- Counting the Costs of NonfictionAn Interview with Jonny Steinberg
Before turning thirty-five, South African literary journalist Jonny Steinberg already enjoyed the singular distinction of being the only South African author ever to have twice won his nation's highest prize for literary nonfiction, the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award. Steinberg's books have examined racial violence on South African farms, gang life in prisons, and South African policing. His narrative nonfiction book on AIDS treatment policies and practice was published in South Africa as Three-Letter Plague and in the United States as Sizwe's Test: A Young Man's Journey through Africa's AIDS Epidemic. Steinberg was educated in his native South Africa and at Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. Steinberg currently is writing a book about Liberian émigrés who live in a housing project on New York City's Staten Island. Steinberg sat down recently with River Teeth coeditor Daniel W. Lehman at the Washington Square Hotel in New York City to discuss his literary nonfiction as well as the ethical and artistic implications it raises for authors and characters.
One aspect of your nonfiction work that really stands out is that you count the costs of your relationship with the subjects who become your characters—perhaps not in an unprecedented way, but in [End Page 31] a way that's deeply interesting and significant. This habit puts you out on the frontier as a nonfiction writer.
Well, I'm not sure that I really count the cost. Really counting the cost might mean abandoning the book I'm writing, and I haven't ever seriously contemplated that. One can look pretty good pretending to count the cost.
There is another reason that my relationship with my subjects is something I explore in my writing. In many ways, narrative nonfiction is fiction's poorer cousin. It borrows fiction's codes of characterization, of plot development. It borrows the way fiction elaborates a world. And so the narrative nonfiction writer gathers reams of material from the world and twists it pretty violently into the shape of a readable story. What a nonfiction writer cannot do, though—the one twist he or she cannot accomplish—is pretend to know what is happening in a character's head. As a nonfiction writer, I can spend a year shadowing a character, and yet I will only know what he dreams if he chooses to tell me. I will only know that he beats his wife in the evening after spending the day with me if he or she confides in me. What I know best about him is what I experience of him, and that is the relationship he develops with me. I am a middle-class white South African who has generally written about poor black South Africans. Behind the ways in which my subjects perform for me, want to please me, resent me, need to conceal things from me, dislike me, lies the story of a whole country.
I was lucky that while I was working on my first book, in 1999-2000, I discovered the writer Janet Malcolm. She explores precisely the question of what a biographer or a journalist can know about his subject, and very thoughtfully at that. Reading her was enormously empowering. I was an inexperienced writer, and I stumbled across a couple of books that gave very powerful expression to the very things I thought were most integral to the craft I was learning.
So Janet Malcolm is really the primary influence on you? [End Page 32]
By far and away. Particularly The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, but also The Journalist and the Murderer.
Talk about your relationship with the man you call "Sizwe Magadla" in your 2008 nonfiction book, Sizwe's Test: A Young Man's Journey through Africa's AIDS Epidemic. Obviously, the relationship and its terms are crucial to your writing and reporting.
I met Sizwe through some people who briefly appear in Sizwe's Test. In the book they are "the bird watchers." Sizwe is a poor man who lives close to...