Writing a memoir about locating truth and experience

It is precisely the lives that we deem unworthy of reproduction in books and newspaper articles that hold the most insight into our national condition, the writer says.
It is precisely the lives that we deem unworthy of reproduction in books and newspaper articles that hold the most insight into our national condition, the writer says.
Image: Halden Krog © The Times

Recalling a South African life directly impacted on by the brutality of colonialism and apartheid that bleeds into the present is emotional and a psychological terror. We serve ourselves well to forget, although we don't serve history well when we do.

When writing a memoir, the personal and political are inseparable in ways that extend beyond just a slogan we've learnt to assert when being
invalidated.

South African stories, if located properly, are by their very nature interesting, even if the interest they pique is macabre. In a place like this, where so much injustice has prevailed, time and time again, truth is hard to locate. Knowing where to look for it is even harder.

A view by a Twitter user recently lamented the quality of literature being published in South Africa, citing poor processing and uninteresting lives captured in memoir. What is the measure of an interesting life?

I don't believe that a South African life can be wholly uninteresting under these conditions of inequality. It can be brutal, painful, educational and even unimaginable, but never uninteresting. South Africans, now expected to coexist seamlessly, are subject to a very specific constellation of social circumstances.

It is a farcical betrayal of history dressed up as development and governed by a power that was once shared by those it now rules over. Surely the lives caught up in this bizarre tug of war tell us more than white papers and budget speeches ever will.

In writing my own memoir, I am forced to reckon with the forces that have shaped me. Mine is not only to tell a story but also to locate it within the politics of an enduring past.

A life shaped by the rapids of privilege and oppression constantly crashing into each other at the intersections.

When viewed in its entirety, no South African life is simple, even those that are grotesquely privileged. In a context of gross inequality, writing about privilege in ways that unpack its history and impact on all our lives is a necessary undertaking - especially for those who live in it.

The problem may be that we are not writing honestly enough about our lives and in so doing, we dilute the reality the memoir strives to translate.

In the current state of denial we find ourselves in as a nation, an honest, politically aware and purposeful memoir has much to offer.

To have the vast array of ordinary and exceptional South African lives held up to us as a mirror serves an important purpose in excavating the crime scene we navigate on a daily basis.

Locating experience can be a difficult thing in this process of remembering and writers must invest their skill in perfecting this. Our experiences are never as individual as we would like them to be, not matter how personal and protected we feel they should be.

On the other hand, our experiences are never as universal as we thing they are either. Striking a balance between the individual and the universal requires a level of synergy with our society that can only be acquired through intentional, conscious observation and social education.

We must become more intentional about how we consume our surroundings when we interpret the experiences we translate through memoirs.

South African lives are many things, none of which are boring. We have to find ways to write and talk about our lives that do not disavow our history, nor betray our present. There is no one South Africa. This country is a holding room for vastly different people who relate mostly through their experience of being in the same room, hoping for a change.

It is precisely the lives that we deem unworthy of reproduction in books and newspaper articles that hold the most insight into our national condition. Those are the lives that can teach us the most about who we are and where we should be going - something we should all be interested in.

*Jamil F. Khan is a PhD candidate in critical diversity studies.

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments? Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

X