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In June of 2010, William Kentridge asked Denis Hirson to join him in a public conversation at the opening of Cinq Thèmes, the artist’s retrospective exhibition at the Jeu du Paume in Paris. So fruitful was this event that the two decided to have further conversations, public and private, whenever the time and the occasion seemed right. Nine engagements followed, allowing them to explore at great length the many issues and themes arising from Kentridge’s work. These conversations, in which a writer and an artist grapple with the enormous complexities of making art, grow out of a friendship that stretches back to the 1980s and that is deeply entwined in the fortunes of the city where they both grew up and the country that is the wellspring of their work.
Born in Cambridge in 1951, Denis Hirson lived in South Africa until the age of twenty-two, studying social anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. In 1975 he settled in France, where he has worked as an actor and lecturer at the École Polytechnique. He has written seven books, almost all of them at the frontier between prose and poetry and concerned with memories of South Africa in the time of apartheid. The most recent of these is the novel The Dancing and the Death on Lemon Street. He has also assembled and edited three anthologies of South African writing, including In the Heat of Shadows: South African poetry 1996–2013. Ma langue au chat, a book in French about the delight and torture experienced by an Anglophone when speaking and writing in French, is forthcoming from Les Éditions du Seuil in October 2017.
William Kentridge was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1955. He is a graphic artist, filmmaker and theatre artist renowned for his humanist and poetic perspective on apartheid, colonialism and totalitarianism, and on their lingering effects. Best known for his allegorical animations of charcoal drawings that he erases and appends frame by frame, Kentridge has explored disciplines ranging from sculpture to books, stereoscope to opera. His works are included in numerous international collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Modern, London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and the Albertina Museum, Vienna. His acclaimed production of Wozzeck travels to the Metropolitan Opera, New York, for the 2019–20 season.
Violence rendered things visible, writes Denis Hirson in this beautifully crafted, musical story, which is as much about seeing how people lived at that time as it is about desire, loneliness and the desperate, blind need for revenge. Lemon street runs downslope through a leafy, peaceful suburb of Johannesburg. It is early 1960. One resident of the street, a young widow, believes she has finally met the new man of her life. In a narrow room at the back of the garden, her maid impatiently awaits the arrival of her lover. Across the street, while his parents engage in yet another heated argument, a schoolboy dreams of a girl. And down past the willow trees at the bottom of the street this girl's mother prepares a party to celebrate her twentieth wedding anniversary, which will hardly turn out as she expected. Meanwhile, tremors run through South Africa. Hundreds of men die in the great Clydesdale mine disaster. There is an assassination attempt upon the Prime Minister, Dr Verwoerd. There is the Sharpeville Massacre, which will radically shape the political climate of the country, and permanently alter the lives of certain people on Lemon Street.
Worlds in one country is a compact, inclusive history of writing in South Africa from the nineteenth century to 1994 that crosses boundaries of language and colour, including prose, poetry and theatre. It is an accessible story rather than a theoretical analysis, relating the evolution of writing to the history of the country. Worlds in one country is punctuated with significant and often well-known quotes taken from novels, short stories, poems and plays as well as from statements by writers themselves. At the same time there is precise referencing to works cited, an extensive bibliography and comprehensive index. This story takes the reader from the colonial period and early white exploration, through references to black mythology and affirmations of black and then Afrikaner identity, to writing in the city before and after 1948, through the watersheds of Sharpeville in 1960, Soweto in 1976 and the troubles preceding 1994. Readers will gain an overview of South African writing, beyond the differences of language and colour of what has been a highly fragmented society.
In the Heat of Shadows: South African Poetry 1996-2013 presents work by 32 poets and includes some translations from Afrikaans, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sesotho and Xitsonga. This collection follows on from Denis Hirson's 1997 anthology The Lava of this Land: South African Poetry 1960-1996. South African poetry today is charged with restlessness, bursting with diversity. Gone is the intense inward focus required to deal with a situation of systematic oppression, the enclosing effort of concentration on a single predicament. While politics and identity continue to be central themes, the poetry since the late 1990s reveals a richer investigation of ancestors and history, alongside more experimentation with language and translation; and enduring concern with the touchstones of love, loss, memory, and acts of witnessing.
The issue of apartheid pervades this vibrant collection of 27 South African short stories written between 1945 and 1992.
The lava of change has spilled over South Africa again as apartheid
as ended. What sort of social and artistic emerges as it cools?
This anthology, containing more than two hundred poems by over
fifty poets, spans five distinct historical periods in the
contemporary development of South Africa, from the 1960s Durban
worker strikes to the dismantling of apartheid in the 1990s. Most
of the poems have been written in English, but forty-eight have
been translated from Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, and /Xam, a Bushman
linguistic group. Inspired by music, by the language of the
streets, by the sensual and the erotic, and by social, political,
and economic turmoil, these poems showcase a remarkable complexity
of literary traditions. They provide a fascinating and moving
rendering of South Africa's hybrid language and unique
I remember shaving off my beard in the bathroom on the eve of the camp, with Mahalia Jackson singing rousing spirituals from the living room. Afterwards my chin was strangely smooth, and seemed to have shrunk. I remember that from the Springbok Grounds, where the army has its administrative offices, you could see a whisky ad on a billboard with a moustachioed gentleman suggesting: "Don't be vague, ask for Haig". I remember our arrival at camp, in a roaring truck with wooden plank benches that fetched s from the station. There were many trucks parked or driving along an endless esplanade with their headlights forked into the night. Dust and diesel fumes. People running. Uniforms. Hoarse orders in Afrikaans. I remember 'roer jou gat!", "jou gat", "se gat", "bakgat", "slapgat", "gates", and "don't gooi me grief, hey!" We walk straight so you better get out of the way is author's new book of personal and public memories of growing up in South Africa. Once again he delves deeply into sense memories, making the reader hum long-forgotten tunes, summoning up familiar pictures through his delicate and finely-tuned phrasing. In this title the author deals with the army years, the Grateful Dead years, the loss of his father to prison years and the losing himself to Paris years.
Imagine you are in an aeroplane at daybreak. You have just woken up to an announcement by the pilot that the long flight will be over in a few minutes. A city tilts towards you as the plane approaches. You catch a glimpse of street-lamps, cars silently torching the soft grey air, a few yellow windows in the massed darkness of buildings. You are filled with the presence of this place as it stirs from the intimacy of the night. Now imagine that this is not a city of the present but a city of the past, your past; a place you have not lived in for decades, and which you are returning to as if it continued to be all it had ever been before you left. The lights you see are your own glittering, floating memories, stretching across the years, some of them highly personal, others shared with neighbours, schoolmates, people you might never even have met but who once lived in the same place at the same time as you did. I Remember King Kong (The Boxer) is a book of reminiscences which are, and could only be, South African in their timbre, scope and feeling. The memories, some personal and some public, will take you on a journey to a time and place that you'll savour long after you have put the book down.
White Scars also explores the moments at which Hirson read the four books. They include the arrest of his anti-apartheid activist father, Baruch Hirson in the early 1960's; his own move to Paris in the 1970's; his father's death, and the end of a period of mourning for him. In weaving together these two strands in White Scars, Hirson has referred to many other texts, including other books by Breyten Breytenbach, Raymond Carver and Georges Perec. He has also explored a constellation of key words, which trace, in different ways, the political space of apartheid South Africa and the transience of one who is now looking back at that time through the prism of distance.
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