South African writer Hedley Twidle enjoys taking his readers on a “process of learning”, something he feels is beginning to resonate with local and, significantly, younger audiences as they attempt to wade through interminable reams of information on the internet.
The UCT lecturer’s new book, Firepool, is a collection of some of his finest writings, and gives an altogether different insight into the South African condition.
While he irreverently admits the title he selected is “a bit click baity”, he believes it also speaks to the material contained in the book.
“Firstly, I think ‘Firepool’ is a beautiful word. But it can also be a metaphor for many of the subjects in the book. Fires have had a profound social and political history in Cape Town. Then there’s water and swimming, which is also reflected in our damaged history with segregated beaches.”
As one of the country’s standout essayists, Twidle is differentiated from the slew of op-ed columnists whose views flood cyberspace each day. More often than not, these commentators take a direct approach adhering to a more or less preordained narrative, absolutist in their prose with no quarter given.
In this respect, he seeks to buck the trend by focusing on the “backstory” and developing this to keep the reader interested.
“An essay is slightly sit-back mode. The writer takes you on a process of learning to know something.”
Twidle is a stickler for what he terms the “inhuman condition”, or experiences and works that don’t make human beings the central subject. A definitive example in the book are his excellent insights on the N2 highway, a road that everybody uses but seldom gives a second thought.
“If you tell a story via an object, it throws up an array of intriguing plots. The French writer Georges Perec who was inspired by mundane spaces. I enjoy the playfulness with which he looks at these subjects.”
As both writer and teacher, Twidle is of course impacted by the “social media revolution” and how this is shaping the world. Nearing 40 years of age, he recalls that prior to the advent of resources being readily available on the internet, young people essentially had to piece together information from various sources, yet there also was a certain value to this process.
“A lot of creativity comes from limitation,” he said.
Pleasingly, given Twidle’s chosen career path and focus, the essay and contemporary narrative non-fiction was growing in popularity, something he remarked he had noticed among his students.
“I think it’s finding favour because people want an analytic guide. I would rather wait to read a long form piece, which is deeply informative.
“I think what we are seeing is a return to writers who go out into the world, and meet people face to face. We all obviously use the internet for research purposes, but I think it is dawning on people that the world is not the internet.
“One thing I wanted to do with reading and writing is take them ‘outdoors’, to look at all that is happening in the world.”
From the perspective of a lecturer at UCT, Twidle has of course seen the rise of the Fallist movement, and how this has influenced the university. But once again, he is disinclined to pursue the path most beaten.
“We are all in this together, but it is very important to try to understand the complexity of what is happening. I’m interested in what comes next.”