Where does this piece start? Where does the conversation begin?
Say it begins in a room on West Campus, at the bottom of a building, beneath exposed orange pipes. Gathered around a table, in the same place where last week Eula Biss sat, are two South African writers—one a librettist and composer, the other a journalist and blogger. Gathered around them is a mix of people: they are racially diverse, they come from Durham, they come from Duke, they come from both. They come into the city, and into this campus, and into this room, at different points in time. Some come into the room after the discussion starts. Some say that they have just moved to the city from Brooklyn, and from elsewhere. The librettist and journalist have moved to Durham for just a month, to share their stories with people like the ones who’ve come here to share theirs today.
Neo Muyanga and Khadija Patel are the inaugural recipients of the WiSER-Duke Visiting Writing Fellowship. The new cross-institutional program, between Johannesburg (the University of the Witwatersrand) and Durham (Duke), is designed to grant accomplished non-academic writers the chance to work within academic spaces. I first became interested in the program because I read that one of my former professors, Sarah Nuttall, would be helping to facilitate the exchange. Then I began reading about the two fellows’ work—about Muyanga’s compositions and co-founding of the Pan African Space Station, and about Patel’s journalism for South Africa’s Daily Maverick and her current book project on Mayfair, a suburb of Johannesburg. Enthralled by what I now knew, I expected to sit, further enthralled, as the two talked about what they do. There would be probing but mild-mannered questions from the audience about their work, and we would eat nice food and leave feeling happy with ourselves.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion writes in The White Album. In her first book, The Balloonists, Eula Biss quotes her back: “‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ writes Joan Didion, with a certain skepticism. We also live by the stories we tell.” I like how Biss, with the same skepticism, re-fashions Didion’s words in order to say something not only about our tendency, as humans, to narrativize in order to make meaning. Biss seems to be suggesting that we’re bound by these stories, in our action and inaction. And I’d go further: that which binds us in turn renders us, and our stories, necessarily incomplete.
I like the different angles Didion’s and Biss’s words create. I felt these angles take shape during the event at the Forum for Scholars and Publics. The conversation with Muyanga and Patel was formally structured around the term “black money”—referring to the rise of the black middle class in Johannesburg but also, I found out, to the trajectory of the black middle class in Durham. The conversation hinged on the stories its participants were willing to tell, about how race, urban development, and economic power interlock in Durham. We think there’s a connection here, the South Africans said. I’ll give you my context if you give me yours.
The first response: this conversation should begin elsewhere—downtown, outside the academy, in a black church, or library, or other community space. This sentiment—that the conversation is necessarily incomplete—is one I don’t often hear voiced so plainly during on-campus discussions about Duke and Durham. I appreciated it, as much as I appreciate how necessary it is to hold these types of conversations on campus. The comment gave the event texture, and gave spirit to the comments and questions that followed, things that piggy-backed off each other, like: who do cities belong to, and how does that ‘who’ factor into how cities are designed? If cities from Durham to Brooklyn to Johannesburg are modeling themselves into a universal currency of artisanal hipness, who’s able to ‘play’ in these spheres, and who’s left out? When we imagine the cities—and realities—of the future, do we envision the oppressed rising to extreme wealth? Do we want the realities we live with now?
Muyanga and Patel responded back, fashioning the audience comments into reflections on their experiences of Johannesburg. I caught Muyanga afterward and brought up my research project in Dublin, how I’d been investigating the closure of an arts space in the city center. My story didn’t really have a point; it served as a sort of proof that I’d studied the types of things we all spent an hour talking about. I realize now that being in that room and sharing something about living in Durham would have been enough. I have lived in this particular city for almost six years now. I know my knowledge is incomplete, but that gives me fuel—as does sitting in a room on West Campus, sitting alongside others, and placing ‘our’ cities in conversation.