Plumbing parallel worlds

2011-02-25 09:28

Jonny Steinberg was in Cape Town when he heard about a small Liberian community living in New York that seemed to be frozen in the moment of their flight from their war-torn country. He couldn’t get the image out of his head, so he flew to New York and took the ferry to Staten Island to check it out.

“I walked into the community and found the two most prominent people,” he says. “They happened to be having a fight, and I thought ‘that’s a story’.”

It was a story that took two years to tell – how the residents of a housing project on Park Hill Avenue have brought the ambitions, the paranoia, the nightmares and the factionalism from wartime Liberia to their small slice of America.

“Liberia,” he says, “is a conspiratorially minded country. It is a quite bizarre situation where the whole country’s mentality is to look for the bad guys. But culpability is spread far and wide. Half the country was involved.” Otherwise peaceful, blameless farmers abandoned their fields and travelled to the cities to go looting.

The book focuses on a soccer entrepreneur and an activist fighting for control of the community. It is the way he works: taking one or two people and digging deeply to tell a bigger story.

It involves a great deal of shadowing. “Half the time,” he says, “I’m just hanging out.”

Steinberg was a Rhodes scholar. After earning a doctorate in political theory at Oxford, he returned to South Africa to cover the justice and police beats at Business Day.

“I was immensely frustrated at having [only space for] 1 200 words and a 24-hour deadline,” he says.

Eventually, he left the newspaper to research and write Midlands, the story of the unsolved murder of a young farmer.
“Jumping to 100 000 words and an 18-month deadline was absolute bliss, when you’re free to really explore stuff.”

It worked well. Midlands won the Alan Paton non-fiction award in 2003. His next book, The Number, exploring prison gangs by homing in on a prisoner, won him the Alan Paton again. He has since written about HIV by hanging out with a shopkeeper in the rural Eastern Cape – it was published here as Three Letter Plague and overseas as Sizwe’s Test – and edited Thin Blue, about policing.

The first book took 16 months, the second 20. The new one took him 24. “Whether that means I’m getting better or worse,” he says, “I don’t know.”

How does he choose his subjects? “I live in a country that is so radically divided, and where all around me people’s life experiences are so dramatically different from my own,” he says.

“The very idea of inhabiting a society without understanding these other places – it’s difficult. I want to know. We live in these parallel universes and bump against each other. The obvious thing to do is to try to plumb the depths of these universes, or as many as possible.” He keeps in touch with the people he writes about and can tell you how they’re doing now, years later.

Little Liberia is obviously not about South Africa – although there are resonances – but he’s back now on familiar ground: he’s joined the University of Cape Town’s new Institute for the Humanities in Africa to work on a new book.
This one, which begins with Verwoerd’s assassination, is very different from the others.

“I’ve tried to paint a picture of the way South Africa was at that point. It’s a very brittle elite we have now, and the elite in the 60s was similarly brittle.

“I want to see what the current black governors have inherited from the former white governors.”

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