Interest and Emotion: Monica Hunter Wilson, Sex and Love in South African historical prose

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Seminar Date
September 3, 2008
Monica Hunter Wilson’s imaginative empathy made her one of the most readable and persuasive historical ethnographers of the 20th century. Pondoland was both the place of her birth and the space of her first ethnographic work and published monograph. She shared affinity with place and people in her research intensely, even in comparison to the other influential settler-born ethnographers emerging at the same time, and whose impact on the region’s intellectual history and international audiences was, and remains, formidable. In Hunter Wilson’s work, more tellingly than in the work of her peers, and especially in her work on sexuality; livelihoods; cosmology; child rearing, medicine and birthing, the interest and emotion in Hunter Wilson’s prose is never fully disguised and, when it emerges, it is most compelling and the interest and emotion deployed is both deep and intention. In this paper, a work in progress that is sketchy and tentative in places, I will try to substantiate this view. After a discussion of the place of sexuality in some of her writing, and then a section on Hunter Wilson’s work in relation to peer work and subsequent analysis of sexuality in the time of HIV/AIDS, I will return to this theme and argue that the way her voice emerges, in the first monograph, has resonated with enduring force in South African historical writing. Her impact was felt in the revisionist school of the 1980s but work of newer groups of Southern African historians, coming into academic posts in the later 1990s and 2000s, has returned to her analysis for inspiration at a time of instrumentalist and arid sexual writing and insight. Her voice has influenced writing on sexuality, by historians and historically-inclined sociologists, geographers and anthropologists.
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