Note: The result of an in-class writing prompt for ENGL 203, “Rhetoric & Composition II,” Northern Illinois University, spring 2019: When has a piece of writing, something you either either wrote or read, made a significant impact on your life? What qualities or context made that piece of writing so significant?” (acknowledging, for the prompt, James M. Lang, On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008], and idem, “How to Teach a Good First Day of Class,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4 January 2019, https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/advice-firstday).
When I think about “powerful writing,” I would point to the piece that I wrote for a website about the late South African female soccer player Eudy Simelane (see below), who was sexually assaulted and murdered in the township of her birth and residence, KwaThema, outside Johannesburg, in April 2008. A little over a year later, I visited the township and, with the help of a highly opinionated (and absolutely essential) translator and “fixer,” Lungile, interviewed her parents, grandparents, and other relations. The writing project is unforgettable for the way it brought me into contact with bottomless human pathos and, particularly, the heinous idea of “corrective rape” that lurks in parts of South Africa and numerous other rat-holes of our imperfect human world.
I was in South Africa in June and July 2009, one year before the country hosted the World Cup finals. Nelson Mandela was not dead yet, though he was ailing and had almost ceased being a public figure. It was the beginning of winter. In the double-pile house of Eudy Simelane’s parents, where the kitchen stove provided the only heat on a clear evening, temperatures in the 30s, Lungile hunched in a thin black leather jacket in his seat at the dining-room table and, reflecting on his own days growing up in Soweto, whispered to me, “It’s fucking cold in this place.”
The occasion was powerful and so was the writing itself, when I published the article in August 2009. It added depth and understanding, as well as a face and emotion, to an issue we might consider distant and insignificant in our own lives. To my surprise, the Guardian newspaper in London wrote about the Simelane case based on my reporting. And I was acknowledged as a writer who contributed, in a tiny way, to a global conversation about justice: “Thank you, John Turnbull, for once again offering some of the most solid journalism on issues that matter to international women’s football.”