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Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir

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Overview

An inner life of Johannesburg that turns on the author’s fascination with maps, boundaries, and transgressions

Lost and Found in Johannesburg begins with a transgression—the armed invasion of a private home in the South African city of Mark Gevisser’s birth. But far more than the riveting account of a break-in, this is a daring exploration of place and the boundaries upon which identities are mapped.

     As a child growing ...

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Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir

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Overview

An inner life of Johannesburg that turns on the author’s fascination with maps, boundaries, and transgressions

Lost and Found in Johannesburg begins with a transgression—the armed invasion of a private home in the South African city of Mark Gevisser’s birth. But far more than the riveting account of a break-in, this is a daring exploration of place and the boundaries upon which identities are mapped.

     As a child growing up in apartheid South Africa, Gevisser becomes obsessed with a street guide called Holmden’s Register of Johannesburg, which literally erases entire black townships. Johannesburg, he realizes, is full of divisions between black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight; a place that "draws its energy precisely from its atomization and its edge, its stacking of boundaries against one another." Here, Gevisser embarks on a quest to understand the inner life of his city.

     Gevisser uses maps, family photographs, shards of memory, newspaper clippings, and courtroom testimony to chart his intimate history of Johannesburg. He begins by tracing his family’s journey from the Orthodox world of a Lithuanian shtetl to the white suburban neighborhoods where separate servants’ quarters were legally required at every house. Gevisser, who eventually marries a black man, tells stories of others who have learned to define themselves "within, and across, and against," the city’s boundaries. He recalls the double lives of gay men like Phil and Edgar, the ever-present housekeepers and gardeners, and the private swimming pools where blacks and whites could be discreetly intimate, even though the laws of apartheid strictly prohibited sex between people of different races. And he explores physical barriers like The Wilds, a large park that divides Johannesburg’s affluent Northern Suburbs from two of its poorest neighborhoods. It is this park that the three men who held Gevisser at gunpoint crossed the night of their crime.

     An ode to both the marked and unmarked landscape of Gevisser’s past, Lost and Found in Johannesburg is an existential guide to one of the most complex cities on earth. As Gevisser writes, "Maps would have no purchase on us, no currency at all, if we were not in danger of running aground, of getting lost, of dislocation and even death without them. All maps awaken in me a desire to be lost and to be found . . . [They force] me to remember something I must never allow myself to forget: Johannesburg, my hometown, is not the city I think I know."

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
04/14/2014
Playing a game called Dispatcher as a child in apartheid-era Johannesburg, journalist and writer Gevisser (A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream) became fascinated by maps and what they both revealed and disguised. Poring over Holmden's Register of Johannesburg, the city's official street guide, it eventually dawned on him that entire black townships were simply blocked out, as if they didn't exist; and indeed, until 1976 and the first uprising in Soweto, most white South Africans denied their existence. In this finely calibrated memoir of his dawning political consciousness, Gevisser (born in 1964) tracks his hometown's evolution from a mining camp to the "Manhattan of Africa." A magnet for economic refugees, the bulk of Johannesburg's workforce—mainly blacks and Indians—were hidden from citywide thoroughfares and largely excluded from photographs (such as the servants Gevisser's family employed to care for the children and house.) Gevisser cleverly applies the trope of "boundaries" to the segregation and eventual strangulation of Jewish enclaves in the author's ancestral Lithuania, as well as the closeted and shunted homosexual underworld to which he was drawn. "Stifled by the whiteness, the privilege of childhood," the author found release and self-acceptance living in New York for seven years, a time coinciding with the collapse of apartheid. His dream of an "open city" for all people was challenged by a recent break-in at his friends' home and attack at gunpoint, underscoring the elusiveness of his city, and casting over this elegant memoir shadows of vigilance and insecurity. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
"[Mark Gevisser] is unflinching in his account of the complex contradictions that still haunt his country." —Andrea Denhoed, The New Yorker

"Gevisser . . . is acutely aware of the historical ironies in his story. . . . Part memoir, part psychogeography, his book is concerned with life as it's lived in these liminal spaces, which, in Gevisser's fine handling, take on both physical and symbolic dimensions." —Emma Brockes, The Guardian

"Mark Gevisser asks profound questions—about race, sexuality, faith, and politics—while examining both his own history and that of his beloved Johannesburg. The result, Lost and Found in Johannesburg, is unlike any other book I know. It is illuminating, unsettling, engrossing, often funny, and, in a word, brilliant." —Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs

"Outstanding. A genuinely strange, marvelous, and complex account of a self and a city. Mark Gevisser does for Johannesburg what Orhan Pamuk did for Istanbul. Gevisser is as intimate and sophisticated a guide as one would wish for to this great, troubled metropolis." —Teju Cole, author of Open City

"Mark Gevisser brilliantly maps out multiple worlds fractured by race, class, and history in a story as complex and beautiful as any memoir I’ve ever read." —Dinaw Mengestu, author of All Our Names

"Apartheid is a phenomenal teacher, and Mark Gevisser has converted its untold lessons about geography and gender into a fascinating memoir about the making of a cosmopolitan." —Diane McWhorter, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution

Kirkus Reviews
2014-02-16
A journalist and author from Johannesburg uses maps to retrace the boundaries of his boyhood, the dimensions of apartheid and the geography of imagination. Gevisser, who has published previously about his native country (A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream, 2009, etc.) and wrote the script for the documentary The Man Who Drove with Mandela (1999), returns with an intimate journey through his life, a journey that took a wicked detour in January 2012 when he and two close friends suffered a brutal home invasion. The author begins with some brief pages about the event, mentions it again a few times in the ensuing narrative (it swims, sharklike, just below the surface of the text), then focuses on it in a 40-page section near the end. The author, who is Jewish and gay, writes affectingly about both these aspects of his life, but it was geography, initially, that consumed him as a boy. He loved to play a self-invented game called "Dispatcher," in which he used a map book to imagine lives and journeys; he often played for hours per day. (The game returns in the final section of his text.) Gradually, Gevisser guides us through his life—his family, schooling, travels, love of books and writing, and his dawning awareness of his sexual orientation, apartheid and danger. He includes many maps and photographs, some of which sent him into library archives. He includes accounts of his interviews with people from all walks of Johannesburg life, including a woman who guided him through the township of Alexandra. The home-invasion section is wrenching to read—though the author had the resources to visit therapists and to get away into the mountains with his partner, whom he refers to only as "C." An often moving account of the ways we navigate our emotional and geographical landscapes.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374176761
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/15/2014
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 273,313
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Gevisser is the author of the prizewinning A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream and Portraits of Power: Profiles in a Changing South Africa. He is the coeditor of Defiant Desire: Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, Granta, and other publications. He is the writer of the award-winning documentary film The Man Who Drove with Mandela. Born in Johannesburg in 1964, he lives in France and South Africa. Gevisser was a Writing Fellow at the University of Pretoria from 2009 to 2012 and an Open Society Fellow from 2012 to 2013.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2014

    Same old same old. Same old moralizing about how the devolution

    Same old same old. Same old moralizing about how the devolution of Johannesburg -- from a modern, immaculate, First World metropolis into a violent Third World nightmare -- can be overcome if we all simply come to respect our common humanity.
    But actually, nope, that won't change things back. And parts of this story seem embellished and contrived. This is a writer amongst writers, but I find it ironic how those who most benefit from a society are the first to undermine and deconstruct it. Wouldn't you think the opposite would be true?



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