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Stephen Gray Biography

Nationality: South African. Born: Cape Town, South Africa, 1941. Education: St. Andrew's College, Grahamstown; University of Cape Town; Cambridge University, B.A. in English, M.A. in English; University of Iowa, M.F.A. in creative writing; Rand Afrikaans University, Johannesburg, D. Litt and d. Phil., 1978. Career: Lecturer in English, Aix-en-Provence, two years; professor of English, Rand Afrikaans University, Johannesburg, until 1991. Since 1991 full-time writer. Editor, Granta, and director, Cambridge Shakespeare Group, both while a student at Cambridge; writer-in-residence, 1982, University of Queensland, Australia.



Local Colour. Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1975.

Visible People. Cape Town, Philip, and London, Collings, 1977.

Caltrop's Desire. Cape Town, Philip, and London, Collings, 1980.

John Ross: The True Story. Johannesburg, Penguin, 1987.

Time of Our Darkness. Johannesburg and London, Muller, 1988.

Born of Man. Johannesburg, Justified Press, and London, GMP, 1989.

War Child. Johannesburg, Justified Press, 1991; London, Serif, 1993.

Drakenstein. Johannesburg, Justified Press, 1994.


Schreiner: A One-Woman Play. Cape Town, Philip, 1983.


It's About Time,. Cape Town, Philip, 1974.

The Assassination of Shaka, with woodcuts by Cecil Skotnes. Johannesburg, McGraw-Hill, 1974.

Hottentot Venus and Other Poems. Cape Town, Philip, and London, Collings, 1979.

Season of Violence. Aarhus, Dangaroo Press, 1992.

Selected Poems, 1960-92. Cape Town, David Philip, 1994.

Gabriel's Exhibition: New Poems. Bellville, South Africa, MayibuyeBooks-UWC, 1998.


Southern African Literature: An Introduction. Cape Town, Philip, London, Collings, and New York, Barnes and Noble, 1979.

Douglas Blackburn. Boston, Twayne, 1984.

Human Interest and Other Pieces. Johannesburg, Justified Press, 1993.

Accident of Birth. Johannesburg, COSAW, 1993.

Editor, Writers' Territory. Cape Town, Longman Southern Africa, 1973.

Editor, Mhudi, by Solomon T. Plaatje. London, Heinemann, 1978.

Editor, Theatre One: New South African Drama. Johannesburg, Donker, 1978.

Editor, Modern South African Stories. Johannesburg, Donker, 1980.

Editor, Stormwrack, by C. Louis Leipoldt. Cape Town, Philip, 1980.

Editor, Turbott Wolfe, by William Plomer. Johannesburg, Donker, 1980.

Editor, Theatre Two: New South African Drama. Johannesburg, Donker, 1981.

Editor, Athol Fugard. Johannesburg, McGraw-Hill, 1982.

Editor, Modern South African Poetry. Johannesburg, Donker, 1984.

Editor, with David Schalkwyk, Modern Stage Directions: A Collection of Short Dramatic Scripts. Cape Town, Maskew Miller Longman, 1984.

Editor, Three Plays, by Stephen Black. Johannesburg, Donker, 1984.

Editor, The Penguin Book of Southern African Stories. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Penguin, 1985.

Editor, Selected Poems, by William Plomer. Johannesburg, Donker, 1985.

Editor, Bosman's Johannesburg. Cape Town, Human and Rousseau, 1986.

Editor, Herman Charles Bosman. Johannesburg, McGraw-Hill, 1986.

Editor, Market Plays. Johannesburg, Donker, 1986.

Editor, The Penguin Book of Southern African Verse. London, Penguin, 1989.

Editor, My Children! My Africa! and Selected Shorter Plays, by Athol Fugard. Johannesburg, Witwatersrand University Press, 1990.

Editor, The Natal Papers of "John Ross", by Charles Rawden

Maclean. Pietermaritzburg, University of Natal Press, 1992.

Editor, South Africa Plays. London, Hern, 1993.

Editor, Willemsdorp, by Herman Charles Bosman. Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 1998.

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In addition to his significant work as a poet, playwright, editor, and novelist, Stephen Gray is a prominent literary critic in his native South Africa. Always one to blur the boundaries between categories (be they generic or sociopolitical), Gray frequently combines these writerly personae, revisiting and reassessing his own fiction in his essays. As he has noted on more than one occasion, the legacy of apartheid has forced the South African writer into a position of negotiating between cultural extremes, into crossing multiple and manifold borders. This "hybrid" aesthetic, this "translational" ethic, is well represented in Gray's eight published novels, which regularly transgress the margins of race, class, and sexuality.

Gray's first novel, Local Colour, displays many of the central preoccupations that recur throughout his entire oeuvre: experimentation with form; a facility with the finer details of setting; a penchant for exploring the limits of racial and sexual taboos, in this case so-called miscegenation. A five-part satirical allegory set in Saldanha Bay, a remote outpost near the Cape, the narrative is a fragmentary and complex amalgam of Western literary conventions (interior monologue, epistolary romance) and African modes of oral storytelling (fable, myth). In the main section of the novel, while an American oil tanker burns and lists offshore, Beattie, Chris, and Alex hatch a plot to swindle Beattie's dying Aunt Miriam out of her property. What begins as a mere act of greed soon turns into an epic quest for the truth about Miriam's relationships with the legendary Captain McBlade and Elsabie, her colored maid. This quest motif, which is given even more satirical treatment in Gray's next novel, Visible People, juxtaposes the prejudices inherent in a dominant white mode of perception against the historical contingencies of the indigenous landscape, with decidedly ambivalent results.

The dialectic between past, present, and future operates at some level in all of Gray's novels, but two in particular are concerned with specific watershed moments in South African history. In Caltrop's Desire, on the eve of the 1948 national elections, a dying war correspondent records the waning moments of white liberalism in South Africa and anticipates an even bloodier future for the country under apartheid. In John Ross, Gray writes against the grain of both early-ninteenth-century historical documentation and late-twentieth-century popular mythmaking (Gray's "novel" was meant as a companion volume to the 1987 South African television serial, John Ross: An African Adventure), offering readers "the true story" of the young, redheaded Scottish lad who was shipwrecked at Port Natal in 1825 and subsequently became a member of King Shaka's Zulu court. Drawing attention to both the factual authenticity and the fictionality of his texts, Gray illuminates the often contradictory ways in which history gets written and stories get told.

The bond between dispossessed child and powerful adult is examined further in Time of Our Darkness. Here, however, Gray reverses the races of his central characters; he also complicates their relationship by introducing homosexual desire into the admixture of competing social differences. Nine years after the 1976 Soweto uprising, Disley Mashinini, a young black boy from the townships, transfers into Saint Paul's, an all-white private school. He is soon receiving more than just extracurricular instruction from his teacher, Pete Walker. Gray maps this potentially explosive territory forth-rightly and candidly, underscoring South Africa's erotic investments in the more visible markers of identity, such as race. In this regard, Disley proves to be the wiser of the two protagonists. "'You know, but you don't want to know,"' Pete quotes him as saying at the outset of the novel. "That was the theme of our relationship."

Gay subcultural affiliation receives an altogether more vernacular treatment in Born of Man. Adopting a narrator with a distinctively camp idiom and filling his text with all manner of playful posturing by members of the extended community of Bairnsford Nursery, Gray reinscribes homosexual difference in ways that signify strength, attitude, and ironic pride.

Although most of Gray's novels are highly metafictional (in Born of Man, for example, Gray revisits the epistolary genre via the word processor), Drakenstein is by far Gray's most self-reflexive work to date. Clearly having fun with some of the basic tenets of postmodern theory, he uses the generic codes of the horror story—fictional and cinematic—precisely in order to undermine and subvert them. In confronting the horrific crimes of the past and the present in order to imagine a future for postapartheid South Africa at its time of transition, the narrator, John Raeburn, like the monster in Frankenstein, must also confront the horrors of his own fragmented subjectivity. "Who is this I," he asks at the end of the novel, "impatient but regretful, spitting out his flesh? Which I—I—I—half these sentences begin with I." This referentially unstable first-person pronoun, which surfaces throughout Gray's fiction, has gradually grown more introspective over the course of his career. The autobiographical experiments of Accident of Birth and some of the short pieces in Human Interest are, in many ways, a natural progression from the childhood reminiscences that make up War Child. In the opening sketch of Human Interest, Gray notes that even before he had "grown to any consciousness of how morally wrong apartheid was," he nevertheless understood "that I must become someone who would write about those aspects of life that were not recorded, were never mentioned, not even imagined to exist." Four decades later, decades that comprise a "time of darkness" from which South Africa is only now emerging, Gray has clearly made good on his teenaged vow.

—Peter Dickinson

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