Crossing time, crossing genres, feeling nostalgic

Because I teach a class in long form journalism (my term for literary journalism or creative nonfiction) to final-year writing and editing students in the journalism school at Rhodes University, I’m always on the lookout for academic writing on the form, or for new experiments with it. So I was delighted to come across the recent Safundi edition, edited by Rita Barnard, devoted to commentary on South Africa’s publishing boom in nonfiction. I was persuaded to read a whole lot of South African writers I’ve not paid much attention to before, among them the wonderful Rob Nixon (Dreambirds), Bloke Modisane (Blame me on History) and Jacob Dlamini (Native Nostalgia).

I read Blame me on History over the Christmas break and today I finished Native Nostalgia. What is fascinating is that both writers evoke townships in which people really lived actual lives, enscribed by, but also careless of, apartheid. The interesting detail is that Modisane makes absolutely no apology for writing about Sofiatown. Nearly fifty years later, Dlamini has to be very careful about evoking his happy memories of a place he loved, and has to explicate exactly what he means when he uses the word “nostalgia” to capture his feelings.

In the introduction he makes a good case for how he uses the word, he parses different types of nostalgia (very usefully) and he cleverly calls up Orhan Pamuk (Nobel literature laureate) and his attachment to Istanbul as backup for his claims. He also makes a very good case for his readers to acknowledge the creativity, agency and ingenuity black people in townships brought to their lives under apartheid.

And yet, the hint of the apologetic hangs over Native Nostalgia, and doesn’t over Blame me on History. This could be because Sofiatown has mythic status in our collective memory as a place of resistance and protest, but also of jazz, song, sophisticated urbanity and fashion. Katlehong, by contrast, is completely forgotten as one of the places during the 1980s that made apartheid unworkable, it’s not a marker in our past, it has no romance. And Dlamini, rightly, takes us to task for our overly-romantic telling of our apartheid past and glorious arrival in the present, in which we flatten out our story and make memories like his untellable, unremarkable. I love his cheek in pushing his own childhood in front of our faces and asking us to think again.

But there’s something else I’d like to think about in relation to Native Nostalgia: the actual form of the writing. I hunted about a bit and couldn’t find anything that related to the history of the document itself. But it seems to me from the way it has been constructed, and especially from the form of the last chapter (which does the irritating recap of each chapter, “I have shown this and proved that”), that this book has its earlier life in a piece of academic work, maybe even a thesis. (Dlamini is now a history PhD student at Yale, and held a Ruth First Fellowship at Wits, so could this have been an MA thesis? It’s obvious based on the theorists he draws on that he must have spent time with WISER and imbibed some of their research preoccupations.)

I’m very interested in how genres of writing inform each other (because they most often don’t and I think should). I’m drawn to experiments in which academic research is made popular and accessible, in which really big ideas are taken out of academese and made story. Dlamini has tried to do this in his book, but I found myself as the reader feeling that I was being told too self-consciously how to think about what he was presenting and getting too little of the actual stuff itself. Towards the end Dlamini talks a lot about the sensual experience of townships, sights, sounds, smells, feel and tastes. He gives us a bit of actual description to work with so that the experience begins to become real for the reader but he spends a lot of time justifying why he’s taken this route in the writing. As the old adage goes: show don’t tell.

So, disappointingly, an important attempt to make high theory speak to experience and life recollection, hasn’t quite worked because the writing hasn’t been able to stitch the two together with neat seams.

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