Q&A:Words on the Times – Terry Kurgan

Cover_with dustjacket_3D

Courtesy of Fourthwall Books

Kurgan has achieved something rare in this book: a truly dynamic fusion of text and image. She brings a deep knowledge of craft to everyday images, whether she’s teasing fugitive meanings from a creased pre-war snapshot or taking the pulse of an apparently impersonal digital image. The result is both a moving family memoir and an illuminating reflection on photography and memory.

Ivan Vladislavić, author of Portrait with Keys and Double Negative

Last year (2019), Fourthwall Books published Everyone is Present: Essays on Photography, Family and Memory. Described by Ivan Vladislavić as a “truly dynamic fusion of text and image”, the author, Terry Kurgan, was heralded in an Africa in Words review as “one of South Africa’s most accomplished and sophisticated theorists of her own photographic practice” (by Andrew van der Vlies).

An artist and writer based in Johannesburg, Everyone is Present is Kurgan’s first work of creative non-fiction, a foray that won her South Africa’s premier non-fiction literary prize, the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award, in the year of its release. To mark the success of the book, and taking the opportunity to republish Van der Vlies’ review tomorrow – a review first out with AiW on 15 April, 2019, Tom Penfold spoke to Terry to share her Words on TimesThis Q&A series, offered over recent weeks, acts as a space to explore the creativity and resilience with which writers and artists across the continent are responding to the challenges posed by the global Covid-19 pandemic. 

Fourthwall Books

In this book, Kurgan begins with a family snapshot made by her Polish grandfather in 1939 on the eve of the war. Presenting this evocative image as a repository of multiple histories—public, private, domestic, familial and generational—she sets off on a series of meditations on photography that give us startling insights into how photographs work: what they conceal, how they mislead, what provocations they contain. (http://fourthwallbooks.com/product/everyone-is-present/)



Words on the Times… Terry Kurgan.

Africa in Words: Can you tell us a bit about your work and the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has altered your plans?
Terry Kurgan: The lockdown occurred just after I’d spent my Alan Paton Literary Award prize money on a reprint of my book. We printed quite a small first edition, which had entirely sold out.  An important aside: My publisher is brave, small, niched, independent and perpetually broke! In any event Fourthwall Books always needs to raise funds to produce each new book they publish.  Book sales don’t get anywhere close to enabling the next book. Not  unless you are selling hundreds and thousands of copies, which in South Africa you rarely do. I ordered this reprint because in the wake of the book’s success ( to my profound delight it won several local and international literary awards) I had been invited to do a very exciting series of book talks in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles—7 talk events in total—and the books were going to be shipped directly to the USA from the printers in China. These plans have sadly all been cancelled,  and I have a large number of books gathering dust in a warehouse in Cape Town!

More locally, a mid-March Cape Town-based Jewish literary festival, and a June Johannesburg-based cultural and literary series of events have also been cancelled, and of course the opportunity to sell the book that goes along with these things.

Other changed plans: I’m working on the early stages of a new work of creative nonfiction that draws upon my soldier/father’s photographs documenting his participation in the 1948 Arab/Israeli war.  I urgently need to do some South African archive and library based research (in Johannesburg and Cape Town). There are historical papers and newspapers from the middle of the 20th century that I would love to look at, and which are not online. So this has to wait. As part of the work of the same project, I had intended to travel to the Middle East in October.  A research trip going back to the present-day sites of images shot over 70 years ago.  This too will not be possible for the foreseeable future.


Courtesy of Fourthwall Books

AiW: In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?
TK: Like everybody else, meetings with students and any teaching or supervision  happen on ZOOM or other such platforms. (I supervise on the MA in Creative Writing programme at Wits). Otherwise my working life is pretty much the same as it ever was. Long solitary hours in my studio space/office just outside my home in the leafy suburb of Parkview, which is where I am currently working on the new book.  Just more solitary than ever.

AiW: What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?
TK: Most immediately, the care and solidarity that my colleagues, family and friends are providing to each other, and for each other. There is a lot more contact and concern.  Zoom Meetings with all of us spread, as we are, in different time zones across the world have enabled an offbeat, quirky and unusually intimate mode of relating to each other that has been interesting to watch and participate in. I have to admit love seeing into the personal space of people I usually only ever run into on corridors.  And noticing who uses the enhanced appearance setting in their zoom preferences, and who either hasn’t yet discovered it or doesn’t care!   And then,  I live in a Johannesburg suburb that has a very active residents association and it’s been good to participate  in calls for help, and also to see how many people living around me have been trying to help others in less fortunate circumstances than themselves.

AiW: How can our communities support you?
TK: It would be really wonderful to participate in some curated online literary events. Perhaps some themed literary events. I would be happy to assist in thinking about these if anybody wanted to with me.  This would give me and others more opportunity to publicise recent publications that were making their way into the world. Now interrupted. Or to chat about new work that is underway. I’d love to be a part of  online conversation towards promoting other writers work and thinking together about reading and writing.


Photo (C) Mark Lewis

Terry Kurgan is an artist and writer based in Johannesburg. Her artistic interest is in photography, and she explores this through a diverse body of multi-media artwork and writing. She has exhibited and published widely and received numerous Fine Art awards.

Kurgan recently turned to creative non-fiction to uncover a haunting family history. Her book, Everyone is Present, was shortlisted for the 2019 Photo Arles Book Prize, was selected as a Finalist for the 2019 USA-based National Jewish Book Awards, and won South Africa’s premier non-fiction literary prize, the 2019 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award.

She is currently a Research Associate at The Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where she is working on a new book project. She supervises on the Masters in Creative Writing Programme at the same university, and is co-director (with Bronwyn Law-Viljoen) of the independent publishing project, Fourthwall Books.

You can follow Terry’s work on Instagram @terrykurgan


Fourthwall Books

Everyone is Present: Essays on Photography, Memory and Family is published by Fourthwall Books.

Contact sales@jacana.co.za for South African orders. Internationally the book can be ordered through Idea Books: http://www.ideabooks.nl



For more in our Words on the Times series, with writers, AiW Guest reviewers, curators, publishers, and editors, check out the blog category here.

If you would like to submit a proposal for a blog piece and become one of our AiW Guests, please see and follow our info about Submissions here.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Categories: And Other Words..., Words on the Times

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Hi Terry, Love your idea of participating in a themed online literary event. Perhaps on your theme of historical/family/Jewish interest which is too where my interest and present work lies. Would be great to make contact somehow…

  2. And Hi Tom!, Just came across this website from launch of Colleen Higgs new book at Women Zone where mentioned that Deep South her publisher etc.. so enjoyed background blog on this too, thank you.

join the discussion:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: