shifting in dramatic ways. This is most obvious in the inner city, where we have found many of our stories.

What do you hope the books will achieve?

TZ: We hope that an empathetic view emerges in the work – we certainly do try to understand quite closely what people’s living and working conditions are and something of their personal stories. But beyond looking more closely and the huge privilege it is to get access to anyone’s life to look that closely, we don’t have a change agenda: we have a curiosity agenda. We really wanted to know about these things ourselves. We think other people may also find them interesting.

The stories and photographs come out of a curiosity and passion for the city and for knowing what “lies behind”. For us, the exploratory journey allows us to learn something about people’s intimate engagement with the city, often through making a living. It also allows us to take a closer look at spaces in the city, their use, their re-use and ordinary or unexpected aspects to these spaces. Perhaps these stories reveal something deeper about the city as it is today. There are layers in the telling and care is taken to illuminate a bigger story in each image. These are also layered. In terms of integrating communities etc. I have no such ambitions for my project. If we can alert people in Joburg to something that feels a little lesser known and through that inspire a greater affection for this city of possibilities we will have achieved a lot.

Wake up, this is Joburg 5/10 Cover
“Good Riddance”, the fourth book in the series, has just been published.

How did you find the stories you showcase, and how long does it take you to research, write and photograph each one?

TZ: We find the stories by trawling the inner city. We walk and drive and look. And of course we spend a lot of time chatting to people, scouting for ideas and possibilities. We brainstorm possible spaces and activities and we try. We follow these leads and some open up stories. The research takes many months and in some cases we are telling stories of people who we have interviewed and watched over several years. It is an enormous privilege to be allowed that much access to individuals and building up those relationships takes a long time.

For each of you, what was the most memorable moment from working on this project?

TZ: For me the most painful moment was a visit to the home of the protagonist in our Yeoville story, Inside Out, where so many of my preconceptions were turned up as the family was divided on whether or not to allow a portrait to be taken for the book. I learnt something deeper than I had ever understood about the agony and complexity of being migrant in Johannesburg.

The most joyous moment for me was an unexpected encounter with a reclaimer (whose story does not appear in the books yet) who fashioned his trolley into an army jeep.

The day we spent on the top of the landfill site where men were reclaiming from trucks and birds were swooping up amidst the waste and against the backdrop of the city was magical.

ML: For me it was the moment we walked into Kazerne to witness the chopping of cow heads (the first story). Firstly I had never seen such a thing and also the realisation that this journey was about to begin both with Joburg and Tanya.

Wake up, this is Joburg 5/10What made you decide on the 10-book format, and are there plans to combine the books into a single one?

TZ: We thought we would create one book and proposed this to Fourthwall Books. Bronwyn and Oliver had just been at an international book fair and were inspired by the idea of individualised art books that are each beautiful artefacts that together make up a collection; the idea of 10 books was theirs. Each then is a single photo essay and each book allows enough space for a lengthy essay and rich displays of photographs. The photo book is an innovative format and allows the narrative and images to interplay well.

The first editions of the first three books published have sold out. We hope this reflects a demand for the work and we would like to create a composite book perhaps of larger format that really showcases the images and that could knit the stories together.

Wake up, this is Joburg 5/10Together, the words and images tell the story. Explain how the collaboration process worked – did you work together, or do interviews and photography separately?

TZ: We work together. This is necessary because the whole process is entirely interactive – what we are seeing and what different angles we each notice in the tales we hear or the places we look at all combine into both what images will be chosen and what story we will weave.

Mark, what has been the greatest challenge when photographing this series?

ML: There has been no specific challenge other than the eternal challenge of representing what you see in a meaningful way that satisfies both me  and the story.

Wake up, this is Joburg 5/10Why did you decide to make the text available in two languages?

TZ: The idea of translating the work came from Bronwyn Law-Viljoen who works closely with the Language School at Wits. Each story is translated into a language other than English, that matches the story. We have used Zulu, French, Portuguese and Sesotho in the books that have been published so far. The broadening of language broadens access but is also a tribute to the protagonists of our stories. The translator for Good Riddance commended Bronwyn for “leading from the front” in this initiative of translating the work.

A project like this involves intense research, preparation and execution. How did you go about funding this process?

TZ: The production of the books is very costly and they require external funding. We depend on sponsorship to cover some of the basic input costs and have had assistance from GIBS Business School and from IFAS for two of our books. But we are still trying to raise the funding to allow the further books to be published. Fourthwall has covered some basic costs and we have also committed our own monies to costs. To date our own input, research and photography, editing and layout has not been covered and has been a contribution that the four of us (me, Mark, Bronwyn and Oliver) have made to make the series possible. The sale of each book funds the future books.

Wake up, this is Joburg 5/10Good Riddance, the fourth book in the series, has just been published by Fourthwall Books.


10 QUESTIONS: Ken Barris and Michael Cope


Ken Barris and Michael Cope wrote a novel, Sunderland, together.

Sunderland: What’s in a name, guys?

Michael Cope: The name is a rather obvious play on words – signifying a land divided. It also refers to how colonial words and meanings can be clumsily imposed on local stuff, and how those meaning can change in the process. It’s not the town in north England, nor is it the soccer team.

Also, I just liked the sound of it.

Ken Barris: Mike came up with the name, but I liked its gravity from the outset.

Who does which bits? How does the process work?

MC: I wrote Charles, Ken wrote Art.

KB: Mike initiated the project and created the concept. I played more of a shaping role in plotting Art’s narrative, which became a structure enfolding a portion of Charle’s narrative.

Mike, does Charles really exist? He has a eulogy/tribute in the acknowledgements. Don’t be evasive.

MC: Evasive, moi? Charles really exists as a fictional character. Ken and I have created considerable fictional evidence of/for his existence, but that, too, is all fictional. A section of the book (an obituary for Charles) has spilled out of the book and made it into New Contrast, but that is also fictional. The only “factual” part is that the faux-obituary really did appear there. Here’s another fact  – my grandfathers’ names were Charles Cope and Frank de Villiers.

Ken, what was the most fun about writing this novel?

KB: Writing Art, seeing the whole taking shape eventually, and bouncing ideas around with Mike.

What would you do differently, if you had the choice? Would you collaborate again – with each other, with others?

MC: I would certainly do this again if the possibility arose. I imagine that one would do things differently inasmuch as the conditions/text/collaborator were different.

KB: If you mean with regard to Sunderland, I don’t think I would change much. I’d also do it again if the right project came up. Then everything would have to change anyway, because two personalities interacting, and the project itself, set up their own dynamics.

Where are the funny bits?

MC: Those are the bits where the reader laughs, or perhaps smiles. It might be different for different readers.

KB: I guess it depends on who is reading it.

Explain how music is a recurring motif in the novel, as well as part of its inherent structure.

MC: There is a section where Charles muses about the parallels between his (fictional) novel and a piece of orchestral music – a structure with many voices which combine in an emergent way. My son is a composer, which means that much of the time when I was writing, the house was full of interesting piano music, and perhaps some of this atmosphere entered the novel by osmosis. There is also the obvious comparison of Sunderland with a duet, though the two voices can’t actually harmonise by happening at the same time.

KB: There is also a piece in which Art describes himself as a grand orchestrator, except that he is deluding himself. I don’t know enough about music to comment on an inherent musical structure in the novel, though I guess as a play of voices, it does have its contrapuntal and clashing moments. Mike uses the word “muses”, either inadvertently or deliberately, which implies the idea of invention underlying all arts, be it music or sculpture.

How is this novel particular to South Africa? And what are its universal themes?

MC: I suppose that the Charles novel-within-a-novel is directly concerned to examine South African social realities and inequalities in a semi-allegorical way. Of course, these, and in particular the problem of vast inequality of wealth, turn out to be pretty universal in the early 21st Century. Charles is interested in how creativity fits into it all.

On a more personal level, Ken explores the universal themes of admiration, jealousy, infidelity and self-delusion in an ironic and amusing way, which leavens Charles’s weighty concerns.

KB: I can’t add much to Mike’s reply, except that I found his exploration of creativity and his reflections on writing deeply interesting.

What advice do you have for people who want to write?

MC: Don’t.

Unless you like writing in and for itself. You are very unlikely to get money, critical acclaim or even the love of beautiful women from it. But writing is a neat way to work out certain things you think about.


KB: Write if you have an unreasonable certainty that you need to, and if you can’t stop yourself. And if enough people other than yourself recognise that you have the ability to make it work.

What are you working on now? 

MC: I’m on holiday, but I’m thinking about a Science Fiction novel.


KB: I’m working on a crime novel with a satiric twist.


Sunderland by Michael Cope and Ken Barris Sunderland is published by Jacana, and is available from Kalahari.com.

10 QUESTIONS: Bitterkomix


Artists Anton Kannemeyer and Conrad Botes established Bitterkomix in 1992. The comic magazine quickly earned international fame for its irreverently daring potshots at the cultures, clashes and complexities of the new South Africa. The 16th edition was published in 2013.

What would you say is the biggest change that has occurred between the first edition and the latest one – and what has been the one thing that has remained constant?

CONRAD BOTES: The most obvious change must be the content and the way we approach our subject matter. We are almost twice the age of when we started out and our focus has changed. The thing that has remained the same is probably a desire to confront and make work with a subversive objective.

ANTON KANNEMEYER: Well, it’s been 21 years since the first issue. The biggest change would be that we are now professional artists – then we were aspiring comic artists. From my side the thing that remains constant is probably the fact that I make South African comics with South African content; in many ways my work will be best understood by South Africans. Also, I’m still struggling to get drawing right – that hasn’t really changed.

One of the comics in this edition satirises the fact that you take quite long to produce a new edition of Bitterkomix. I’ve read that for Anton it is a specific struggle to finish longer narratives. Could you talk a bit about the process of conceptualising and executing a new comic? Why does it take so long, discounting the evidently debaucherous lives of comic artists as portrayed in Bitterkomix 16?

AK: I think the biggest problem with comic drawing in South Africa is that you do not make real money. Which means that you have to live a dual life: on the one hand you have to make money; on the other you draw comics because you believe in comics. So the problem isn’t really that we’re debauched – we’re just busy with other stuff: exhibitions, printmaking, travelling, etc: all things that pay the bills. And in my case I draw what I want, which means that the material is often regarded as unfit for mainstream consumption. Bookshops do not want to sell us anymore. Things have become more conservative since the ’90s.

CB: Yes, I think Anton sums it up correctly; life gets in the way of drawing comics. 20 years ago it was actually a lot easier; we were basically responsible for ourselves only. No families, bills and hectic workload. Finding time to draw comics has become a challenge. Conceptualising comics is easier. I spend a lot of time thinking about certain narratives and I also do quite a lot of work in drawing books; a lot of the stuff eventually finds its way into my comics. I have been trying to have some kind of symbiosis happening between my gallery work and my comics. I think this has happened with both of our different artistic practices – somehow the comics inform our painting and the fact that we are also painters has definitely affected our comics.

Bitterkomix Extract

What drives and motivates you when you set out to draw a new comic? Do you see your art as fulfilling a function within society, or is the motivation more personal in nature?

AK: Well, both maybe. Primarily I make comics because I think I can address a certain topic that I can add value to. Give a new perspective, maybe. Of course, in the end it’s important that people read it, otherwise it really becomes ridiculous.

CB: I see comics as part of my broader practice; my motivation is purely personal. I like confronting my audience, and to challenge their ideas and belief systems. But I am not out to convince them of my point of view or illustrate some problem in our society, so I don’t see my work as fulfilling some function within society.

Do you think the book will remain a relevant medium for personal expression and social commentary? And would you consider moving away from the comic book as a primary medium for your expression?

CB: I don’t know whether books will survive the digital onslaught. I hope they do. I like reading books, making drawing books and publishing. As far as a primary medium is concerned, I have moved away from the comic book as a primary medium quite a long time ago. I also make paintings, drawings and sculptures. And although I don’t consider one practice to be the primary one, I do consider comics to be vital to what I do and I will certainly keep on making comics for as long as I can.

AK: I don’t know. I collect books and I don’t care if others regard them as worthless. They mean a lot to me. I would always like to publish in print, but if no one wants to publish or sell my books anymore, I guess I’ll have to change. Certainly online publishing is something we’re looking at now. Hopefully it will always be some sort of dual publishing deal, which allows me a hard copy to take home.

Your work tends to make people uncomfortable, and it would seem that you actively pursue this type of reaction or response. What is it about discomfort that excites you as artists and social commentators?

AK: I think it’s about challenging a mainstream perspective, always looking critically at the world around us. This is why I make art – if my work was the same as everyone else’s, why make it? And I feel it’s important for me that people react to my work. If I do mediocre work and there’s no response, I have failed.

CB: Making work that confronts the viewer is what it’s all about for me. People should want to stare and look away in disgust at the same time. I like to seduce the viewer and then give them a kick in the teeth. I find that by doing this, the viewer engages with the work in a much more meaningful and lasting manner.

You are outspoken in your disapproval of political correctness, and this is also evident in the comics. Why is political correctness so problematic to you?

AK: In this case you’re probably mostly talking about my work. I do not have a problem with political correctness – I have a problem with the white hypocrites who are pretending to be politically correct. And most of them don’t even know they are pretending or false. They are so used to a way of dealing (or not dealing) with racism, that they have like a default “I’m politically correct” setting. And they are so outraged at people who do not use their codes and conduct. I find it laughable and I think most black people will agree with me.

Whenever artists deal with complex issues like race and colonial history in their work, there is a minefield of possible ways to offend, perhaps unintentionally, different groups and role-players in that historic narrative. What are your considerations when you start drawing a comic and is there any sense of self-censorship involved? Have you ever finished a strip or drawing and canned it because you feel you’ve gone too far, or is nothing taboo?

AK: My approach is to try and stay as honest as possible – what are my original feelings about something; what does my instinct say? On the one hand you have an instinctual approach (the creative side, possibly); on the other you have an intellectual or academic approach. They have to be balanced, but I would argue the creative side is the more important. So yes, one sometimes offends some people, but every comic or artwork should be evaluated as a whole: what is the satirist trying to say? If you are going to make some gut-wrenching work, you will inevitably step on someone’s toes. And I do sometimes re-evaluate work and think, “Oh well, that isn’t clear enough” or “The message is misunderstood; I fucked up.” It happens. Then I will avoid publication.

CB: Years ago a television journalist interviewed a group of black students and showed them my comic Bloedrivier. Some of the students looked at the depictions of violence (white on black) and described the comic as evil and problematic. In the story it is evident that I am severely critical of The Afrikaner, and the origins of Afrikaner Nationalism. I feel I would not have achieved what I set out to do if I did not graphically depict the white on black violence that happened at the Battle of Blood River. So if I set out to achieve a specific goal, I will do whatever it takes, even if it means seriously offending different groups.

On your tongue-in-cheek letters page, you quote Susan Sontag, where she relates her cancer to pent-up rage. Do you ever feel the need to account for or explain your anger (and especially the expression of it)? Also, do you think you’ll ever be done with anger, or is it intrinsic to Bitterkomix?

AK: I think that anger drives us, although it can be directed at different people or spaces. I used to be angry about a lot of external things like school, the army, religion, etc. Now I’m mostly angry at my dead father. But maybe I’ll still work that out of my system..

CB: I will definitely be done with anger once the world is a happy, fair place.

Your comics have become collectors’ items, having been included in collections like MoMA in New York. Do you each have a full collection of Bitterkomix and would you consider selling it if the price was right?

AK: Yes, we both have a few full sets and sure, I’ll sell it eventually. But I need to hang on to it until I need cancer treatment or my first heart transplant.

CB: I have already sold mine for booze money.

Are there young South African comic artists who excite you? Who are they and what are they doing?

AK: yes, there are a few. Joe Daly certainly is one: he is one of the best comic artists in the world at the moment as far as I’m concerned.

CB: Years ago I read an Art Spiegelman interview in which he claims to not be reading any comics anymore and that there are no more good comics being produced. I thought that he was pretty arrogant and ignorant. Now, I have to confess that I am not reading as many comics as I used to and not really paying attention to what is happening on the comics scene. But of the little I have seen, it seems that the comics scene in SA is alive and vibrant, certainly much more so than when we started out. I love Joe Daly’s work.

Bitterkomix 16 is published by Jacana.