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Creative Non-Fiction: A Conversation

Duncan Brown and Antjie Krog

DB: Creative non-fiction has become in a sense ‘the genre’ of South African writing (recently
your own work, that of Jacob Dlamini, Sihle Khumalo, Max Du Preez, Rian Malan, Kevin
Bloom, Denis Beckett, Shaun Johnson, Adam Ashforth, John Carlin, Jonny Steinberg, Stephen
Otter, Njabulo Ndebele, Jeff Opland, Julia Martin; historically, Sol Plaatje, Can Themba, Nat
Nakasa, Todd Matshikiza, Alan Paton, H. I. E. Dhlomo, and many more): writing which makes
its meanings at the unstable fault line of the literary and journalistic, the imaginative and the
reportorial.

AK: I suspect it has something to do with our history of ‘apartness’. That we are continually
busy translating ourselves, our landscapes, our communities, our experiences of other
communities to one another. We can perhaps not begin to value each others’ fantasies or fictions,
if we don’t understand the realities that gave rise to them. I am therefore much more delighted to
have read Dlamini’s Native Nostalgia than I would have been had he fictionalized it. (On the
other hand, what is Ivan Vladislavic’s fictional Portrait with Keys other than non-fiction about a
part of Johannesburg? You see, this is an impossible topic!). But I believe non-fiction writing is
also about unearthing a hidden or unacknowledged or unnoticed life. I read somewhere that you
only begin to write when you come across something in your life that you find nobody has
written or has written about how you see it. So there are such obvious and huge gaps in South
African society that every second person must feel she has to fill a vacuum. I also believe that
every single creative person in the country is reacting to the more than two thousand
overwhelmingly black TRC testimonies that have been fed into the air in recent years – either by
contradicting, confirming, nuancing, undermining, finding another style of being a
black/white/male/female voice, or even ignoring them. If all of this has settled, fiction could
perhaps return to its proper place in our society.

DB: What would fiction’s ‘proper place’ be, if that isn’t too simplistic a question? (J. M. Coetzee
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commented at some point that he was sick of being asked the ‘tired question’ about the ‘role’ of
South African literature.)

AK: For me fiction would imagine our togetherness, would take risks from what we know into
what we have never imagined e.g. whites without any power at all, or everybody being coloured,
for it is crucial to start creating an ‘imagined community’ in our South African narrative. But I
have always suspected that one needs financial stability and a confident grip on one’s
surroundings in order to begin to imagine. Why, for example, did so little writing come out of the
Boer concentration camps? The best Anglo-Boer war poetry and fiction came mainly from men
who were either not in the war or with the commandos. To use an image: it’s like trying to catch
a fish. But you cannot begin to use the fishing rod if you don’t know and understand the
embankment on which you have to plant yourself. Without the fish we will die of hunger, but
you will not get there if you don’t sort out the embankment and the water - this is what non-
fiction does. The role of fiction is to lift above the water for one incredible moment: a living fish.

DB: The inside jacket cover of the third volume in the Country of My Skull trilogy, Begging to
be Black describes it as a work of ‘literary non-fiction’. The other term which has some currency
at present is ‘creative non-fiction’, and, historically, there is the analogous genre of the ‘new
journalism’, (and the other term ‘faction’, which has very unfortunate connotations in our
country!). What is your take on this?

AK: I am actually quite deurmekaar whenever I’m asked this question. Recently I put it to a
Dutch book buyer (he buys for bookshops from publishers) and his answer was: apart from
biography and memoirs, we have only two main rubrics – non-fiction and literary non-fiction. By
the latter we simply mean that it is better written than non-fiction, more skill, more craft, more
literary devices and better language.

Interviewers have called Country of my Skull anything from ‘faction’ to a ‘novel’, and I
have never interfered with that because frankly I don’t know anymore where the lines run. The
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moment one uses something as ‘unreal’ as language to describe a live-three-dimensional


complex moment, one is already falsifying, fictionalizing by deciding which angle, which words
to use and what detail to leave out. So in one way I would say nothing that has been written had
not already been heavily tampered with; even the simplest journalism is inadequate in giving a
single fact in its complete fullness – the moment there is language, reality is already affected.

On the other hand, working for SABC radio confirmed the important differences between
literary non-fiction and journalism. One of my first stories was about how squatters were
surviving the Southeaster wind. My story started as follows: “‘Nail! Nail the screw!’ Mrs
Mohapi shouted to her son as he was battling to secure the roof of her shack in Joe Slovo
squatter camp.” I was ordered to change the first line into fact. But all of it was fact, I said. No,
general fact I was told: “Over the weekend squatters battled the stormy Southeaster wind. When
SABC visited Joe Slovo squatter camp families were … etc.” The facts should be confirmed by
three sources and conveyed in a general tone with standard jargon.

For literary non-fiction I depend on three devices: a literary form to tell the non-fiction; a
more imaginative language; and the pronoun ‘I’. Firstly, by literary form I mean a basic story-
telling technique: a beginning, a build up to a climax and a conclusion. Why? Because that has
always been the best way to tell a story, even a true story. Secondly, as a poet I instinctively tend
to trust the capacity of language to capture the in-capture-able at the very moment it stretches
into the poetic. This kind of language is particularly helpful when one is analyzing a real-life
situation and finds oneself not able to really capture what makes this scene so remarkable.
Interestingly enough, Elaine Scarry in her Dreaming by the Book (2001) identified five formal
practices that writers use to execute the mimetic aspect of writing: “radiant ignition” (injecting
light into the image that is being described); “rarity” (focusing on the rareness or uniqueness of
what is being described); “dyadic addition or subtraction” (focusing on a static image or panning
out); “stretching, folding and tilting” (manipulating the images by distorting particular facets);
and lastly, “floral supposition” (using descriptions of flowers to make the moment more real for
the reader than were she to experience it herself).

Thirdly, I use the pronoun ‘I’ which immediately creates space allowing for an individual
take on facts, a deeper reading and interpretation of the non-fictional ‘reality’. The ‘I’ also allows
me personal access to fact. I cannot speak on behalf of Afrikaners, but I can speak as an
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Afrikaner. At the same time, the ‘I’ is also immediately ‘multi-voiced’ – its meaning determined
by the countless previous contexts of the word ‘I’ as it has appeared in my poetry, my
journalism, and even all the other writers using the pronoun ‘I’. As Bakhtin suggests, every
word, expression, utterance, or narrative bears the traces of all subjects, possible and real, who
have ever used or will use this word, expression, utterance or narrative. The ‘I’ also at times
assists the reader who can piggyback into the text – safe in the knowledge that the ‘I’ would
never abandon them.

I guess the final deurmekaar-scratching of everything for me was of course J. M. Coetzee


who since Boyhood seems to make the point from the other side: how easy is it to detect the
precise point that a novel slips from fiction into the autobiographical? Didn’t he say that all
fiction is autobiographical and all autobiography is fiction? Would it therefore not be more
ethical to admit: I have given up on reality?

DB: Tom Wolfe says of the New Journalism:

The result is a form that is not merely like a novel. It consumes devices that happen to
have originated with the novel and mixes them with every other device known to prose.
And all the while, quite beyond matters of technique, it enjoys an advantage so obvious,
so built-in, one almost forgets what a power it has: the simple fact that the reader knows
all this actually happened. The disclaimers have been erased. The screen is gone. The
writer is one step closer to the absolute involvement of the reader that Henry James and
James Joyce dreamed of and never achieved. (1996: 49)

Does this resonate with you? I’m thinking of the fact that you have specifically avoided the
option of simply calling your work fiction, a generic definition which would manoeuvre you out
of a series of ethical and legal complexities. What are the benefits of refusing the simple option
of calling your work fiction or novels?

AK: What I find an interesting question is why Tom Wolfe uses the phrase: “it enjoys an
advantage”. Why does he think it is an advantage? In the past people preferred to read fiction
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because it “lied the truth” much better than any non-fiction did. I would never say that
Dostoyevsky or Zola or Patrick White or James or Joyce did not get readers absolutely involved!
People prefer films to documentaries because the unimagineables of the documentary will be
filled by the filmmaker’s imagination. It is a question: why in South Africa are the sales of non-
fiction apparently outstripping those of fiction? And why don’t I prefer Coetzee’s Boyhood to
say, Age of Iron, because the first seems closer to a biographical truth? So I would suggest that at
the back of Tom Wolfe’s question is a knowledge that fiction in a way currently has been/is
failing in the ways Mark Freeman and Jens Brockmeier formulate: the new types of conflicts,
dilemmas, predicaments of the post modern world can no longer be

emplotted within the traditional genres of tragedy, Bildungsroman, adventure story,


triumphalist narrative and so on. As we move into the heart of the post modern condition,
the challenge of achieving some measure of narrative integrity, far from being obviated,
may in fact become intensified. Moreover the very attempt to move away from the self
may in fact lead toward it. How, in the face of such multiplicitous array of possible
selves, is one to find direction about how best to live? And how, in the face of so
voluminous a library of possible narratives, is one to determine how best to tell one’s
story? At times the ‘path inward’ (as in autobiographical writing) may appear to be the
only one to take. (Freeman and Brockmeier 2001: 92)

But to have called Country of My Skull a novel would have brought about even bigger
problems. Using so many TRC submissions, press briefings, interviews and testimonies, and then
projecting the text as fiction, and therefore my own imagination, would have been profoundly
dishonest. I also have to say that my respect for the capacity of the imagination of writers (or my
own) took a severe blow during the TRC process. Sometimes I would write down what I
remembered of a particularly haunting testimony, and when I checked it against the real
testimony, mine was always, always weaker. Add to this the fact that no writer had ever captured
or equaled that immense power and rhythm of the translated TRC testimonies in their work OR
imagined the breadth and depth of depravity that was revealed at the perpetrator hearings. Even
those fictional accounts that appeared after the TRC are floue lugspieëlings of how the
testimonies really were. Finally: the ‘fictionalization’ that the ‘I’ admits to, is often nothing more
than an effort to protect those who became part of the narrative outside the TRC ambit of public
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commissioners and testifiers.

DB: As you know, I am working on Adam Ashforth’s narrative engagement with the subject of
witchcraft in Soweto, especially in the book Madumo: A Man Bewitched. Despite his extensive
use of fictional techniques (in particular narration, dialogue and shifting focalisation), Ashforth
seems insistent that Madumo should not be considered a novel. In refusing the genre of the
novel, Ashforth seems to be claiming what Tom Wolfe describes as the “in-built advantage” of
that analogous form, the New Journalism: the assumption, on the part of the reader, that “all this
actually happened”, something akin to the ‘autobiographical contract’. As readers we may
question Ashforth’s narrative portrayal of the man he calls ‘Madumo’ and his suffering, or we
may even dispute the significance of his story or the relationship between Ashforth and
Madumo, but we cannot – in terms of the conventions of the genre – deny the existence of the
man or the fact of his suffering: we are forced into having to engage with Madumo and his
bewitchment, without the option of dismissing him as a problematic fictional construct, as – for
example – hostile readers might do with David Lurie or Petrus in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.1 In a
serious engagement with the question of how to narrate Madumo’s story of spiritual possession,
Ashforth seems to find in the shifting, ambiguous and yet also demarcated space of creative non-
fiction new possibilities for narration and identification.

AK: This is a most amazing observation, Duncan! That one uses non-fiction in order to remove
the escape clause for the reader. So maybe it has brought us closer to some kind of distinction of
the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Let me try and concretize it into imagery of the
“Bybelse spieel in die raaisel soort”. I would say: the fiction writer is saying: I am making a
mirror, and if you stand here, it will assist you with your beingness in the world; the non-fiction
writer is saying: I found this mirror, if one stands here there is this reflection in the mirror – what
does it mean? So you can choose different mirror-makers and different places for different
reflections, the reader of fiction can dismiss both mirror and reflection as being too manipulated,
far fetched, etc. The reader of non-fiction cannot dismiss the non-fiction writer pointing to a
particular reflection as being a fabrication. It is up to the non-fiction writer to convince the reader
of how much is real reflection and how much is also nothing but manipulation. The non-fiction
writer can choose a kind of mirror, small, oval, cracked etc, but she can never make a mirror.
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Perhaps there is an even better image: the fiction writer takes the photograph, what and
how she wants and then develops it. The non-fiction writer uses a found photograph.

DB: Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines is a text which is formally close to Ashforth’s and also
approaches the question of writing belief. Chatwin’s solution, after extensive negotiation with his
publisher, was to call his narrative a ‘novel of ideas’.

AK I think The Songlines is a wonderful example of a writer grasping an essence and then
manipulating many things to say that thing that he wants to say. Apparently a lot of it is not
correct, and yet he brought a completely new sensibility into the Western world that was not
there before. I would rather have The Songlines, than to be without it; on the other hand I would
rather have had a correcter version which would probably have been even more challenging if
less riveting.

DB: Many of the examples of creative non-fiction which I mentioned at the outset – as well as
Ashforth’s and Chatwin’s work – seem to find in the contradictions, fluidities and possibilities of
the genre ways of engaging with social and cultural difference, and renegotiating or remaking
identities. Your collaborative work with Nosisi Mpolweni and Kopano Ratele in the book There
was This Goat is a prime example.

AK: I couldn’t have imagined the testimony of Mrs Konile. But say I decided to make a novel
out of it and started to make up all the conversations and thoughts about it. It could still have
been an interesting book, but nothing more than a thumbsuck without three real people coming
from three different sensibilities allowing the book to explore nooks and cellars that we didn’t
even know existed. I found for example how often white people expressed their surprise at some
of the observations of my black colleagues, but on the radio station where we discussed the book,
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quite a few black readers phoned in and were astonished about my angle. Which brings me back
to the estranged worlds that we are coming from in this country.

But I’m still intrigued by this question you raise about ‘writing belief’. Can you say
something more about that?

DB: It’s a tough question, but I think one which we have to engage with seriously if we want to
make any sense of the society in which we live. One of the reasons why I find There was this
Goat so significant a text is because you, Kopano Ratele and Nosisi Mpolweni venture into the
risky territory of trying to think and write into and about beliefs, assumptions, imaginings,
realities, which may be very different from your own, but which you credit, respect, are changed
by, are humbled before, may also be provoked by.

But before I try to answer your question in more academic terms, let me offer you an
anecdote, which summed up for me the need to think seriously about writing belief. Sometime in
the mid-nineties, when I was working at the University of Natal, Durban, I attended a research
seminar in the History Department, in which the paper, like just about all of those in the series,
was quite clear that historical materialism was the explanatory paradigm, and that the religious or
spiritual – if considered at all – were explained as (misguided) responses to social, economic and
historical conditions. At the end of the seminar I had to hurry across campus to give an English 1
lecture in probably the biggest venue on campus, Shepstone 1, which holds in the region of 500
people. But I couldn’t get in, because there was a prayer meeting going on, and the venue was
filled to bursting. So in stark, experiential terms I was faced with the question: how to reconcile
the dismissiveness of the twelve (mostly white) academics towards faith, with the apparently
sincerely-held beliefs of the 500-plus (mostly black) Christians in the lecture theatre? I found it a
salutary and humbling experience; and I was disconcerted by an apparent arrogance in much of
the academy generally towards religious or spiritual faith (as well as the racial and class aspects
– mostly white, middle-class academics versus mostly black, mostly support staff). Coupled with
that was my own return to Christian faith a little later in my life, and hence my own struggles to
think through the complexities of writing belief in academic contexts.
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But to take up the question slightly more theoretically. Let me consider three different
possibilities, and see how far these take us. Firstly, and for me the most interesting scenario is
how to write belief which you do not share. Obviously anthropology, ethnography and religious
studies have approached this question quite intensively over many years, but I’m thinking of how
you write belief in a nuanced, empathetic way, while retaining some sort of critical perspective.
We are in the situation here, I think, of wanting to credit belief, even if we don’t necessarily
endorse it. And if we really want to understand a country in which both the census figures and
our own lived experience tell us that the overwhelming majority of people believe in some form
of supernatural power, then we’d better take the question seriously. For me, where this touches
on the conversation we are having about creative non-fiction is that the imaginative shifts,
narrative destabilizations, varying focalisations, metaphorical intensities and so on which the
genre can employ, alongside more conventional discursive or reportorial prose, allow an
approach to belief that can write from both inside and outside; can allow for the complexities and
contradictions which such an endeavour necessarily involves. I’ve mentioned Adam Ashforth’s
work as to me exemplary in this regard. Harry G. West is another fine example. In his book
Kupilikula: Governance and the Invisible Realm in Mozambique, he says:

Like many scholars of sorcery, I place myself in my narrative, producing what James
Clifford – drawing on Bakhtin – has referred to as “dialogical ethnography” (Clifford
1988: 41-44). However, whereas other scholars of sorcery have made the story of their
apprenticeship the central thread of their narrative – often in the form of accounts of
personal journey from incomprehension to understanding – I have rejected this narrative
trope. My reasons for doing so derive from the awkward tension I discovered to exist
between my experience of studying uwavi in the field and the understanding of uwavi I
developed over the years both in the field and ‘back home’. In the field the study of
uwavi was sometimes profoundly disorienting. Knowledge gained one day was lost the
next as I gathered contradictory evidence or became aware of disparate perspectives.
(2005: 9)
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A little further on, he says:

In the construction of an ethnographic account, one can scarcely avoid making some
sense of the topic at hand. Indeed, as one can scarcely live in a world without seeking to
understand it, I have, like the Muedans with whom I conversed, sought to see the
unseeable, to know the unknown, to make sense of the senseless. It is quite another thing,
however, to suggest that this sense revealed itself, as such, over the course of the journey
of my fieldwork. My struggle to make sense of uwavi was continually transformed in
various contexts outside the field – in the library, in the seminar room, and in front of the
computer screen. This book conveys my understanding of uwavi at the time of its writing.
Although it comprises accounts of events and conversations that occurred in the conduct
of field research, the chronology of these encounters has yielded in my narrative to
another order of presentation, for each of its constituent episodes has come to coexist
with the others in my memory, each one interrogating others across boundaries of space
and time, each one shedding light or imparting confusion upon the others. The narrative
not only follows Muedan history but also threads through the logics of uwavi as I
eventually came to conceive of them, all the while ferrying back and forth between
simplicity and complexity, clarity and ambiguity, certainty and doubt. (2005: 9-10)

His book is an academic monograph, but I think his methodology may resonate with your use of
creative non-fiction in many ways, including the sense of ‘cutting and pasting the upper layer, in
order to get the second layer told’, and also of writing into the narrative your own developing
understanding or confusion. The other author whom I admire in his attempts to write faith is
Terry Eagleton. I’ve talked elsewhere about how he uses various fictional techniques in his
critical writing on Christianity, in particular shifting focalisation and free-indirect discourse, to
produce accounts of Christian belief which are entirely credible to Christian believers, but which
do not move him out of his own materialist paradigm (Brown 2009: 17-20).

Secondly, one needs to think about writing belief from within that belief, not as an
evangelist, but as a scholar. I am supervising a doctoral student, Nkosinathi Sithole, who
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produced a very good Masters thesis on ‘near-death narratives’ in the Church of the Nazarites,
and is currently writing about the performance of hymns and sacred dance in the church, one of
the assumptions of which is that audience for such performances is partly those who have
departed this life for heaven. I had a hard time getting his doctoral proposal through the Higher
Degrees Committee, because the objection was raised that there was a methodological problem
in his being a member of the church and also writing about it. His counter-argument was that all
of the studies of the church – including my own work – had been done by people from outside
the church, which had led to certain inaccuracies in the analysis. Now many areas of academia
have developed methodologies for self-reflexiveness in writing one’s own position into one’s
analysis, especially if one is either an insider or outsider to the society under discussion, and
Nkosinathi Sithole did indeed engage with this. And he has used some very interesting
techniques, including at one point an extraordinary autobiographical account of is own adult
circumcision, to negotiate the complexities of his writing position. But there seems to be a larger
assumption that needs to be questioned. One cannot ‘prove’ that political, historical and
economic forces are the fundamental and sole determinants in human history: historical
materialists believe them to be, and adduce evidence for this, in the way that Christians, Muslims
or Buddhists adduce evidence for their beliefs and epistemologies. But I’ve yet to hear that it
would be methodologically problematic for a materialist or liberal humanist to write from or
about his/her own paradigms (and I’ve encountered some pretty evangelical materialists in my
time!).

Which brings us to the third, and maybe least helpful aspect of writing belief. What
writing isn’t about writing belief? Saying that may be as pointless as the philosophical debate
about whether anything exists outside of human perception of it, but perhaps the question is
especially salient in relation to creative non-fiction, and in particular your own writing: the
Country of My Skull trilogy seems so usefully and insistently to stage the complex processes of
sense making and identity (yes, faith and belief are written through all three books) that make us
so wonderfully, contradictorily and infuriatingly human. In particular, in South Africa it seems
the genre of creative non-fiction has often involved rethinking whiteness, something which is an
explicit focus of yours in the Country of My Skull trilogy.
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AK: Harry G. West’s description sounds like the problem we had in writing about/out of
something like ubuntu in There was this Goat. I have picked it up as the basis of some of the
TRC testimonies but could not manage to forge any kind of tool to ‘prove’ that it was there. In
Mrs Konile’s testimony it felt completely absent. By moving away from accredited sources to
the personal experiences and from academic writing to a conversation, my two colleagues
managed with astonishing ease to pinpoint and to describe it. Yet, in the absence of footnotes, we
had to work endlessly on the text to find convincing and unsentimental language to express this.
Our ways of working also determined the form of the book. I did feel squashed between a way in
which human epistemology was supposed to base and support itself on something, if not
obsoletely materialistic, then profoundly Western, and the successful attempts of my colleagues
to move beyond the enclosing theoretical lines. It reminded me of how the Afrikaans poet
Eugene Marais visited Bleek and Lloyd while they were doing research on the /Xam, and how he
was told by one of the /Xam that he could speak bird or lion. In other words, not imitating, but
conversing. I think my primal obsession is to insist that one can only imagine bird, be bird, if one
is living with and like, and one becomes bird as the Bushmen did or the Kaluli so beautifully
described by Steven Feld in his book Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song
in Kaluli Expression. As Hamlet says, “There are more things in heaven and earth,
Horatio/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (1.5.166-7), and the old paradigms are holding
one back.

But to return to ‘rethinking whiteness’. Ron Kraybill (1995) gives a few to-be-repeated
stages or steps as part of a reconciliation process. The first step is to turn away from one another.
The second is to redefine oneself and/or one’s group. I think that since 1990 a hell of a lot of
turning away and redefining had taken place. Are Afrikaners only apartheid monsters? Are
blacks only victims? How black is coloured? Are all whites the same? Etc. The third stage is to
undertake a small act of trust. This is action which makes oneself vulnerable because one’s
survival depends on the other. Millions of South Africans are involved daily in small acts of
trust. It is these moments where the edges meet that provide for me the most interesting material
for non-fiction. In terms of the imagination I sometimes get the impression that soapies are the
only places where such redefining and acts of trust are being imagined. They pretend we all live
‘normally’ together. A lot of scheming, passion, caring and destroying takes place, but race is
seldom the cause or the space of risk. The risk is to have all races living without racial friction.
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DB: What has always seemed to me your most ambitious and definitive statement about your use
of the genre of creative non-fiction is contained in Country of My Skull:

“Hey Antjie, but this is not quite what happened at the workshop” says Patrick.

“Yes, I know, it’s a new story that I constructed from all the other information I picked
up over the months about people’s reactions and psychologists’ advice. I’m not reporting
or keeping minutes. I’m telling. If I have to say every time that so-and-so said this, and
then at another time so-and-so said that, it gets boring. I cut and paste the upper layer, in
order to get the second layer told, which is actually the story I want to tell. I change some
people’s names when I think they might be annoyed or might not understand the
distortions.”

“But then you’re not busy with the truth!”

“I am busy with the truth … my truth. Of course, it’s quilted together from hundreds of
stories that we’ve experienced or heard about in the past two years. Seen from my
perspective, shaped by my state of mind at the time and now also by the audience I’m
telling the story to. In every story there is hearsay, there is a grouping together of things
that didn’t necessarily happen together, there are assumptions, there are exaggerations to
bring home the enormities of situations, there is downplaying to confirm innocence. And
all of this together makes up the country’s truth. So also the lies. And the stories that date
from earlier times.” (1998: 170-171)

Could you comment on this?

AK: To return to the photographer and photo image. I can let you sit, give you tea, enlarge the
photograph, give you a PowerPoint display, but what I cannot or rather should not change is the
photo – the way it is. Because that is what I am trying to tell, the second layer, the unchangeable
that I have chosen to understand and talk about.
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DB: I want to push you a little on this. I understand the ethical aspect, and also the personal
nature of the narration (it is the “country of my skull”, and you have already talked about the
importance of the ‘I’ in the narration). Can you say something more about getting the “second
layer told, which is actually the story I want to tell”, which you describe as “unchangeable”. Are
we talking here about the affective story, the penetrating imaginative or metaphorical insight, the
emotional ‘truth’ – the kind of thing which readers traditionally go to novels for, rather than to
journalism or social history?

AK: It is like when you write a poem. There are the words, sounds and images, and one is
shifting, moving, hauling new ones in, in order to make them conform to that other thing which
the poem is about. It is hard to describe. It is both layer and context.

One makes decisions about what to incorporate and how, based on something, some
notion of how the poem or book should sound. So I don’t sit and think, you know I have this
European bird in Begging to be Black, let me find an African bird. I was actually on one level not
aware of the different kinds of birds in Begging to be Black, and yet something in me was busy
with the composition or connecting patterns and was pulling those birds in. Maybe it is a
question of being responsive or empathetic to the things which connect within the context that I
am creating.

So the reason why one chooses to describe A and not B, mentions C and not D, is
because one is busy picking out the pattern that one has discovered. But what does this do with
the integrity of what is really happening? By leaving out D am I not distorting what is happening
in order to make reality fit the particular pattern that I want to expose? What is the validity of my
pattern then?

This brings me to ‘voice’. One often says how this or that young writer is still trying to
‘find her voice’. What does that mean? And what is at stake when one’s found voice becomes
public? When only writing Afrikaans poetry (during the apartheid years) I was often asked: who
do you write for? I found that easy to answer: for nobody. I have/hear/sense something inside me
that wants to be said and my only loyalty/energy lies towards making this happen as clearly as
possible. But looking back I can see that I was ignoring the voice I was forming during those
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years. The voice that turned what was picked up by the creative self into words/sounds. Here I
am today because of this particular voice. How does it get and keep its integrity? And maybe
that is what is bothering me most about some of today’s fiction: I find so many gaps, so much
papered over non-knowledge, so few attempts to complexify the very question of living here and
now, that the writers whose voices I trust I can count on my one hand.

Let me give an example of the kind of choices relating to integrity. In Change of Tongue
I describe the disastrous interview I had with Mandela at Qunu. Not long after that encounter I
was invited with my whole family to have dinner with Mandela at his Cape Town house. So I,
my husband and children then had dinner with a charming Mandela who told my children in
detail what a brave and remarkable person I was. It was one of those immensely special moments
of one’s life. So when I write the book, the dinner could be the rectification of the awful way
Mandela treated me at the interview. But to write about the dinner was not only very difficult,
but for me it affected the integrity of my ‘voice’. I thought long and hard about what to do. To
cut the piece would affect Mandela’s stature: because he wanted to ‘make up’ for the treatment.
Now why won’t I give him that? Do I sacrifice him so that I can keep my integrity? One can say,
yes that is what I did. But I think I did something much more interesting than the usual Mandela
story: I substituted the dinner with a frank discussion I had with somebody about him in which
the exploration of him as a leader went much deeper than the other story allowed. (I wrote about
the dinner in another forum).

DB: At a recent conference, a prominent South African literary and cultural studies scholar
commented that she had over the past few years found South African fiction unsatisfying, and
that she was more engaged with writing in other genres, whether they be journalism, creative
non-fiction or social history. I was reminded of this by the dialogue which occurs near the end of
Begging to Be Black:

“No, I can’t, I don’t want to write novels.”

“Why not? With novels you can explore the inner psyche of characters; you can
16

imagine, for example, being black. So what is it about non-fiction that you don’t want to
give up?”

“The strangeness. Whatever novelistic elements I may use in my non-fiction


work, the strangeness is not invented. The strangeness is real, and the fact that I cannot
ever really enter the psyche of somebody else, somebody black. The terror and loneliness
of that inability is what I don’t want to give up on.”

“But how will you live together in your country (or mine) if you don’t begin to
imagine one another?”

“I want to suggest that at this stage imagination for me is overrated.” (267-8)

There’s a lot going on in that passage, and – despite the sense of the failures of imagination – the
imagination is very much present. Your whole narrative is shot through with imaginative
projections and associations, but they constantly negotiate with or mediate ‘the real’.

AK: But it is a particular real. I am not writing research as in an academic article, presenting the
proven/argued. I am exploring the seams, the edges. I had some wonderful discussions with
Johan Degenaar, just before he retired, and remember he once stopped and said: no wait, let me
rephrase, I see you work entirely in images. So if I describe Kroonstad in Change of Tongue, I
am not busy with Kroonstad, I am trying to say something else using Kroonstad. Although
Kroonstad immediately becomes a metaphor, I need you to understand that Kroonstad is a real
place, so that you can explore with me this ‘realness’ I am trying to communicate through
Kroonstad. And what is this realness? They are falling apart and people are suffering and scared
and surviving in many very complex ways. Kroonstad becomes contextualized patterns. In itself
it displays all the notions of a once-proud white town in the flux of changes – I make my choices
of what to describe based on patterns that shows up what Gregory Bateson (1979) called first
order connections; I describe it in such a way (choosing to mention A but not B) to expose the
pattern of the town in comparison with that of the country to make second order connections and
so forth. Why don’t I imagine a town and country? I think (because I have never even attempted
to write fiction) to imagine a town is to make it whole, to imagine it whole-ly and from this
17

wholeness decide what to describe/tell. What I am saying through non-fiction is that I have
problems, I cannot see this town in its entirety, but look, here are some patterns and they are
saying: it is complex, wholeness is (im)possible, but here are patterns.

DB: I’m reminded of Tom Wolfe’s (no doubt hyperbolic) comment about the New Journalism in
this regard. He points to the tension between the new journalists’ view that novelists in America
in the 1960s were abandoning the complexities of their society for increasingly rarified
imaginative flights, and yet their own anxiety that – despite this – their work as journalists was
nevertheless inferior, because it was ‘journalism’ and not ‘literature’, little imagining the impact
their writing would have:

And yet in the early 1960s a curious new notion, just hot enough to inflame the ego, had
begun to intrude into the tiny confines of the feature statusphere. It was in the nature of a
discovery. This discovery, modest at first, humble, in fact, deferential, you might say,
was that it just might be possible to write journalism that would … read like a novel. Like
a novel, if you get the picture. This was the sincerest form of homage to The Novel and to
those greats, the novelists, of course. Not even journalists who pioneered in this direction
doubted for a moment that the novelist was the reigning literary artist, now and forever.
All they were asking for was the privilege of dressing up like him … until the day when
they themselves would work up their nerve and go into the shack and try it for real …
They were dreamers, all right, but one thing they never dreamed of. They never dreamed
of the approaching irony. They never guessed for a minute that the work they would do
over the next ten years, as journalists, would wipe out the novel as literature’s main
event. (1996: 21-2)

AK: I find again that I differ from Wolfe. I respect a good novelist like Coetzee more than any
non-fiction I have read about the country. Disgrace has ripped open more debates and
conversations about South Africa and colour than any newspaper article or non-fiction book ever
18

did. So a good novel is immensely powerful. Maybe something is to be said about the quality of
novels he is talking about. So personally I am not interested in how we imagine one another,
because we don’t know one another well enough, but in how we are, really, how have we
survived, how have we loved and betrayed? I have read some fiction about known characters or
towns and could sometimes just cry about how some writers simply do not manage to capture the
contradicting layers of what was available.

DB: There are key moments in the Country of My Skull trilogy where you engage self-
reflexively, and flag for the reader, fiction-making as part of your narrative strategy. It’s
something that is somewhat unusual in the genre of creative non-fiction, because – while it opens
imaginative space, and points to a different notion of ‘truth-telling – it simultaneously denies
what we discussed earlier, what Wolfe identifies as the ‘in-built advantage’ of such writing: that
the reader knows “all of this actually happened”.

AK: If you read carefully you will see that these flags always refer to technique or strategy and
never to the inherent content. Most of these fictionalisations are to protect people while at the
same time signaling that telling a story about the truth is a complicated business.

DB: What limits do you set yourself in this regard? What duty do you have to the integrity of
voice and identity, to the ‘authorship’ of ideas? For example, you mentioned to me in
conversation that the idea of “knowing someone’s heartbeat” was something that had been
spoken to you outside of the narrative context of Lesotho, in which it finally appears in Begging
to Be Black.

AK: This is virtually impossible, but let me try. A woman invited me for lunch to discuss
possible ways of working together with her NGO. Partly explaining why she had to cancel the
previous meeting, she briefly told me that she was away because her grandmother died. And then
19

she told me the story about the heartbeat in a kind of effort to explain why she feels a bit
emotional. Thereafter we had about an hour-and-a-half conversation about the possibilities of
working together. Now of all the many things said and told that afternoon to each other, why
would this piece stick in my mind? I remember nothing else of what was said that afternoon, and
none of our plans materialized anyway. So why would these sentences be preserved in my
mind’s eye so clearly that I can still see her hand resting for a moment on her chest where her
heart is as she was saying it? It is also because of these sentences that I can remember the café in
Observatory where we sat, she with her back to the wall. Her other hand was on the table around
her wineglass.

Is this already the moment that the arbitrariness of choice and representation of reality
start? Or is it that the memory has retained everything and will pull something out the moment
that a connective pattern is found? I have noticed through the years as a poet that I also have
what I have come to call a creative IQ – something that subconsciously and unconsciously
selects and holds things like images, stories, words, feelings, somewhere. While I would forget
major things, or be unable to remember a single thing of an important event, I would be able to
remember something completely insignificant for years and years. These things are kept until I
am working on something – then suddenly like a fish hook, it is as if the thing I am working on is
dredging up this cluster of gathered at random and now suddenly related things.

Now I am on this page. I am in Lesotho after a conversation with Bonnini which had
opened up a lot of thinking around being interconnected in my mind. The story of the heartbeat
comes up. It’s essence of interconnectedness fits what I am busy saying, but it has nothing to do
with Lesotho or Bonnini. The woman who told me cannot form any part of the story (she does
not fit into the larger pattern of Lesotho, Kroonstad and Berlin), nor the unimportant lunch. To
make it real non-fiction I need to phone her and say: I want to use this, these are the words as I
remember them, is it okay for you if I use them like this. Several things can happen: she can say
no, you may not use them, as I am also writing a book about my life (which I suspect is the
case); or she can say: yes, and everything is solved; or she can say: no this is not quite what I
said and give me a broader or weaker description. But because I have asked her, I now have to
use it without any change AND ascribe it to her real name AND make her a character in the book
to validate the inclusion. Now if that is to happen, then she will obviously want to read the book
20

first and okay what is being said by her. So for me the cost to reality becomes too high for these
few sentences which in the end lose nothing of their validity without her being attached to them
and in contrast may lose the coherent power they currently have through meddling.

And here comes the second and bigger arbitrariness: how do I use this? For me the
essence, the vertebrae that is to form the spinal pattern, in other words what may NOT be
changed, is the notion that such an intimacy can develop between the grandmother and her
granddaughter that a kind of calibration of heartbeats, a through-bodily-awareness of one
another, was possible. And it was important that it was a story told by a black woman. The rest
can be negotiated by the fictional elements I am using to tell the story – the cut and paste so that
the connecting second layer or pattern of what I want to tell can stay intact. So initially I wanted
the horse rider person, Clement, to tell it as we go on our way to the waterfall. But does it not
interfere with the integrity of the piece? Do I know enough about interconnectedness to know
that a black man could have had the same experience? I believe that I don’t know enough to
make that choice. So it must stay a woman. There are horse women in Lesotho but I had had no
contact with them. Then I thought, no let me say that I was remembering this story as I was
sitting on the horse. So I WAS on a horse, I HEARD the story of the heartbeat, but the two
didn’t happen simultaneously as on the page. What was important to me was not the time breach,
but that the essence of why that story was gathered, preserved and re-presented by me kept its
integrity. But I could have mis-heard her, or my memory could have preserved only part of what
it wanted to hear – that is true. But that is why the ‘I’ is brought in, to warn the reader, things are
as this ‘I’ remembers and tell them. More importantly, by combining the strong visuality of the
horse riding incident with the philosophy of being interconnected I used exactly the strategies
that Scarry is talking about – making moments real by using “radiant ignition”, “rarity”, “dyadic
addition or subtraction” and “stretching, folding and tilting”.

Let me give you a more problematic example. I wrote a poem when I was 16 years-old
and moved to a new and smarter class in high school where the kids were who took Latin and
whose fathers did professional jobs in town. I felt utterly insecure, ugly and poor, but John, who
in the end married me, was extremely kind towards me. So I wrote a sentimental poem about this
unworthy girl, with the pimples and the nylon jersey thanking the boy for being kind towards
her. Many years afterwards I read that the South African writer, Mark Behr, said that when he
21

read the poem at school he was floored: that was how he said he wanted to write; he wanted to
have the guts to tell about pimples and a cheap jersey. Now you have to know, I hardly had any
pimples at school and because my father was a wool farmer, it would have been over his dead
body that any of us would wear nylon. Among all the images in the poem Behr picked those two
‘lies’ as the strongest and gutsiest parts. My creative instinct told me that to describe me as I
WAS would not make the reaching out of the boy such a splendid thing, but if I had pimples and
synthetic clothes, it would.

But let me try to engage with narrative integrity from a theoretical point of view.
According to Mark Freeman and Jens Brockmeier, narrative integrity comes about through an
open and de-centered, multiple self whose many possible voices nevertheless remain highly
individuated and self-defined, whose narrated life embodies the adamant refusal of binding and
substantialised character ideals. They describe narrative integrity not only as “harmony of
proportion or beauty of form as principles of narrative composition”, but also as “the coherence
and depth of one’s ethical commitments. Narrative integrity encompasses both aesthetics and
ethics” (in Brockmeier and Carbaugh 2001: 76).

This truly does not help me much, although I always have as many ‘I’ voices present in
my work as possible with enough space in which the ‘I’s can differ and confess to contradictions.
But I found something else: according to H. Porter Abbott in The Cambridge Introduction to
Narrative, one uses an implied author “to assume wholeness in the sense that one assumes that a
single creative sensibility lies behind the narrative. That sensibility has selected and shaped its
events, the order in which they are narrated, the entities involved, the language, the sequence of
shots. When reading this way, we read intentionally” says Abbott “– it is in keeping with a
sensibility that intended these effects. Some would say that this is the only valid way of reading a
narrative. This is the way we usually behave when we interpret: that is we assume that a
narrative like a sentence comes from someone bent on communicating” (2002: 95).

I would say that I stick my neck out: I say: I have a pattern that I am “bent on
communicating”, I present myself as a single creative sensibility that has selected and shaped the
narrative presented to you. You will read it not as coming from an omnipotent oracle, but as a
very personal sensibility of a particular reality presented by me. But unlike the fiction writer, you
can hold me to the truth, you can judge me right through the story on the ways I respect the
22

integrity of that truth. On the other hand, maybe it is at the same time safer. People have rejected
Coetzee because they have conflated the author with Prof. Lurie, but the non-fiction writer can
say, this is not me, don’t blame me, this is a real character.

DB: The notion of ‘creative non-fiction’ has a long history. As Marc Weingarten argues, its roots
stretch far beyond the 1960s New Journalism of Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion or Hunter S.
Thompson, or the non-fiction novel of Truman Capote, conservatively to at least Jonathan
Swift’s eighteenth-century political satire, Charles Dickens’s “Street Sketches” for the Morning
Chronicle (1836) under the pseudonym Boz, the writing of Joseph Pulitzer in the nineteenth
century, and Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (1902) (2005: 10-14). Are there any authors
who have engaged you, or seemed to open up the possibilities of the form?

AK: In a strange way it is precisely the fiction writers that open possibilities of non-fiction. The
origin of the form of Begging to be Black is on the one hand because of the dramatist, novelist
and good friend Tom Lanoye who said to me: rewrite the murder story as fiction. Go into the
heads of the killers – it would be fascinating to read. At the same time there is Foe of Coetzee
and Petrus in Disgrace. Both these novels admit current impossibilities to imagine oneself into
black, and for me through the testimony of Mrs Konile to imagine myself black AND poor. I
have never heard that language, and simply can’t imagine it. So in a way it is the questioning in
fiction (Coetzee), the flaws in fiction, and the way black writers like Ndebele are presenting
narratives that have inspired me.

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1
I am grateful to Antjie Krog and Claire Scott for discussing these ideas with me.