#7 Terminating a text and identity writing – Tony Harding

Augustus 26, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

There is something I like about this quotation from Jerome S Bruner in Making Stories.

The construction of selfhood, it seems, cannot proceed without a capacity to narrate. Once we are equipped with that capacity, we can produce a selfhood that joins us with others, that permits us to hark back selectively to our past while shaping ourselves for the possibilities of an imagined future. We gain the self-told narratives that make and remake ourselves from the culture in which we live. However much we may rely on a functioning brain to achieve selfhood, we are virtually from the start expressions of the culture that nurtures us. And culture itself is dialectic, replete with alternative narratives about what self is or might be. The stories we tell to create ourselves reflect that dialectic.

I like the way it recognises that our identities are not fixed, but are fluid.

Of course, this is just a selected quotation, but I want to use it as a starting point to engage with the topic.

I used to think that the word termination, borrowed from my wife, a social worker-turned-banker/farmer, would help colleagues dealing with highly emotive land claims to disengage with communities after dealing with their cases.

Social workers learn to begin termination with their clients’ cases from their first engagement, mostly as a way of keeping boundaries between professional empathy and personal emotions.

These land claim cases stirred emotions and developed relationships which weren’t mentioned in the terms of the job. Each community narrative was so powerful that it brought pain and bonds that could not be disentangled from the personal. Boundaries collapsed.

It was in the nature of the job to bring these cases under the scrutiny of the law. This meant subjecting these narratives to carefully defined tests. The tests were, however, framed in terms completely different from the reference of the affected community.

In one sense, this involved moving between one world and another, between a world of property and a world of land, one world closed to the cosmos, the other open to it.

In another sense, it was an opportunity to engage with a more humane, immanent world. Termination was impossible without loss of something intangible, even one’s sense of being human. It would be a dispossession.


This sense of discomfort, of cognitive dissonance, made me want to write. I needed to find a way of resolving a tension inside myself. A number of events followed – many of which are described in my book Lekgowa – and I got to the point where I had to find closure.

I am not an author, even though I am a former journalist who likes to do a feature article now and again, sometimes a letter to the editor. I am not a literary type, even though I read extensively, broadly, especially in non-fiction. I just like to write.

It got to the point where I just had to write. My life stopped. It was an ancestral crisis.

I quit my job of nine years as a senior manager in government.

My learned response was to plan a book like a project. For many people, project management is a linear invasion of their lives, the death of creativity. A project offers a clear beginning with a clear end. I gave myself three months, maybe six, before starting a new venture.

I looked at my target market. I saw a demand for a particular kind of text. I saw that there were a number of brilliant texts in the market place dealing with identity. I also saw a gap in the market. So I started writing.

In my years of working with land claims, and before that with rural communities, I had accumulated a lot of material for reflection. I wanted to understand the experiences which had impacted on me so profoundly.

I encountered anger, rising from deep within my psyche. As I opened the text it took on a momentum of its own. The path went further into my unconscious mind than I had ever dared to go before. I was on an ancestral search and wanted to find my own link between the living and the dead, something that was integral to the world of people I had worked with for years.

This meant confronting a cultural taboo in my received world. It confronted every rational and religious view I had learnt as a child, later as a young adult – the irony of this did not escape me. My tentative exploration beyond “whiteness” had already caused conflict in my life, especially among family, with the painful loss of social bonds. I was angry about this.


I drew a difficult picture of my family, not only as a child entering an adult world, but as an adult reflecting purposively on these events, using a variety of intellectual tools. The process was the opposite of the linear mode of my thinking patterns, honed for the purposes of a job.

My first discovery was that I did not know who my ancestors were. I searched for family documents, for photographs and any indication of who came before me and what the forces were that shaped them – and me.

I brought a number of new insights into the histories of both my paternal and maternal ancestors. These insights made me aware of how much shame lurked just below the surface in the family narrative and drove me to investigate deeper and deeper. I began to understand why my world stopped. I was frozen with pain.

After some breakthroughs I finally found the kind of details of my maternal ancestors that genealogists dream about. On my paternal side I have yet to make progress beyond illegitimacy with the rural nobility of my apparent ancestral motherland.

As I engaged with these characters in my growing text, they became familiar figures to me. I lived among them. They became part of my dreams. Once forgotten, they were alive again.

My ancestors taught me things about myself I had never known. I learnt that when you separate the dead from the living, you disconnect yourself from things that you need to know about yourself. You learn that the shame that you bear for your ancestors is not part of their world, and that your ancestors want redemption for the living.

My emotions flowed. I had found new bonds, even though I had lost others.

I had been dispossessed, and I had returned.

I began to understand why I found my engagement with land claimants so draining. It was a narrative that I was unready to face.


I have not found closure in writing the book; in fact, I found that closure was an illusion. The book taught me to accept the openness of the world.

I completed Lekgowa in six months. It was a hard decision to close the text. I needed to face the reality that publication means signing off on a final printer’s proof of a book. This took me months.

My project management voice stepped in. Close it! There is other stuff to be done. A new venture needs to be brought into being – just like the book.

Every time someone comments on the text of the book, I open the pages again and look for the things they found that had not revealed themselves to me. There are so many narratives in the text that will still have their time to speak. My conversation with the text continues, and with my ancestors. I have made the dead speak again.

I am ready to move ahead with my life.

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