Monthly Archives: December 2009

Kaffir Boy was not particularly great. It was the kind of memoir one expects with already-famous people — the kind of memoir that celebrities write because they have a life-story and a brain/access to a ghost writer; why not get some extra cash out of it? Simple, straightforward, uncomplicated, this-is-what-happened-in-my-life. When I thought that Mark Mathabone was a tennis great who wanted to write about his experience growing up in apartheid South Africa, I understood the choice to write this kind of memoir. But a mediocre tennis player who is writing specifically to inform the Western world about how awful apartheid is via his own personal experience? I would have gone for a style with a little more complexity.

I did appreciate the viewpoint of a black South African, since the only other recent book I’ve read about South Africa focused exclusively on white people doing dickish things. White Supremacy (the comparative study I was reading earlier this fall) was good at analyzing white supremacy in South Africa and the southern United States, but wasn’t great at using sources other than white people.

The one element of his memoir that Mathabone dealt with in a complex manner was what he believed to be the role of the token. This book contained some criticism of the (tiny, tiny) bourgeois black middle class, but Mathabone’s own bourgeois aspirations are allowed to pass unexamined — are, in fact, portrayed as noble steps toward the eventual goal of integrated sports. Mathabone joins a tournament that the black tennis association have boycotted, and then justifies his entrance by saying, well, at least with him there he’ll be able to talk to the white people, and maybe change a few minds. Maybe he’ll win, and it’ll be a victory for all black people; or maybe he’ll meet someone who will sponsor him to go to America. He realizes that the whites only want to use him as a token, but going along with their status quo, fighting as far as they’ll allow him to fight within their rules, means that he’ll definitely be able to improve his own lot, and he might be able to improve the lot of his people. (Maybe.) By being the token black tennis player in this tournament, it opens up people’s minds to the possibility of more black tennis players in future tournaments.

I feel weird criticizing an autobiography, but I didn’t really like this that much. The cover bills this as a “coming of age story,” but there was no real transition between “Johannes the street hoodlum” and “Johannes the bourgeois-bound schoolboy.” It’s not bad, just sort of inexpertly-written. From a research perspective, in fact, this is a pretty good book. From a literary perspective, it isn’t.

I am, however, extremely glad that South African apartheid is over, because that shit was awful.


quoth the dude from Williamsburg, in today’s episode of Dan Savage’s podcast. Hilarious.

I finished King Leopold’s Ghost this weekend, and I definitely recommend it. The only big issue I had with it during my reading was that the author didn’t take into account the Congolese voices involved. I assumed that this was because of lack of available sources rather than any kind of oversight, and I was right — in his conclusion, Hochschild mentioned how disappointed he was that he was unable to discuss African involvement in resistance movements beyond names and occasional transcriptions from sympathetic missionaries. The book focused less on the actual atrocities perpetrated by Leopold and the rubber overseers, and more on Leopold’s political machinations and the actions of the anti-Leopold movement — thus making it rather less depressing than I had expected. The kind of popular history that I can get behind: rigorously academic, well-written, moderately depressing and very White People Suck.

In similar news, I am currently reading Kaffir Boy, a memoir of a South African man growing up in a black ghetto in Johannesburg during apartheid. After that, I’ll have to put my literature pants back on, because I’ve got two books by Dave Eggers, The Invisible Man, and Notes from Underground on my To-Read bookshelf. I’ll probably read Eggers’s What is the What first, to continue my Africa binge.

I went to a drag show last night. It was fun, but I’ve spent too much time alone recently and was very uncomfortable in such a large, happy crowd. Very Debbie Downer. Still no job. Mum sent $$, so I am less broke, but more guilty. Oh the trade-offs.

Interview tomorrow.

My entire being has been focused on the job search for the past three days. It’s better for getting the job done, but as of right now I’m basing my entire worth as a person on whether I get a job or not, which I suspect is less than healthy. Every other thing I’ve attempted has fallen flat because of how little brain-space I have for anything else right now. It’s like my super focused nerdy periods (where I’ll spend a week to several months single-mindedly hell-bent on mastering a particular topic or skill) except evil.

I’ve still had time for books, though. All the novels I ordered a few weeks ago have showed up at the library, so I’m up to my very pleased eyeballs in quality literature. I read The Broom of the System earlier this week. I liked it, but in a very superficial way. I think I’m going to go back to it after I read my non-fiction books, and see if it improves on a second reading.

Right now I’m reading King Leopold’s Ghost, and it’s excellent so far, although I’m only up to the point where Leopold II managed to trick and swindle the rest of the European nations out of a fairly sizable chunk of Africa. I’m not psychic or anything, but a careful analysis of the book’s foreshadowing tells me that the book is going to tumble into full-blown fucked-up in a chapter or so.

Today was a beautiful day in Boston. I’m sorry it was snowing, Midwest friends; today was 68 and sunny. I wore a dress. (As of this posting at full dark, about quarter after five, it’s still about 62. hah hah.)