Tuis /
Briewe /
Kennisgewings /
Skakels /
Boeke /
Opiniestukke /
Onderhoude /
Rubrieke /
Fiksie /
Poësie /
Taaldebat /
Language debate
Film /
Teater /
Musiek /
Resensies /
Nuus /
Slypskole /
Spesiale projekte /
Special projects
Opvoedkunde /
Kos en Wyn /
Food and Wine
Artikels /
Visueel /
Expatliteratuur /
Expat literature
Reis /
Geestelike literatuur /
Religious literature
Nederlands /
Gayliteratuur /
Gay literature
Hygliteratuur /
Erotic literature
Bieg /
In Memoriam
Wie is ons? /
More on LitNet
LitNet is ’n onafhanklike joernaal op die Internet, en word as gesamentlike onderneming deur Ligitprops 3042 BK en Media24 bedryf.

The ABSA/LitNet
Chain Interview

Die Ketting

Jonny Steinberg Jonny Steinberg went to school and university in Johannesburg. In the mid-1990s, he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship and studied at Oxford University, where he graduated with a doctorate in political theory. He returned to South Africa in 1998 and worked for Business Day, writing on the constitutional court and the police. He left Business Day to write Midlands (2002), his first book, an account of the murder of a white farmer by his black land tenants in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands. Midlands won the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award for non-fiction, and the Booksellers' Choice Award. His second book, The Number (2004), a biography of a Cape Town prison gangster, also won the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award. Jonny is currently working on a book set in Lusikisiki in the former Transkei.
Henk Rossouw Henk Rossouw is the 2005 Ruth First Fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand and the 2005/6 Sauvé Scholar at McGill University, Montreal. He was the Africa correspondent for a weekly Washington DC newspaper, The Chronicle of Higher Education, for four years and a stringer for Newsweek International. He graduated from Wits University's School of Journalism.

Jonny Steinberg in conversation with Henk Rossouw

    Earlier this year, Henk wrote a 10 000 word piece of reportage called "“The Broken Tin”: Treating AIDS without treatment" which won this year's Ruth First Prize. Many readers will not yet have read it. So before asking Henk the first question, let me begin with a brief description and a few thoughts.

    "The Broken Tin" is set in a godforsaken village in the North-West province called Mathibestad. Two characters dominate the narrative. Dr David Cameron runs the local clinic. The HIV/AIDS epidemic brings ill people to his door every day, but he has no ARVs with which to treat them, and he watches his patients die one after the other. Johannah Baloyi is a health worker. She cares for those Dr Cameron cannot treat and she, too, is one of those Dr Cameron might one day be unable to treat: she is HIV-positive.

    "The Broken Tin" is an extraordinary and unusual piece of writing, unlike any South African reportage I have read before. Henk told me in an email that he "kept the story tight", but you have no idea quite how tight until you read it. There is almost no exposition, almost no background. We are told next to nothing of the history or politics of the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. There is no authorial commentary. The narrative is animated entirely by the points of view of the two characters as they tend to the sick and the dying; as they move through the dry, wide North-West landscape; as slivers of their biographical histories are sparingly given to us through the course of the narrative.

    With little drama "The Broken Tin" gives the reader over to the visceral spectacle of bodies dying. Without caveat or rationalisation it displays the haunting frailness of human solidarity in the face of the epidemic. But it does these things not so much through its content as through the mood and texture it conjures up - through its crafted, stylised writing. The two characters are strangely ethereal. Sometimes one feels that the real protagonists are the landscape, the illness, the fraying social bonds - and that the characters are merely receptacles into which these abstract entities are gathered. At other times the landscape, the illness, the fraying social bonds, appear ethereal - internal moments in the characters' emotional worlds.

    In any event, this 10 000 word piece, devoid of polemic, devoted entirely to the art of telling a story, is one of the most powerful indictments of government health policy and practice I have read.

  1. Henk, there is little precedent for this sort of writing in South Africa. What sort of non-fiction traditions influenced your writing of this piece?

    I agree, there's little precedent for this kind of writing in South Africa. But it doesn't mean there's no precedent. Henry Nxumalo's writing in the '50s on farm conditions comes to mind. I reckon he was our first immersion journalist - not writing from a distance but actually participating in the lives of his subjects. Many of the Drum journalists pushed the limits of non-fiction. Sure, they borrowed from American feature writing, the irreverent, razzmatazz voice that stretches from Mark Twain to Damon Runyon. But the Drum guys were doing their thing way before Tom Wolfe declared the New Journalism in the 1960s. That said, identifying with the Drum tradition is more about admiration than actual influence. (I would say Sunday Times feature writers like Bongani Madondo and Valentine Cascarino are working more in this tradition and working well.) I love the prose rhythms of jazz, especially in Matshikiza's work. Similarly, the earliest literary writer I got into, at about 14 years old, was Jack Kerouac, whose fiction about jazz and restlessness was largely factual. Truthfully, though, there's little trace of this voice in my work. I'm a careful writer, not spontaneous. I pare down, hold back, rely on the subtext. Kerouac and Matshikiza wanted to say everything that it was possible to say, in one, long night. My work draws more on the tradition of John Hersey's Hiroshima. It's a more plodding, dull tradition, but has to be so - saying everything would be too much to bear.

    Mentioning Hersey raises an obvious non-fiction tradition that I work in: war reporting. Yes, I'm writing about Aids, but there's the same kind of dislocation. A characteristic of war writing is its attempt to verbalise the terror when ordinary meaning is lost. Things don't make sense, causal relationships don't add up, there's no neat ending. I'm thinking here, in particular, of the queen of dislocation, Joan Didion, and her dispatches from San Salvador. Even in her writing on sunny California, Didion used fragmentation and abrupt shifts to jar the reader. It's the literary equivalent of running your nails down a blackboard. I don't go that far, but Didion is almost a non-fiction tradition all of her own, and I read and reread her work. I've also read lots of war reporting from Granta, Harper's, The New Yorker. The most influential magazine piece on war was by Roger Rosenblatt, in Vanity Fair. It was set in southern Sudan. At the end of the piece, Rosenblatt is sitting around a fire in a refugee camp, listening to orphans tell stories. "Then one of the boys invites me to tell a story," he writes, "but I declined. It is not that I am unable to think of one, but the story that comes to mind is not right for the occasion, is too fragmentary and inconclusive, and, at any rate, is one they have all heard one way or another before. It is about a young woman of 23 named Ayen, who lives under a tamarind tree in Nimule, and dreams of nothing." This is true war reporting: not the gore - that's easy to record; it's omnipresent - but the tiny human gestures and the pointlessness.

    I've read some of the must-have background books on Aids, but so much of what I saw in Mathibestad was inexplicable. I could spend a lifetime reading and still not have an easy answer for the reader. It's one reason, unless I felt I had an insight I could offer from the authority of felt experience, that I stuck to describing what actually happened rather than exposition. Two writers guided this decision. The first was Jonathan Kaplan's The Dressing Station, which was the war memoirs of an itinerant South African doctor. He was honest enough to admit that he needed traumatic conditions to feel like his work had purpose. The second was David Finkel, who writes for The Washington Post. His pieces from Bosnia used rhythm and understatement to build up emotion in the reader's ear, so that by the end, when he began another sentence with "And …", I was already in tears.

    But I want to be clear: I didn't choose to write about dying because I get off on it. I have an agenda. Zackie Achmat, who responded to my public reading, compared my work with that of Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost and Bury the Chains, a politically committed author who uses narrative techniques to make his points about history. It's a flattering comparison, but I don't have the maturity of distance yet that Hochschild has. I definitely work in the long shadow of Orwell. I am deeply passionate about Gordimer: "I don't know the ideology/ But it's about suffering/ How to end suffering." The end of suffering, an impossible ideal, but it fuels my work. Since 1999, long before I was conscious of working in any tradition, when I wrote my first feature about a refugee from Burundi fleeing genocide, I have believed strongly that good writing can be political. Allowing readers to feel for the subject co-opts them. A story I once wrote on a female child soldier led to her making an address to senators on Capitol Hill in Washington. Most fiction can't do that. At no point, though, did my piece on the child soldier make large statements about policy. It's in the subtext. Likewise, in the Aids story I don't criticise health policy directly, but it's a large part of what I needed to say.

    I want to state what non-fiction traditions I don't fall into: Chatwin and the like, for example. I admire his descriptive prose very much, but I once spent an enormous amount of money on travelling to the island of St Helena - remote, odd, perfect Chatwinesque - only to find I had nothing to say. It may be illuminating, though, to say which books I decided to read shortly before writing the Ruth First piece. Albert Camus's The Plague, a prescient, haunting book. He's a slightly wooden writer, and having been translated from French didn't help, but Camus understood perfectly the symbolism of the doctor. The questions his central character, a French-Algerian doctor working in the midst of bubonic plague, asked himself are extremely relevant in the era of Aids: What's the point of suffering? If he can't heal, his work as a doctor has no meaning, so how does he carry on regardless?

    John Berger wrote a book-length essay, "A Fortunate Man", about a rural doctor. He preceded the essay with a series of stripped-down scenes from the doctor's relations with his patients. There's a direct link between Berger and how tightly I tried to write. I acknowledge that. In fact, the doctor I wrote about in the Ruth First piece had this book on his shelf. He was the one who pointed out that this doctor, depicted in the book as a deeply fulfilled man, later committed suicide. Finally, Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, about an American doctor working in Haiti, was my baseboard. It pointed out what was possible in writing about rural medicine and what had already been done. An extraordinary book. Much of what I had to say was taking up the questions that Kidder didn't dwell on or left out of his book. Kidder's character thought of himself as a saint, whereas my character - and I didn't plan this - saw his work in very humble terms.

    I admire biographers like Richard Holmes. Your observation that the biography of the characters in my story may be too thin is true. It's a comment I've received before, a sign that something's awry. Definitely something to look at in writing the next draft. I feel that I could still flesh out the characters more without losing the pared-down tone that I worked hard on. I dislike Hemingway - I prefer his journalism - but he once said something I aspire to: "If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them."

  2. You say, "I could spend a lifetime reading [about AIDS] and still not have an easy answer for the reader. It's one reason, unless I felt I had an insight I could offer from the authority of felt experience, that I stuck to describing what actually happened rather than exposition."

    I'm not sure I buy that. I think that the way you "describe what actually happened" is highly rhetorical, aggressively purposeful, and is animated a great deal by the thinking you have been doing about AIDS.

    I'll try to elucidate. You, Henk Rossouw, go to Mathibestad. You spend a lot of time with people, but they do not spend all their time with you. They go to sleep without you and dream dreams you will not see. They have thoughts they will never share with you.

    You write a narrative in which there is no Henk Rossouw. Instead, there are characters presented to us through the codes of fiction. We are told of their thoughts and their private observations. The world is rendered to us by a narrator who drifts in and out of their consciousnesses. Your conceit (and you must have this conceit if the writing is to be successful) is that you are presenting a whole world, one with its own distinctive structure of feeling.

    Yet of course you are not presenting a whole world. Your characters do not sit down to meals. They do not have light-hearted encounters with the general trader when they go to buy toilet paper or soap. Life cannot be quite as bleak as it appears to be in your narrative, for if it was it would be unliveable, not quite a human life. You are presenting the bits of world seen by Henk Rossouw, a writer writing a piece on treating AIDS without treatment. That is what animates both your choice of material and the manner in which you style it.

    I want to stress that this is not a criticism. The tools you have used to tell the story are powerful tools indeed, and you have used them wonderfully. What I am taking issue with is the idea that you "described what actually happened" as a kind of a withdrawal from commentary. On the contrary, I think you deployed tools of description to construct a very powerful piece of political rhetoric.

    Jonny, I think you've identified here a significant shift in my writing. I was a foreign correspondent for a long time. Many of the things I say in "The Broken Tin" I wasn't allowed to say before. There is no way this voice would fit into the institutional voice of either The Chronicle of Higher Education or Newsweek. Both are fine publications, but there was always a boundary line that could not be crossed. With one editor, my writing came far closer to that line than had every been risked before. Still, it wasn't my voice. In many ways, I'll have to pay the price for writing a "piece of political rhetoric" in the guise of a narrative, because this piece will be exceedingly difficult to publish. That said, the sense of purpose, of belonging, that came with this piece of writing I can't give up. "These are my people", as Neruda once said, the people of Mathibestad. And so I am almost relieved that you don't buy my statement that "I stuck to describing what actually happened." That's probably not the reaction you expected. But in a way I've been deluding myself, clinging to an objectivity that doesn't exist in my work. In the conventions of journalism, you're not allowed to throw in your lot with your subjects. You're supposed to keep your distance, maintain your outsider status. But in Mathibestad I stopped being an outsider a long time ago. For the writer, that's the point of writing: to reveal our deepest urges. Yes, the scenes I selected were, in fact, "highly rhetorical, aggressively purposeful, and … animated a great deal by the thinking [I] have been doing about Aids". What's blatantly obvious to you, as a careful reader, was only half-formed, half-thought about in my mind. I couldn't have hoped for more, that the writing may offer something to the reader, yes, but also bring a clarity to my own thinking. I hadn't truly accepted that I had become a partisan writer, someone who would present a "whole world", despite the conceit, in order to persuade the reader to identify with my subjects. It's a relief to finally admit that I don't want readers to identify with my subjects just for the emotional payoff, but because it might, for a few minutes, collapse the hierarchy. Pierce through the apathy and distractedness of our time. In our world, deaths in a place like Mathibestad don't matter as much. I want their deaths to matter.

    Still, admitting my political intent, the rhetorical aspect of my narrative doesn't give me free rein. Narrative is more roundabout, but readers have more patience with scenes than with direct rhetoric. "You must think this and this is why …" Who likes being told what to think? I'm not raising narrative above commentary. In some ways, I've always felt inadequate compared with writers with a strong sense of analysis - political columnists, for example. Though I've always wanted to avoid the bluster of writers like Ronald Suresh Robert. Yes, I have an agenda, but my agenda is guided by my people, my subjects, not the other way around. This takes much longer and is often impractical. Still, a narrative approach to political rhetoric - building up scenes in the mind of the reader - has its own advantages. The doctor I wrote about in "The Broken Tin" wrote something to me after hearing an excerpt from the piece for the first time: "I usually found political activists a bit overpowering," he said. "I'm never sure of their real motives. I much prefer your style, quiet, subtle and yet far more forceful." As a writer, I've worked for years towards a response like that one. That it finally comes from my subject is deeply satisfying.

    Something I thought about constantly as I reported and wrote this piece was whether the bleakness was too manufactured. Yes, "characters do not sit down to meals. They do not have light-hearted encounters with the general trader when they go to buy toilet paper or soap." I did see these things. They actually happened. Though I hope the piece is not entirely without humour? During the public reading something that pleased me very much was to hear the audience laugh. Because it broke the relentlessness of my intent. But, overall, the mood I wanted to leave the reader with was the bleakness which my characters endure. And the lighter bits are pretty much lost amidst all the deaths stacked on top of each other. One consideration was space. 10 000 words may seem long but - as a book writer I'm sure you know this very well - it's actually very limited. Few magazines that actually publish long journalism would go much beyond 10 000 words. Excruciating decisions had to be made about what to leave in and what to leave out. I needed to have a story-line to keep the reader engaged. The story-line had to be long enough for the reader to accept the conceit, "the whole world". That didn't leave much space for anything but the bare minimum. The "rib" approach to journalism. Strong bones, pretty tasty, but very little meat. And so other scenes - like a free jazz concert at dusk that I attended with Johannah, an extraordinarily light and happy moment - got cut because they were tangential to the story-line.

    A recent piece in The Boston Review argued that the latest cognitive science suggests that, despite the evidence, the body count of the 20th century, humans have a "common, universal, maybe even innate moral sense". I want to leave you with a thought from Nadine Gordimer on this subject. Many South African readers find her cold, but I find her honesty about her strong political beliefs refreshing and beautiful. In an interview, I asked her, "Through which relationships would you choose to describe yourself?"

    "They interchange all the time," Gordimer replied, "because obviously your personal life is something most fundamental to you. Like the love relationships in your life. Then comes friendships and looming large - if you're alive at all, if you are alert at all, if you are a real human being - so you get the people amongst who you live. Out of that comes that indescribable thing, a sense of justice. If you have no religion, if God is not telling you this is good and that is bad, where does a sense of justice come from? Very strange. I don't know, I just know it's there. There is a compass."

  3. You talk of throwing in your lot with your subjects, of no longer being an outsider. I am struck and deeply moved by that. I am also envious. I wish I could throw in my lot with my subjects as unreservedly as you have, but I keep finding that the very process of writing about them distances me from them. When somebody tells me something very intimate about herself, in order that I take it away and write about it for an audience of strangers, we are engaged in an opaque exchange. The subject is trading a piece of her privacy, giving it to me to do with it what I will, but in exchange for what? What is she getting? That is the opaque part. I don't think she knows; I don't think her own motives are ever entirely transparent to her. So I always find myself telling the reader about the exchange, about my subjects' relationships with me, about my understanding of how they came to share things with me.

    There is no Henk Rossouw in "The Broken Tin" and so we don't know how Johannah came to share some very raw, very difficult stuff with you. And I was surprised to find that that didn't bother me. Your portrait of her was so gentle, so delicately empathetic (and yet emotionally disciplined too), that I didn't feel the need to know how you got to know what you did. Am I right? Is there no journalist in "The Broken Tin" because the journalist felt comfortable enough not to have to signal his presence in his subjects' lives?

    Jonny, in the same way that the motives of my subject, in telling me her secrets, are not transparent to her I am still trying to work out my motives for asking. But here goes.

    Yes, it is an opaque exchange - that's a good way of putting it. She doesn't really know why she told me, gets little for it, and I have the power to do with it what I will. That said, I used to worry about this a lot more than I do now. I've accepted it. I'm a writer and my job is to take stories from others. This is easier in fiction, which does not have the weight of fidelity around its neck, than in non-fiction. It's the way you take that counts. I see myself as a messenger. The deal with my subjects is that I am making their voices heard inside the city walls. But this is a flimsy rationale. Somebody like the doctor couldn't care less about being heard; in fact, the less attention he gets the better - he prefers it that way. There's no time. He wants to get on with saving lives without being praised for it, because what does praise accomplish? And when somebody tells me something deeply painful, that goes beyond the deal. Will taking on this pain change anything? Make her feel better? Sometimes, and only sometimes, it can. I trust my subjects and they respond in kind. For example, I wrote a long narrative piece about a Ugandan woman who was a child soldier. I was terrified just before the story ran that it would hurt her; her essential conflict was that no one on her university campus knew that as a teenager she had been a concubine and forced to kill others. But after the story ran, she was invited by Amnesty on a speaking tour of major American cities - her first time outside Uganda - and addressed a senator on Capitol Hill who later came to northern Uganda to see for himself. In her own time she told her classmates who she really was. She also appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show. I dislike Winfrey's confessional approach, but my subject was thrilled. She felt validated. Her confidence ballooned. She got invited to conferences, started writing her own articles, and eventually what she wanted for her life came true: a scholarship to a college in Massachusetts. Our relationship has continued long after the story ran. These lists of accomplishments, these are her own. I had no hand in them. What I did do, though, was help her make sense of her own narrative. I didn't lie, or embellish, or make her more heroic than she was. I just found a beginning, middle, and end. The story she had been telling herself, "I was kidnapped and beaten and raped", got folded into another story, a larger story, where she was the protagonist. Writers are takers. But assuming that stories are not just palliatives, why can writing not also be an act of love?

    I did become comfortable around Johannah. We spent days and days together, of which only a tiny fraction ended up in the story. As well as visiting patients, we ate together, went shopping together, took her daughter on excursions, went for walks. This was not buying her off. I genuinely care about her. When she was sad, she called me, and if she was happy she wanted to share it. This approach probably costs me - I'm sometimes too close and emotional about my subjects - but I can't do it any other way. I get hunches about people. With Cameron, I didn't go through a list of doctors to find him. I saw two sentences about him in an academic paper and I knew he was my subject. Same with Johannah. She walked into the consultation room and I knew. The problem comes when, as is often the case with my subjects, their story is painful. They are vulnerable, they want to confide in someone. I don't blink, I don't express horror or shock, I don't turn away, so they carry on talking. And I write it all down. This transaction is at the heart of journalism and deserves far more discussion than it gets. There's a massive furore in Canada right now because, for years, a former prime minister gave explicit, revealing interviews to a journalist. His lawyers and friends advised him against it, it was political suicide, and yet he kept on blabbing uncontrollably. He was horrified at the things he had said when the book finally came out and it was largely verbatim transcripts, no tightening, the "full quote" that politicians always want from journalists. He didn't contest its truth. And this was a prime minister, hardly naïve about journalists! The currency of journalism is trust. It is easy, too easy, to gain someone's trust. Journalists are listeners and their subjects respond too automatically. Who doesn't want to be listened to? My argument is that journalists who betray their subjects, cheapen the currency for us all. I'm not interested in writing about people that I don't fundamentally like. It doesn't stop me from being honest. In fact, the doctor in my story insisted that he was prepared to participate only if I did not gloss over the imperfections in his work.

    Sure, I'd like to be able to claim with certainty that, in my piece, I didn't signal my presence because I was so comfortable with my subjects. I certainly wanted readers to feel that way, that I was speaking from right inside their houses, alongside the beds of the dying, almost with a collective voice. Much of my voice is faking certainty. In truth, I was very self-conscious about my relationship with my subjects. I did, in fact, agonise over it, endlessly - just not in front of them initially. At first, I put a lot of effort into being amiable and not much trouble. Perhaps it was why I came home so tired - the strain of seeming comfortable. Of course, the doctor saw through all this. What was wonderful was how, eventually, I could be open with him about the mechanics of my writing. I sometimes told him what I was trying to achieve in a particular scene and why. During the day he had so little time to talk, so in our minutes snatched together he plunged straight through the surface into the hard truths about his work. At the end of his day, often, even if I had been there with him, he would write to me about it. In our voluminous correspondence, I'd maybe ask him to reconstruct a scene where I wasn't there and he'd relish this. It helped that he writes well, with colour and detail. I don't usually show drafts to subjects, but I did, at a stage when the doctor was concerned that he was too much at the centre of the story, give him a detailed summary. "As I read the synopsis," he wrote, "I kept thinking about the events, a sort of real déjà vu feeling. You've captured it so well. In telling their stories they will live on. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative Vol 1 (1984), encourages us 'to save the history of the defeated and the lost'. You are doing just that." I was very lucky to find a subject who understands why I want to document his work.

    I'm hedging. When Johannah agreed that I could remain in the room while she spoke to the doctor, and she proceeded to tell him "very raw, very difficult stuff", was that a real "yes"? She knew I was a writer, but did she know that meant everything she said was fair game? Often Mathibestad folk assumed I was a doctor and I had to correct them. What I did not do, as you point out, is reflexively include my own agonising in the story. Which is not to say it's the right approach. I think the way you include the reader in your decision-making - "Dear Reader, This is how they came to share things with me …" - engenders their trust. You invite them in, in a measured way, rather than agonising. Even a strictly third-person writer, like Mark Kramer, will precede his book with a long personal chapter, in the "I", explaining how he chose that subject and why it draws him in. But the voice I was aiming for was hard and blunt and certain, though it didn't come out that way. I wanted to counter my natural tendency to over-identify with my subjects. Including myself, even in the briefest of ways, would have been like admitting my own (very many) doubts about the story. I had to pretend I had no doubts, in order to write. That you found my portrait of Johannah to be "so gentle, so delicately empathetic (and yet emotionally disciplined too)" pleased me very much. I was hoping for that. As you can tell, I'm not emotionally disciplined. So, in my writing, it's like steering a boat to the opposite shore, aiming upstream of where I want to be, so that the flow of the river doesn't take me off course.

    For a long time I couldn't decide on a humane, ethical way to tell Johannah's secret. This is at the heart of your question, I think. It took me ages to work out, months in fact, but the solution come out of the reporting process itself. At first I had written a scene that was a verbatim excerpt from the consultation where Johannah reveals the "very raw, very difficult stuff" to her doctor, Cameron. Then I cut it. It seemed a violation, and besides, it was positioned almost at the top of the story, before we, the readers, had yet got to know Johannah and care about her fate. Also, in storytelling terms, revealing her secret so early is like putting the end in front of the beginning. I felt stuck: hers was the most powerful story I had encountered, but how could I give her a sense of ownership, however slight, over her own representation? Then she told me that she had written her own account of what had happened to her, a fuller account, as she found it hard to say it aloud. As a gesture of trust she showed the piece to the doctor, which fitted perfectly into my rough outline of the story, as a central theme was the developing relationship between them. Eureka! I asked her if she was okay with publishing her piece within my own piece. By this stage she was already writing a longer version, which she wanted to share with other HIV+ people in her writing group, and she liked the idea. What I included are all her words, unedited. In my story I stated that she had a secret, but gave no details. So she gets to say what happened to her, the way she wants to tell it. This is probably one of the most unusual aspects of the story, that the climax is narrated by another writer, but it works. Whether this remains a violation of Johannah's privacy has yet to be answered.

  4. You say you saw "two sentences about [Dr Cameron] in an academic paper and I knew he was my subject. Same with Johannah. She walked into the consultation room and I knew." Tell us more. How did you know?

    I have a strong intuition. My nose doesn't start twitching or anything like that, but I get an excited feeling. Perhaps "know" is too strong; I suspect this is my subject and I need to find out. But it's rarely failed me - I can't remember having to find another subject because the one I had a hunch about turned out wrong. The clues I operate on are quite small. Truman Capote often spoke about the tiny United Press International wire story in the back of the New York Times that summarised the murder of a Kansas farmer; his hunch eventually became In Cold Blood, a landmark non-fiction book. On a smaller scale, I've often had this experience. I scour the small stories that run several pages deeper inside the newspaper than the lead story on the front. A few paragraphs in The Star about a black student shooting his white professor mentioned that it occurred during a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The imagery struck me and I suspected that race was not the key motivation for the shooting as The Star reporter had advocated with his "expert" quotes. I wanted to unravel what had really happened and it turned out that while race was obviously a theme in the biography of the antagonist - this is South Africa - the shooting was much more about the fact that the professor had lost the student's play script five years before and withheld the praise the student craved. My story ran over 6 000 words on the front page of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

    So maybe the luxury of writing long - and it is a luxury, even in countries with a stronger publishing culture than ours - allows intuition? The pressure of a hard news deadline requires certainty. A news reporter can't go up to his editor and say, "Listen, I've got a hunch about somebody" - it won't cut. (Though who knows what really happens in the newsroom? I never managed, despite repeated attempts, to get a job in one!) But more than once I've pitched an editor based on a hunch, masking my uncertainty with conviction. I went to Uganda with a return ticket for a month without having made contact yet with the child soldier I would spend 6 500 words on. In my file in my hand luggage on the airplane was a wire story that mentioned that five former child soldiers, nameless, were attending university in Kampala. In this case I was lucky to have an editor who trusted me. But let me be clear: my hunches help me find my subjects, but once I begin shadowing them I'm on my own, helpless, when it comes to deciding where the story is going. For example, the two child soldiers I had hunches about both featured in my piece, but it took me weeks to decide who was the major character and who was secondary. In that time I shadowed them both, and when I had decided on the shyer, more withdrawn subject, I had to toss out pages and pages of notes about the other one.

    The same dynamic played itself out in "The Broken Tin", in a more interesting way. As I said, "I knew [Cameron] was my subject. Same with Johannah." My intuition was right and at no point during the reporting process did I doubt that. But I was uncertain for months about how to tell their story. For a time I was convinced Johannah's story should be dominant, with the doctor coming in less often as the voice of context and insight. This repeated the pattern in my earlier work, where the subject with the most "raw, difficult stuff" got the most attention. But I wanted "The Broken Tin" to break the pattern. I had realised, the hard way, that bludgeoning readers with the pain from somebody's life left them feeling numb. Could I not be more subtle? Hold back more? Essentially, I needed a more complicated, nuanced story-line, where the reader got to understand Johannah more slowly, rather than running straight into her pain, feeling overwhelmed and tossing the story aside. My intuition couldn't help, I felt lost. How should I tell this story? Even quite late into the reporting I hadn't made up my mind.

    I dislike discussing work-in-progress unless it's with an editor who is committed to making sure the story is told in the best way possible. I find these conversations essential; often when I'm immersed in reporting I lose the perspective I need to tell the story. For this story Anton Harber, my former professor at the Wits School of Journalism, who had funded my reporting time, became the editor. I distinctly remember his words that brought the story together for me: "Surely the nub of the story is their relationship?" In other words, the relationship between Cameron, the doctor, and Johannah was the key. Boom! He was right. I got down to writing with renewed vigour. Likewise, closer to the final draft, there was a sense that by the final page I had led the reader somewhere interesting without stating where it was. Mark Kramer, from the Nieman programme on narrative journalism at Harvard, encourages the writer to think deeply about the destination of the story - the climax, the point of insight, whatever you want to call it - and how we lead the reader there. Harber had encouraged the fact that I didn't try and tell the reader what to think. But at some point readers need to touch the handrail, the central theme. They don't need to be told explicitly what the story is really about, but by the end of the story they need some confirmation that they understand. So when Harber told me, "This story is really about the limits of medicine," he reflected what I had been thinking during the writing but hadn't actually included in the text. In fact, in an earlier draft I had written the words "These are the limits of medicine" in my list of phrases to use somewhere and then it had got lost. So, in a subtle way, I homed in on the doctor's thoughts on the limits of medicine right at the end.

    In summary, then, I rely on my intuition to find my subjects, but working out the shape and direction of the story is a far more complex, fraught process that I can't do alone.

  5. What were the two sentences about Dr Cameron that caught your eye?

    "Public hospitals filled with patients suffering from pneumonia, chronic diarrhea, and tuberculosis were evidence enough of the steep rise in AIDS cases (Cameron 2003). An American doctor, David Cameron, who teaches family medicine in Pretoria University, has observed a change in doctors and nurses in South Africa. The fear and apprehension of the 1990s is now replaced by hopelessness and apathy." (From Bertman, Sandra L. "AIDS in Africa: Blurring the Boundaries Between Life and Art," in Association for Death Education and Counseling newsletter, Vol 29, Issue 4.)

    Thinking about it now, it was actually the reference to something that Cameron had written that intrigued me the most: Cameron, D. 2003. "Dying and living in South Africa, Christmas, 2002, American Academy for Hospice and Palliative Medicine Bulletin, 3, 8-9.

    I liked the title "Dying and living in South Africa". I thought, "Here's a guy who doesn't have a problem talking about death." I looked everywhere to try and obtain a copy of the bulletin where he's written this, but without luck. When I called him and he sent it to me - it was a piece about how much the death of a patient, his domestic's child, had affected him - it confirmed what I had been thinking so far: this is the man I want to write about.

    By the way, Cameron is not American but South African. The author, Bertman, assumed that, like her, he was American because he was writing for the American Academy for Hospice and Palliative Medicine Bulletin.

<< Back to the main chain <<

LitNet: 27 September 2005

Have your say! Send your feedback to

boontoe / to the top

© Kopiereg in die ontwerp en inhoud van hierdie webruimte behoort aan LitNet, uitgesluit die kopiereg in bydraes wat berus by die outeurs wat sodanige bydraes verskaf. LitNet streef na die plasing van oorspronklike materiaal en na die oop en onbeperkte uitruil van idees en menings. Die menings van bydraers tot hierdie werftuiste is dus hul eie en weerspieël nie noodwendig die mening van die redaksie en bestuur van LitNet nie. LitNet kan ongelukkig ook nie waarborg dat hierdie diens ononderbroke of foutloos sal wees nie en gebruikers wat steun op inligting wat hier verskaf word, doen dit op hul eie risiko. Media24, M-Web, Ligitprops 3042 BK en die bestuur en redaksie van LitNet aanvaar derhalwe geen aanspreeklikheid vir enige regstreekse of onregstreekse verlies of skade wat uit sodanige bydraes of die verskaffing van hierdie diens spruit nie. LitNet is ’n onafhanklike joernaal op die Internet, en word as gesamentlike onderneming deur Ligitprops 3042 BK en Media24 bedryf.