The first time I met Stephen Gray was at the 1988 Association of University English Teachers of South Africa (AUESTA) conference in Potchefstroom. It was memorable for me not only because it was there where I delivered my first conference paper (in a small, prefabricated building), but because of the presence of such luminaries as Don McLennan, Cherry Clayton, Armando Pajalich, Michael Chapman, and, of course, Stephen. At a poetry reading on (as far as I can remember) the last evening of the conference, Stephen performed several of his poems in a café-type venue in a very lively, engaging way that delighted all of us, especially the students present. He’d dramatize a persona, pose stock still, declaim loudly, whisper, snap his fingers – bringing some of the best contemporary South African poetry in English to vibrant life.
I’d known him from a distance before, as a matric-writing-competition adjudicator in Durban, where he could be pretty sharp in his criticism, a fact I disapproved of at the time, though the pupils surely benefitted from the forthrightness.
Over the years I had occasion to review volumes of his sinuous, elegant, demandingly allusive poetry. I also reviewed Invitation to a Voyage: French-language Poetry of the Indian Ocean African Islands (2008), edited by Stephen. The production of the volume was exemplary of his immersive approach to research, involving field-trips to the library in Mayotte, the archives of a local newspaper on the same island, the African Centre in London, the stacks of Éditions Grand Océan on Réunion, and his beloved Johannesburg Public Library (where he unearthed early links between South Africa and the Indian Ocean islands in Cape periodicals from the 1820s). His understanding of the poetry, it became clear, was also informed by his accounts of his earlier visits (dating back to 1970) to Mauritius, Réunion, the Comores, the Seychelles and Madagascar, which appear in an addendum to the volume. Further, Stephen networked in person with certain of the authors who appear in the book. This type of immersion is relatively unusual for South African literary scholars, who tend to be more interested in delving into books than ‘reading’ actual places and talking with actual people. As I wrote in the notes for my review, ‘the South African intellectual and cultural scenes would be a lot poorer without Stephen Gray. He engages in meticulous research, with a personal bent that takes him out into the world to find what he can about the islands of the Indian Ocean, Herman Charles Bosman, or Beatrice Hastings’.
Most recently, I was privileged to be involved in the editorial processes surrounding his notable 2014 contribution to Literator, ‘Keeping the Records Straight: The Literary Afterlife of Three Boer Generals’. The article is on ‘overlooked or lesser-known facets’ of the biographies of generals Cronjé, Viljoen and De Wet. I learned much from editing the essay; working through a manuscript which involved such a finely calibrated confluence of historiography and literary scholarship was something of an education in itself. I was surprised at the extent of Stephen’s knowledge of what was for me an obscure subject, but I shouldn’t have been, knowing how thoroughly he dealt with anything that took his interest. It is gratifying to see that this essay has been downloaded 11,630 times, giving witness to one of the benefits of digital publishing which would surely please Stephen, who always wanted to serve the interests of local authors and an engaged readership (Invitation to a Voyage, xxxiv).
Stephen Gray is truly an inspirational figure in South African cultural and literary studies.
Nick Meihuizen, October 2020