Lost and Found in Johannesburg

Lost and Found in Johannesburg

A Memoir

Book - 2014
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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 whoheld 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."

Publisher: New York :, Farrar, Straus and Giroux,, 2014, ©2014.
ISBN: 9780374176761
Branch Call Number: 824 GEV G
Characteristics: x, 328 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm

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DorisWaggoner
Feb 18, 2015

Mark Gevisser grows up Jewish, gay, well-off, and white in South Africa. His childhood is spent playing "Dispatcher," with a book of Johannesburg maps, navigating real and imaginary trips around the city. He realizes there's no way on the map to get from the rich suburb where he lives to the poor township where his family's servant lives. In the apartheid years of his childhood, family photos show no blacks or coloreds except as servants, yet they are everywhere once he looks. Rich white friends open their yards and pools to black and colored friends on Sunday afternoons. There white family picnics go on, with illegal cross race sexual activity in pools. He'd been oblivious as a kid. Against this backdrop, he developed his own guilty sexuality. Sent to Yale, he comes out where it's safe, marching in Pride Parades, being active in HIV/AIDS work, while back home the worst of the anti-apartheid violence is happening without him. Coming home, he feels survivor's guilt. Finally he writes of a home invasion by three armed black men one night, when he visits two lesbian friends. The drunk men tie them up, trash the apartment, one takes a woman into another room, and sexually assaults her, meanwhile they threaten to kill them all. Afterward, the (black and colored) police are nonchalant, the trauma officer insists the three of them must react with rage. What they really feel is fear; nothing will ever be the same. Gevisser is asked to pick out the leader from a lineup, and, unsure, does so. Before this man goes to trial, Gevisseer goes home to Paris, where he lives part time with his colored husband (South Africa's constitution permits same sex marriage), returning as needed. Another man's been arrested, who the three are certain had nothing to do with the attack; Gervisser's less and less sure the man he IDed was there either. But he testifies, and the judge (no juries in South Africa) gives him the highest possible sentence. He remains haunted by the attack, the convicted man, his family, including a very pregnant girlfriend. A moving, poignant, haunting story, with no clear edges or boundaries. 5 stars, in spite of some disorganization.

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