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‘A truly non-racial literary festival in a black township’ – Darryl David announces Soweto Literary Festival sponsored by ATKV

Soweto TheatreSoweto Theatre


Darryl David has announced a new Soweto Literary Festival that will take place from 19 to 21 August, 2016 at the Soweto Theatre.

David is a lecturer in the University of KwaZulu-Natal Department of English and the founder of a number of literary projects, including the Booktown Richmond festival and BoekBedonnerd Literary Festival.

An exciting new Soweto book festival was announced in September last year: The Abantu Book Festival, which will take place from 6-10 December, 2016, at the Eyethu Lifestyle Centre in Mofolo.

Read David’s statement:

It’s taken me five years to get a Soweto Literary Festival off the ground. But come August 2016, Booktown Richmond will bring a literary festival to Soweto. We had always hoped South Africa’s national Booktown in the middle of nowhere would become the epicentre of literary South Africa. But we have been forced to concede that if the mountain won’t come to Moses, then Moses must go to the mountain.

It’s been a hard journey. Letters upon letters to individuals with unfettered cheque books. Interactions with vice-chancellors. Pleas to gatekeepers in departments of arts and culture. And for all my efforts? Nothing!

And then, you will never guess who gave me a little funding the size of a mustard seed for a Soweto Literary Festival. The ATKV. For those who may not know, that stands for Afrikaanse Taal- en Kultuurvereniging. With no demands to use the money for Afrikaans writers only. No, just get a literary festival off the ground in Soweto, they said to me. They had seen what I did with a small amount of money in getting a Festival of Children’s Literature off the ground in KwaZulu-Natal. So they believed in me, I guess. Afrikaans. Soweto. I could not have scripted it any better if I had tried to.

But this will be my most challenging festival to date. True, I would like to think I changed the face of South African literature by taking book festivals to the forgotten dorps of South Africa and by creating South Africa’s national Booktown. But the language of the Karoo is Afrikaans. And I was the only Indian lecturer of Afrikaans in South Africa. (Although they wanted to tar and feather me after I called my first festival BookBedonnerd and the theme for the second The Coolie Odyssey.)

But Soweto … we have just been bombarded by news of Brexit over the last few days. In South Africa literary circles we had our very own Brexit in May 2015 at the Franschhoek Literary Festival when Thando Mgqolozana boldly pronounced, ‘I’m quitting what I call the white literary system in South Africa.’

So was it sheer determination or sheer foolishness to persist with my Soweto dream after that? I took solace from the fact that Mgqolozana did not say he would not support a literary effort created by an Indian man (without any help from the Guptas!).

Mgqolozana had added, ‘I feel that I’m there [Franschhoek Literary Festival] to perform for an audience that does not treat me as a literary talent, but as an anthropological subject – as though those people are here to confirm their suspicions that somehow I am inferior to them. You can just turn around and look at yourselves – it looks very abnormal. In this country, it should never be like this.’

Eusebius McKaiser then asked where Mgqolozana’s anger was directed ‘at these wonderful people in the audience or the black people who are not here?’

‘I’m very proud of the black people who are not here,’ he replied, ‘because I don’t see why they should come here. I’m angry with the people who think this is normal. Who think the Franschhoek Literary Festival is normal, that the Open Book Festival is normal. Most people who are in charge of those things are our friends – nice people – but they think this is okay. I’m angry at those people. There is very little I can do about it, but I can remove myself.’

Mgqolozana went on: ‘An assumption must not be made that we haven’t made attempts to change this system. A lot of us writers talk about it all the time and we try to do things. I’m part of a group of writers that started Read SA with Ben Williams, Zukiswa [Wanner] and others, which was because we want to encourage South Africans, especially black South Africans, to read, and particularly to read South African literature. But that campaign fell off because the literary infrastructure at the moment is in the cities, in white set-ups, like here, for example. It systematically excludes black people. So what is needed is the establishment of that infrastructure. That’s what we need. Not just campaigns. We need to get libraries in the black communities. There are some now, built by the democratic government, but they are fake libraries. The ones that are functioning there are functioning because they are sponsored by Canadians and Australians, and they bring books from there. For example, I went to Harare Library in Khayelitsha [for a conversation with Cyril Ramaphosa about a national book club - ed] and it’s sponsored by Carnegie. We need libraries and bookstores with relevant, affordable books in the black community.’

And Mgqolozana was right. To a degree. However, what Mgqolozana wants to change will require him to have very good karma because he would need many lifetimes to achieve all of this. His response was not only to withdraw from so-called white literary festivals. He then went on to partner festivals like Time of the Writer at my university (UKZN), with a Decolonisation of the Book project.

My response is somewhat different: I say start a literary festival in one of the most famous places on the planet – Soweto.

As I understand Mgqolozana’s project it was, like Brexit, an attempt to turn inward. To take back a space that was unfairly taken away from black writers during apartheid. To assert the equality of black writers in a new space free from the hegemony of the book industry in South Africa. To give black writers centre stage. But it comes with a cost: the exclusion of white writers. The exclusion of Indian and coloured writers. I am friends on Facebook with many black writers. And whenever they post photos from literary events, all you see is black faces. Like all you see at Franschhoek is white faces.

In my heart I have to believe in the way of Mandela. In the way of Kathrada. In a rainbow nation.

Let me use an analogy. In marriage, you can choose to fight like cats and dogs for months on end until the only way out one can see is divorce. Or as my wife tells me, in the midst of a shouting match, you can simply hug the person, no matter how much they push you away. And say ‘We have fought long enough. I love you.’ I have the soul of a writer and I believe in the power of literature to unite. Even in times of doubt, this is all I have to cling on to.

This is why I am starting the Soweto Literary Festival. To create a truly non-racial literary festival in a black township, something that has never ever been done before. A start has been made in Khayelitsha. But that was more a book fair, not a literary festival. I have always maintained Soweto looms large in the literary imagination of South Africa. It is the home of two Nobel Laureates revered throughout the world: Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. And there are enough books on Tutu and Mandela to form the supporting pillars for the biggest bookshop in South Africa.

But Soweto is so much more than Mandela and Tutu. Soweto is the cradle of black literature. It was home to the canon of black literature in South Africa – Mongane Wally Serote, Sipho Sepamla Njabulo Ndebele, Miriam Tlali, Ellen Kuzwayo and Benedict Vilakazi. These are writers from the golden era of black writing in South Africa. The list becomes more extensive if one considers figures like Winnie Mandela, Miriam Makeba, and countless others who were the subject of great literary output. Not to mention the likes of photographer Peter Magubane.

It is also home to some of the household names in present-day South African literature, most notably Niq Mhlongo.

Make no mistake, Soweto is as close as you are going to come to a literary capital of South Africa.

And I believe all races will come to Soweto for such a literary festival. I believe it can become a truly international festival if the city fathers of Johannesburg follow through on their standard letters: ‘We thank you for your interest in the City of Johannesburg. We will be in touch with you shortly.’ 10 years have passed since I got a letter like this from the National Department of Arts and Culture about South Africa’s national Booktown in the Karoo. Two years have passed since I gave the mayor’s office the greatest idea in the history of book festivals for Johannesburg.

So what I want to see after this article is officials serving the people.

I will not be going to them, especially not after an Afrikaans organisation like the ATKV has made a literary festival in Soweto possible. They must come to me, because that will show they truly believe in the potential of such a project. And that they value black writers.

The problem does not only lie with Franschhoek. It lies with departments of arts and culture all over South Africa who have failed the black writers of this country. It is a sad indictment that after 21 years of democracy no black township has a literary festival. It is a sad indictment that there is no statue to the likes of Miriam Tlali. To Mongane Wally Serote. To Alex la Guma. To Herbert Dhlomo and to his brother RRR Dhlomo.

So I am taking a leap of faith and hoping that ordinary people – black, brown, white and all shades in between – will attend Soweto’s first literary festival, because every talk, every performance will be free to the public, like we do in Booktown Richmond.

I am taking a leap of faith and hoping that all writers will give freely of their talents for a worthy project.

I am taking a leap of faith and hoping that publishers will sponsor writers’ costs to this festival and not opt for Franschhoek because it offers you the publisher’s picture-perfect landscapes and vats full of that greatest lubricator of social intercourse.

I am taking a leap of faith and hoping that in 2017 the Sunday Times will present the Sunday Times Literary Awards at the second Soweto Literary Festival.

I am taking a leap of faith and hoping that the South African Publishers Association will resurrect the SA Book Fair at the 2017 Soweto Literary Festival.

But even if all else fails, we will do this the Booktown Richmond way. No more meetings. No more workshops. We will just do it. One book at a time!

I will remain Forever BookBedonnerd.

The Soweto Literary Festival will be held at the magnificent Soweto Theatre.

It is the obvious venue because symbolically there can be no better choice of venue with its multitude of colours to signify the coming together of writers of all races.

People who would like to get involved for the love of literature, “with no hope of remuneration”, are asked please to contact David on or

  • Darryl Earl David was the only Indian lecturer of Afrikaans in South Africa for over two decades. At the beginning of 2016 he was redeployed to the English Department at UKZN after Afrikaans was discontinued there. He is better known as the founder of Booktown Richmond in the Karoo town of Richmond. He is the founder of the Zulu Literary Museum at UKZN and of the SA Independent Publishers Awards for Best Self-Published Books, and also the founder and director of a number of literary festivals in the country.

Soweto Theatre image: Heritage Collection/Darryl David image: Supplied

2016 Writivism Short Story Prize longlist announced after record entries



Alert! The 2016 Writivism Short Story Prize longlist has been announced, including local writers Megan Ross and Catherine Shepherd, and Tanzanian Noella Moshi, who lives in South Africa.

The Writivism Short Story Prize is an annual award for emerging African writers administered by the Center for African Cultural Excellence (CACE). Entrants must be unpublished writers, resident in an African country.

Entries in French were accepted for the first time this year.

This is the longest Writivism longlist to date, at 21 stories, after a record number of over 500 entries.

A group of readers whittled the list down to 100 stories, which were then sent to the judges for consideration. The 2016 judging panel is Tsitsi Dangarembga (Chair), Richard Ali Mutu, Sumayya Lee, Okwiri Oduor and Mamadou Diallo.

The winner will receive prize money of $400 (about R6,000), while all shortlisted writers receive $100 and travel to Kampala, Uganda for the annual Writivism Festival. All longlisted stories are published in the annual Writivism anthology, which will be edited this year by Emmanuel Sigauke.

Previous winners of the award include Johannesburger Saaleha Idrees Bamjee, Pemi Aguda of Nigeria and Ugandan writer Anthea Paelo.

2016 Writivism Short Story Prize longlist

Laure Gnagbé Blédou, for “Jene suis pas rentree”
Idza Luhumyo, for “Decisive Moments”
Aito Osemegbe Joseph, for “The List”
Merdi Muintshe, for “Un Certain 36 Novembrre”
Mathyas Kouadio, for “La Voie De Son Coeur”
Megan Ross, for “Duiweltjie”
Acan Innocent Immaculate, for “Sun Down”
Doreen Anyango, for “Levels”
Gloria Mwaniga Odary, for “Boyi”
Praise Nabimanya, for “Free Fall”
Aïssa Tâ, for “Un Couple Qui En Dit Long”
Frances Ogamba, for “Subtle Defence”
Le K-Yann, for “Poison D’avril”
Bura-Bari Nwilo, for “Like Eyes Liquid With Hope”
Sese Yane, for “We Will Be Safe”
Noella Moshi, for “Possession”
Jude Mutuma, for “Grey Love”
Abu Amirah, for “The Swahilification Of Mutembei”
Acidri Malunga, for “The Story Not Told”
Catherine Shepherd, for “The Woman’s Way”
Farai Mudzingwa, for “A Native Metamorphosis”

Image courtesy of Writivism

Don’t miss the Wola Nani charity book sale at the Gardens Centre

Books are uniquely portable magic. – Stephen King

A charity book sale supporting Wola Nani is being held in the Gardens Centre in Cape Town until Sunday, 3 July.

Books, CDs and DVDs will be available at the pop-up fundraiser, with proceeds going to support the NGOs work with women, orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) affected by the Aids crisis.

The sale will offer a broad swathe of reading matter, from popular fiction to hard-to-find titles from authors like Gerald Durrell, Pearl S Buck and PG Wodehouse.

Those looking for a good novel will find selections in the following genres; modern classics/literary fiction, South African writers, classics, contemporary crime writing, vintage/pulp crime, current thrillers, historical thrillers, conspiracy thrillers, sci fi/adult fantasy, romance and children’s.

For non-fiction audiences, interests in War, History, Biography, Esoteric, Mind Body & Spirit, Art, Architecture and Design, Business/Management, SA Current Affairs and Armchair Travel will be well represented.

Lovers of antiquarian volumes and other collectible ephemera will find gems amongst the coffee table books. There will also be Poetry and Plays as well as Cookery books on sale.

The Wola Nani pop-up charity book sale will be hosted on the upper level of the Gardens Centre (in front of the parking pay machines) from 9 AM to 7 PM (Monday – Friday), 9 AM to 5 PM (Saturdays) and 9 AM to 2 PM (Sundays).

“Wola Nani” is an isiXhosa term that loosely translates “to embrace”. Established in 1994, the non-profit organisation is committed to assisting people living with HIV/Aids, to be able to help and support themselves and to offer aid and relief to HIV stricken communities. The NGO was established as a result of economic restrictions on welfare spending and a big increase in the number of HIV/Aids cases. In its bid to curb this, Wola Nani introduced programmes to help HIV positive people in local communities to cope with the emotional and financial constraints brought about by HIV/Aids.

For further information, or to donate books, please contact Mark ( on 083 342 2261 or visit

‘People asked me: Are you insane?’ – Read Rape author Pumla Dineo Gqola’s Alan Paton Award acceptance speech

2016 Sunday Times Literary Awards
Pumla Dineo Gqola and Nkosinathi Sithole with Bongani Siqoko
Alan Paton AwardRape

Pumla Dineo Gqola won the 2016 Alan Paton Award for Non-fiction on Saturday, for her book Rape: A South African Nightmare.

The judges called it “a timely, fearless and frightening book and an urgent attempt to deal with the unspoken in our society”.

The winners were announced at a black tie event in Sandton. Apart from receiving the prestigious Sunday Times Literary Awards accolade, each author is also awarded prize money of R100,000.


Read Gqola’s acceptance speech:

When I told people I was writing this book many of them said, ‘Who on earth wants to read a book about rape, are you insane?’

Thank you to my ‘insane’ publisher, Melinda Ferguson, who didn’t bat an eyelid when I ambushed her – at what was supposed to be a lunch to discuss a much happier book – with the news that in fact I wanted to write a book about rape.

Thank you to my family and my wonderful sister, who is in tears after almost giving herself an ulcer as we waited tonight. Thank you to the judges, I am honoured to receive this and I’m honoured to have been on a shortlist with these fantastic co-shortlistees. David Attwell, who I’ve admired for a long time, Maxine Case, who is remarkable, and Khaya Dlanga, who is surprising and incredible – I can’t wait to read your next book.

Before the music, and on a much more serious note, I’m also pleased to be living in a country where I can write this book, and at a time when I am hopeful, because we are starting to see a shift in how we are talking about rape and gender violence in this country. If my book can contribute and has contributed a little bit to that conversation, and continues to, thank you.

Nkosinathi Sithole won the 2016 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize, for his debut novel Hunger Eats a Man.

Book details

‘I dedicate this award to me, when I was living in poverty’: Read Nkosinathi Sithole’s Barry Ronge Prize acceptance speech

2016 Sunday Times Literary Awards
Pumla Dineo Gqola and Nkosinathi Sithole with keynote speaker Thuli Madonsela
Barry Ronge Fiction PrizeHunger Eats a Man

Nkosinathi Sithole won the 2016 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize on Saturday, for his debut novel Hunger Eats a Man.

The judges said: “This book does what a book should do; it comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. A poignant, prescient story, enriched by unexpected humour.”

The winners were announced at a black tie event in Sandton. Apart from receiving the prestigious Sunday Times Literary Awards accolade, each author is also awarded prize money of R100,000.

Echoing the tone of his book, Sithole’s acceptance speech was rousing, and brimming with dark humour:

I think I’m supposed to thank many people but I’m not going to mention them all by name. I’m just going to say thanks to Sunday Times, to Penguin, and to the many people who made this story Hunger Eats a Man possible.

Sadly, these are the people who are suffering, the people who are living in poverty. I think, right now, that maybe I should be dedicating the award to them. But I know they would rather have the money than the dedication. I do want to keep the money. So as someone who has lived in poverty I would rather dedicate this award to me, back then when I was living in poverty.

Pumla Dineo Gqola won the Alan Paton Award for Non-fiction for her book Rape: A South African Nightmare.

Book details

Pumla Dineo Gqola and Nkosinathi Sithole win the 2016 Sunday Times Literary Awards

Pumla Dineo Gqola and Nkosinathi Sithole win the 2016 Sunday Times Literary Awards
Alan PatonBarry Ronge
RapeHunger Eats a Man

Alert! Pumla Dineo Gqola and Nkosinathi Sithole have been announced as the winners of the prestigious Sunday Times Literary Awards.

The winners were announced at a black tie event in Sandton. Apart from receiving the prestigious Sunday Times Literary Awards accolade, each author is also awarded prize money of R100,000.

Debut novelist Nkosinathi Sithole was awarded the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize for his book Hunger Eats a Man, published by Penguin Books.

Pumla Dineo Gqola received the Alan Paton Award for her book Rape: A South African Nightmare, published by MF Books.

Advocate Thuli Madonsela was the guest speaker at the event.

The Barry Ronge Fiction Prize was judged this year by Rustum Kozain (chair), Angela Makholwa-Moabelo and Stephen Johnson.

Of Hunger Eats a Man, Kozain says, “This is something entirely new in South African literature, in terms of its language and style. The writing is exceptional in the way it bends English to its own purpose. It’s a beautiful, disturbing, highly original novel with touches of unexpected humour.”

The story is set in KwaZulu-Natal and highlights the plight of rural South Africans. Sithole has a PhD in English Studies and teaches at the University of Zululand.

The Alan Paton Award judging panel was chaired by Achmat Dangor, supported by judges Tinyiko Maluleke and Pippa Green.

In Rape: A South African Nightmare, Gqola investigates the history and causes of the epidemic of sexual violence in the country. “This is a fearless book that speaks a powerful truth of our times. Nuanced and cogently argued, it tackles the subject from every possible aspect in an attempt to deal with the unspoken,” Dangor says.

Gqola is a professor of African Literature at Wits University.

Sunday Times books editor Jennifer Platt says: “The Sunday Times Literary Awards have always acted as a sort barometer of the nation’s preoccupations, highlighting books that pick up and explore our concerns.

“There is an urgency reflected in the themes of the winning books this year: of poverty, hunger and the vapid promises of politicians and religion in one, and in the other the overt threat of toxic masculinity that pervades South Africa.”

Last year’s winners were Jacob Dlamini and Damon Galgut.
More about the books:

Hunger Eats a Man by Nkosinathi Sithole

Rape: A South African Nightmare


Book details

RIP Adam Small (1936-2016)

Adam Small en Rosalie Small
GoreeThe Orange EarthKlawerjasVi' Adam SmallKrismis van Map JacobsKo lat ons singKanna hy kô huistoe

Poet, writer, academic and Black Consciousness activist Adam Small has died, aged 79, after complications arising from an operation.

Small was born on 21 December 1936 in Wellington. He matriculated in 1953 from St Columba’s High School in Athlone on the Cape Flats. In 1963 he completed an MA (cum laude) in the philosophy of Nicolai Hartmann and Friedrich Nietzsche at the University of Cape Town. He also studied at the University of London and Oxford University in the United Kingdom.

Small became a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Fort Hare in 1959, and in 1960 he was one of the academic founders of the University of the Western Cape, when he was appointed Head of the Philosophy Department. In the early 1970s he joined the Black Consciousness movement.

In 1973 he was pressured to resign from the UWC, which prompted a move to Johannesburg, where he became the Head of Student Body Services at Wits University. He returned to Cape Town in 1977, where he was Director of the Western Cape Foundation for Community Services until 1983. In 1984 he returned to the UWC as the Head of the Social Services Department, a position he held until his retirement in 1997.

Adam SmallSmall made his debut as a poet in 1957 with Verse van die liefde. Some of his other well known poetry volumes include Kitaar my kruis (1961) and Sê Sjibbolet (1963). His best known theatrical drama is Kanna hy kô hystoe (1965).

He was awarded the Hertzog Prize in 2012, for his contribution to drama. The award, long overdue, was not without controversy as the prize is usually awarded to a writer who has published new work.

His play The Orange Earth, written in 1978 in the heyday of apartheid and two years after the Soweto Uprising, was published for the first time by NB Publishers in 2013. At the same time his first poetry collection in 40 years, Klawerjas, was also published.

City of Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille paid tribute to Small, saying: “It is with great sadness that I have learnt of the passing of one of our county’s dear sons, Adam Small.

“As a writer and poet, Adam Small used his craft to highlight the oppression suffered by the working class under the apartheid regime.

“Last year I was honoured to sit next to Adam Small and listen to his famous pieces, ‘Kô lat ons sing’ and ‘Oos wes tuis bes Distrik Ses’. Many years after he had written those pieces, his words and the emotions were still so vivid and touching. On behalf of the City of Cape Town, I extend my deepest condolences to the family and friends of Adam Small.

“Rest in peace Adam Small. We will always remember you for your great contribution to literature and the Struggle.”

Books LIVE sends condolences to Small’s wife, Rosalie, and his family and friends.

Book details

All the 2016 Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Prize shortlistees

2016 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize shortlist
Barry Ronge Prize

The winners of the Sunday Times Literary Awards will be announced on Saturday, 25 June, 2016.

The Barry Ronge Fiction Prize is awarded to “a novel of rare imagination and style, evocative, textured and a tale so compelling as to become an enduring landmark of contemporary fiction”.

Who do you want to take the award? Share your thoughts with us on Facebook, Twitter or in the comments below!

The 2016 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize finalists are:

Boy on the WireThe Dream HouseThe Magistrate of GowerGreen LionHunger Eats a Man

Click here for the Alan Paton Award for non-fiction shortlist

Read interviews with all the shortlistees:

All the 2016 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award shortlistees

2016 Alan Paton Award shortlist
Alan Paton Award


The winners of the Sunday Times Literary Awards will be announced on Saturday, 25 June, 2016.

The Alan Paton Award will be bestowed upon a book that presents an “illumination of truthfulness, especially those forms of it that are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power”, and that demonstrates “compassion, elegance of writing, and intellectual and moral integrity”.

Who do you want to take the award? Share your thoughts with us on Facebook, Twitter or in the comments below!

The 2016 Alan Paton Award shortlist finalists are:

JM Coetzee and the Life of WritingPapwaTo Quote MyselfRapeShowdown at the Red Lion

Click here for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize shortlist

Read interviews with all the shortlistees:

‘I don’t feel like I was ever a man’: Anastacia Tomson discusses her book Always Anastacia: A Transgender Life in South Africa

Published in the Sunday Times

Always AnastaciaAlways Anastacia: A Transgender Life in South Africa
Anastacia Tomson (Jonathan Ball)

She digs into her handbag for a pen. “Oh, that’s an eye pencil – that’s not going to work,” she says, grinning privately. “Ah, here we go.”

She opens her little notebook on a blank page.

“Let me explain,” she says. Then, in blue ink, she writes:

F/M (female/male)

XX/XY (chromosomes)

E/T (estrogen/testosterone – hormones)

U/P (uterus/prostate – internal reproductive organs)

O/T (ovarian tissue/testicular tissue – gonads)

V/P (vulva/penis and scrotum – external genitalia)

“So you know that the XX and XY chromosomes are only one of the biological determinants of sex, right?” she says. “There are actually five and, spoiler alert: they do not always line up. Have you ever actually tested to see which chromosomes you have? Have you ever seen inside your own body and actually identified a prostate or uterus? Have you had tissue sampled from your gonads?”

We’re about an hour into the interview and this response – Anastacia Tomson’s response – refers to an article I printed out and brought to the interview. The headline reads: “Johns Hopkins Psychiatrist: It is starkly, nakedly false that sex change is possible”.

The article was published last year, shortly after Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn, and in it writer Paul McHugh suggests that gender dysphoria is a kind of delusion and should be treated with psychotherapy instead of surgery.

“Let me stop you there,” Tomson says. The article is dangling from my fingers, swaying microscopically in the breeze of the restaurant’s aircon. “Was it written by someone called Paul McHugh?”


“Paul McHugh has been discredited universally by all his colleagues and the American Psychiatric Association has publicly decried him as a crack and a bigot. People like to harp on about his background at Johns Hopkins, like it gives him credibility, but the man is very well respected for bigotry and very little else. And a lot of his assertions have been debunked by scientific evidence.”

Tomson – as a trans woman who’s a doctor who’s Jewish who’s written a book about her gender conflict and transition – knows her shit.

Going into this interview I had a vision of pressing some or other red Anastacia button too often – asking, for interest and fact’s sake, whether Tomson aspires to be South Africa’s answer to Jenner.

“All the suffering, all the trauma, all the vulnerability and exposure – what could possibly be worth that?” she says. “What payoff could possibly make all of that worthwhile if I wasn’t in it for the right reasons?”

This makes sense. I won’t go into great detail because you should bloody well buy the book and read it (and this is not a PR punt from the publishers – it’s a mostly well-written book that’s worth the cover price to gain valuable insight into the complexities of transgenderism), but Tomson’s struggles have been severe. Never mind enduring nearly 30 years of gender dysphoria (Tomson had been aware of her dysphoria since childhood), she has also had to contend with an emotionally abusive father, a near absent mother and a community – both personal and professional – that received her dysphoria with ignorance, dismay or indifference.

“I think one of the more interesting aspects for me [since the publication of the book and subsequent publicity] is the delineation between the personal and the political – where does my personal life stop and the Anastacia brand begin? There is still a lot of conflict around that,” she says.

“I joke about being a professional trans person, but a lot of the time it feels like I am. There’s that struggle to say, ‘Well, I represent trans interests but I’m not representative of every trans person and I fight to defend human rights as they’re applicable to trans people.’ But where does that stop? And after you take that away, when I’m not ‘at work’ who am I and how do I not become typecast in that way?”

I imagine that when you have gender dysphoria you become pretty adept at self-examination, although while plenty of us have pondered the notion of self, very few of us have felt drawn into questioning whether we’re existing in the right body.

What’s so compelling about Tomson’s history is the very real idea that her past is basically irrelevant to her and that she has only become her true self in the year since her transition. From this come fantastic questions and insomnial conundrums regarding the true nature of one’s existence and whether it’s possible to shed one “false” existence and replace it with another, “truer”, one through physical or emotional means, or both.

Tomsons’s response to this is typically swift and thorough: “There are two sides to this. The one is the political thing about how a lot of trans representation feeds into some damaging tropes and one of the damaging tropes is male-to-female transgender. I don’t identify like that. I say I’m a trans woman, I say I was never male.

“A lot of transphobia stems from the idea that trans women are really men, or that they used to be men and that they’re deceiving and trying to fool everyone into being something they’re not. I’m not comfortable with identifying in that space. I don’t feel like I was ever a man. But when it comes to what was the ‘old life’ – and I try not to appropriate any experiences that aren’t mine – I liken it to bondage, slavery. I was imprisoned by a pretence that I had to maintain in order to survive at that time. I didn’t have a choice in it; it was on the rest of the world’s terms instead of my own. It reflects no truths about me – it was what I had to do otherwise there would be consequences.

“Why are you fixed on who I had to be instead of who I am? What is your fascination with it? It was inauthentic, it was a lie and a pretence and an act and I kept it up because I had to do it. Seeing photos of that time is a painful reminder. Does anyone want to be reminded of when they were in slavery?”

Tomson will not bring out photographs of herself taken more than a year ago. That person does not exist nor did they ever exist. What you’d be seeing is photos of ghosts. Tomson, too, will never reveal her “deadname” (her previous “male” name) and over the past year she has committed to the arduous effort of legally changing her name and her sex, and getting her medical certificate amended so that she can begin practising as Dr Anastacia Tomson.

She wants to be a doctor who people in similar situations can go to without fear of facing the ignorance and sometimes blatant prejudice she experienced. There might even be another book. But right now she’s off to the US to take her place in the Mandela-Washington fellowship, which will culminate in meeting President Barack Obama.

Interview over, we part ways. I stand for a moment to watch her make her way through the lunchtime crowd. Just another woman on her way home.


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