A work of literary non-fiction: Julia Blackburn creates the story she is searching for
‘Dreaming the Karoo: A People Called the /Xam’ by Julia Blackburn is a reflection on the author’s long-standing fascination with an indigenous people of the Karoo, the /Xam.
In 2009 I visited an exhibit called What We See at the Iziko Slave Lodge in Cape Town. It was a profound experience and has stayed with me for many years. In 1931, a German artist named Hans Lichtenecker was engaged in an anthropometric pursuit of creating an archive of the “disappearing races” of southern Africa, specifically Namibia.
These people were photographed, measured, body casts made and catalogued, and, owing to the invention of the phonograph, their voices were recorded on to and stored in Edison wax cylinders.
These cylinders made their way back to Europe, via Russia, and settled in the Phonogramm Archiv in Berlin where they remained untouched and untranslated for the better part of 70 years.
No one knew what the respondents had said, and no one cared. The recordings were an add-on, a curiosity factor. The speakers, invisible.
In 2007 the recordings were digitised and taken to Namibia for translation, under the guidance of Anette Hoffman.
“These translations by Memory Biwa, Levi Namaseb, Rhyn Tjituka and Renathe Tjikundi-Meroro made available a collection of astounding, often disturbing comments of Khoehoegowap and Otjiherero-speakers, who responded to the anthropometric project.”
In many cases, people had spoken into the phonograph “immediately after they had gone through the suffocating and often terrifying procedure of cast-making”.
To try to reclaim some of the dignity of those studied, the body casts were not included in the exhibition. Instead, the exhibit highlighted the disturbing indignity of the colonial project by juxtaposing other artefacts – like photographs and Lichtenecker’s diary, collected for the classification of humans – with the audio recordings and translations of the speakers’ own responses.
A “dialogic space” reflecting on “imperial practices of representation” gave the visitor an “unusual opportunity to hear the historical recordings of comments to these representational templates from a subaltern position”.
As a visitor, I could hear, firsthand, the distress in the voices of those represented. They did not understand what was being done and why, and sometimes responded to their immediate trauma with recourse to older stories and wisdoms.
As I read Julia Blackburn’s new book, Dreaming the Karoo: A People Called the /Xam, my experience of this earlier exhibit knocked around my brain. How was I to make sense of her text, and the texts of the /Xam, recorded by Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd, that she used in the telling of her story?
Blackburn’s book is a reflection on her long-standing fascination with an indigenous people of the Karoo, the /Xam. She examines their persecution, history, and their relationship with German philologist, Wilhelm Bleek, and his sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd, whose work – totalling some 60,000 notebooks – detailed their dreams, memories and beliefs.
Blackburn had planned a research trip to the Karoo in 2020 which was cut short because of the outbreak of the global pandemic, and, in something like a memoir, she reflects on this new global situation and her personal circumstance through the poetry she finds in the /Xam transcripts. She develops a compelling narrative that weaves together what should feel like disparate worlds.
In one of her academic papers, Hoffman, reflecting on what the technology of recording these voices allowed, says that “as an object, the voice could at once be separated from its source and social setting, become transportable, but also became indexical to its absent referent”.
As I read this, I asked myself, is this what Blackburn is doing? Is this what Bleek was doing? Is this what Lloyd was doing? Can we separate a voice from its social setting and use it to index our own set of preoccupations? Can we do this redemptively? Can we abstract from different worlds and refract them through each other?
The art historian, Premesh Lalu, has argued that, “one cannot hope to retrieve a silence(d) subject (…) by way of the colonial archive” and that “the voice we hear today often cannot be read as an uncomplicated indicator of personal subjectivity or agency”.
I think this is true, but what if one foregrounds the subjectivity and agency of the author and their imaginings of what the voices from the archive might have felt? Is this kind of creative non-fiction “allowed”? We are so worried about what is allowed these days.
Hoffmann said that in listening to the recordings from her exhibit, “one does register an absence, the disappearance of stories… but it is not within the scope of scholarly license to create the stories that we search for – that is the work of literature.” And that is what Dreaming the Karoo is – a work of literary non-fiction. In her book, Blackburn is creating the story she is searching for.
I had the pleasure of listening to a writerly chat between Julia Blackburn and Mike Nicol. In this talk, she referenced Henry James’ phrase of the “visitable past”, and said that in her writing she endeavours to go where somebody has been, and immerses herself in the material available. But in mining the object of her interest, she discovers that it contains much more than the object itself.
“It is my interpretation, my relation to my subject, which is the essential dialogue of a book,” she says.
This is how I read her reading of the Bleek/Lloyd Archive. The transcripts of the /Xam are treated as poetry, which at times was discombobulating, especially to someone from here (South Africa); someone who has been taught to engage with these voices as artefacts.
The drawing together of the immediacy of the Covid pandemic and the obliteration of the /Xam may be considered a dilution of the extreme indignities these communities of people had to endure, but I think if we stepped outside of our sometimes parochial approach to our history, one would find she is paying tribute, and in so doing universalising that which is often seen as so particular as to be fetishised into fossilised object.
Her treatment of the transcripts as poetry and juxtaposing these words with the conditions of our present did for me what the What We See exhibit did. It released these voices from existing solely in the trauma of their own history, in academic writing and university archives, and made them enter my consciousness.
Blackburn’s book increased my capacity for empathy through her creative use of an artefact.
Blackburn said that in writing this book she was “intimidated by the enormity of the culture she was writing about”. Aware that she was an outsider, with a limited perspective, she nevertheless chose to walk that narrow thread all the way through.
She wove together her own parallel story, of being cut off from the world in the time of Covid, and the /Xam being cut off from their world by the politics of the time, in a way that brought history to life.
Dreaming the Karoo is also one of the first pieces of “lockdown lit” I have read that really expressed the existential crisis we all found ourselves in such a short time ago. It was not glib or superficial – it did not just focus on the catastrophe of domestic arrangements and government policies, but by paralleling the experience of a global pandemic with the extremely intimate conversation between Self and Other, somehow both seemed more real.
My abiding feeling about the pandemic is a sense of unreality, but, of course, it changed humanity. The same with the stories of the /Xam, their knowledge, their language, what they endured at the hand of colonisers and scientists, their intimacy with the natural world, always struck me as surreal. And now, staying in my house for months on end, also feels like it was something out of a dystopian future, and yet, we lived it.
We all existed in metaphor during that time – there was no other way.
“I seem to be living a curiously symbolic life in which the behaviour of birds, plants and animals, and even the juxtaposition of cups and bowls on the table have taken on a sort of metaphoric power,” she writes.
Blackburn has said that each of her books would have been completely different if they were written at different stages in her life and world history, even if the subject had been the same.
In that sense, this book, and its abstracted, spectral nature, mimics the abstracted and spectral nature of all our lives during the pandemic, and during any period of colossal damage, like colonialism.
Death, fear, illness, separated from loved ones with very limited understanding of what was happening and why. “Whatever I do or do not do, part of me is caught in the confusion that surrounds us all on all sides” – and so too for the /Xam.
Quoting Socrates, Blackburn writes that, “a thing is not seen because it is visible, but visible because it is seen”. Reading this I thought again of the voices scratched into wax cylinders, silent for decades, but then, finally, being heard.
Dreaming of the Karoo shows how we all “set [our] feet on the path, that [we] may return to [our] place”:
//Kabbo: “That I may listen to all the people’s stories when I visit them, while the sun becomes a little warm, that I might sit in the sun, that I might sit listening to the stories that come from afar, while the sun feels a little warm, while I feel that I might be talking with my fellow men.” DM/ML