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“Everybody Bears the Marks of their Birth” – Stephen Clingman at the Launch of Birthmark

Stephen Clingman

BirthmarkA birthmark around a right eye, an attempt to remove it, and its subsequent return, is transmuted into a compelling motif in Stephen Clingman’s memoir, Birthmark.

“South Africa has always been organised around marks and colouration of skins. Everybody bears the marks of their birth. This is an attempt to explore one life in its visibility – about looking and being looked at,” Clingman said at the launch of his book, which took place at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER) last month.

Clingman, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, has written authoritatively on Nadine Gordimer and Bram Fischer. He has now turned his focus inwards, with the exploration of identity and belonging in Birthmark.

“It’s the grammar of identity. The fate of someone who lives where they were not born,” Clingman said. It became important for him, especially after having children, to leave behind something that would remain after him, something that spoke of their history. “If I didn’t, what will they know of where they come from?” Clingman referred to his own Lithuanian ancestors, saying that the country of their birth was a mystery to him.

The book takes the form of fragments of memory, the text interspersed with first and third person narratives in past and present tense. Clingman responded to a question by author Jonny Steinberg who joined him in conversation: “The first person narratives were palpable memories. My choices were also partly conceptual. A first person narrative could also be someone speaking in the third person. I was interested in the question, ‘Who are we when we think about the past?’”

WiSER director Sarah Nuttall asked Clingman if perhaps he felt his book were too allegorical, and if there was not a way for memoir to draw in the ways of others. “I often tell my own students not to allegorise. I was interested in the metonymy,” Clingman responded. Earlier, he had said that while his story is very particular, he hoped it would hold resonance for others.

Clingman said he wrote two pieces for his book in a day, an exercise in method, using loose associations. In this way he would always have something to write about. “Much of my writing has has happened while I’ve been away or abroad. Distance has a liberating effect. There are no voices to tell you that a story isn’t worth telling. If I’d written this book here, it would have been a very different book or it may not have even been written at all,” he said.

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Saaleha Idrees Bamjee (@saaleha) live tweeted the event using #livebooks:


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Stephen Clingman launched the book in conversation with Sarah Nuttall and Jonny Steinberg at Wiser

Posted by Jacana Media on Wednesday, 3 June 2015


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