Defend Truth


Remembering Jane Taylor, South Africa’s electric herald of the avant


Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

Ben Williams on Jane Taylor, a singular literary personality, gone too soon.

South Africa is a land laid thick, top to bottom, coast to coast, with hidden doors. Get to know those who can point to their faint outlines, and even open them for you, inviting you across the threshold, and you’ll live as richly as anywhere on Earth.

Jane Taylor, who died suddenly this month in Cape Town, flung hidden doors open by the dozen during her life – for me, for her many students, for her fellow writers and artists, and for her colleagues from abroad who, having never previously encountered such a smouldering lightning strike of a person, found themselves shocked out of their comfort zones after just a few moments of conversation with her. Back they returned to their work, striving for higher planes.

Posterity will note Jane’s artistic and academic achievements, but I wish, somehow, to convey her singular in-person presence. The living Jane made a habit of surpassing the Jane of the plays, novels, anthologies, symposia, lectures, curations and performances that formed the tower her reputation deservedly stands upon. These discrete creations spun from her central dynamism like the spidery currents of a Tesla coil: even as they played dazzlingly out, Jane was to be found reaching back into her core, bringing forth a fresh offering of molten intellectual creativity, fully charged to thrill.

Those unfamiliar with Jane may now (correctly) guess that one of the hidden doors she frequently opened led to the vertiginous corners of the avant-garde. Right there in the sleepy Cape – right there! – you could, thanks to an encounter with Jane, find yourself jolted into the hot centre of world art, letters and performance. Or their frigid outriggings, depending on her current bent. 

From the play that brought her international attention in the late 1990s, Ubu and the Truth Commission – I was extremely privileged to see its first run – to later, syncretic and collaborative works of performance and intellectual interrogation, like Ne’er So Much The Ape (2017), Jane was a thaumaturge who worked, not with magic, but clear-sightedly with the grand sweep of human endeavour and corresponding folly. 

Jane Taylor

Jane Taylor at the launch of her Olive Schreiner Prize-winning novel, ‘The Transplant Men’, in Cape Town, 2009.

She stuck everything with a pin, including her own art – some would even say her own heart – to observe the wriggling, and delectate over theories as to the why of it all. 

Jane’s voice preceded her, commanding but arch, a tolling of the absurd. (This is the correct South African register, but only a few manage it.) Her eyes glittered as though fed with truths from the void – truths that she somehow would extract mirth from, which she donned like chain mail. Accordingly, Jane could be invincibly cheerful – but also crushed by the world’s repeated servings of chagrin. She shrugged the latter heroically off, time and again.

Jane’s homes were palaces of art; to enter them was to feel, keenly, one’s own aesthetic impoverishment. She threw them open to her friends (like the hidden doors) as though we lived there. Her look was pure Toulouse-Lautrec – beware the smudge of lipstick that came off during an embrace. She often wrote with opera playing at full blast, the music her portal to a stage where she reigned as a furious conductor of ideas. Her wooden-heeled shoes gave off reports like guns. She was unstoppable, electric.

Jane directed the Laboratory of Kinetic Objects at the University of the Western Cape, but she herself was the ultimate kinetic object. She was a mentor, a friend, and loyal to the last, and now the hidden doors whose locations she alone had charted paths to will go unopened. The world is dimmed, having lost her. 

Hamba kahle, dear incomparable, irreplaceable Jane. DM

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.


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  • Judith Miller says:

    Mourning the loss of a childhood friend of mine from Mrs Robinson’s nursery school in Plumstead, where we both started when we were 3 years old, to going our seperate ways in our late teens. Many fond memories. Very saddened to hear she is gone. My condolences to her family and friends.

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