Writing across time and space: an evening with Fred and Sihle Khumalo

By Janet Remmington, 2018 JIAS Resident

On Tuesday 20 November, the 2018 JIAS Residents arranged a round table discussion with the prominent South African writers Fred Khumalo and Sihle Khumalo. We opened with readings from their latest books, both published by Penguin South Africa.

The two made a dynamic pair, riffing off of each other’s work, and engaging with the group. Fred had also acted as editor of Sihle’s book.

Fred Khumalo’s Dancing the Death Drill (2017) travels back to the sinking of the 1917 troop ship the SS Mendi in which 600 black South Africans lost their lives, and to 1958 Paris to follow the story of a fictional survivor.

Sihle Khumalo’s Rainbow Nation My Zulu Arse (2018) carries the reader in provocative, humorous, and insightful fashion from Gauteng to Limpopo and then through South Africa’s seven other provinces in an attempt to get to grips with his home country 24 years after the political transition.

The conversation then turned to following tracks, whether historical or geographic, leading to forgotten people and places, and to those excluded from dominant discourses. In other words, to tell the unheard stories, and to move us beyond our everyday positions.

Cemeteries became an unexpected focus, resonating across both books: the War fallen, those not duly remembered, including many women, and the varying states of graveyards and memorials in South Africa.

Fred and Sihle talked about working up their story-telling strategies by engaging with the historical novel and travelogue genres respectively. We all reflected on the ways in which the past persists in the present – it’s all around us – but also on how so many gaps and unknowns remain to be recuperated, reimagined, and brought to life today. For an unforgettable evening, a warm thank-you to JIAS and to the unstoppable Khumalos.

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