Dreaming the Karoo: A People Called the /Xam by Julia Blackburn - review by Joanna Kavenna

Joanna Kavenna

The Bushmen’s Call

Dreaming the Karoo: A People Called the /Xam


Jonathan Cape 294pp £20

This is a book about intending to write one book but writing another book instead. In March 2020, Julia Blackburn was in the Karoo writing a book about ‘a Bushman group of hunter-gatherers known as the /Xam’. Then the pandemic began, so she flew home and spent the following year by the North Sea, planting vegetables and trying to build a chicken coop, wondering if this was the end of the world. Two years later, the world hasn’t ended (not quite) and Blackburn’s book is being published. It is a book about interruptions in which interruptions are interrupted by further interruptions. Thoughts of the Karoo merge with fears about Covid-19, climate change and Trump, as well as concerns about why her chickens keep dying and whether her guinea pigs are happy, which – alas – it seems they are not.

Blackburn is an award-winning and highly original writer whose subjects have included Billie Holiday (With Billie), her parents (The Three of Us), the Norfolk fisherman and artist John Craske (Threads) and the history of Doggerland – a region of Britain lost to the sea eight thousand years ago (Time Song). Her books are often comprised of fragments, diaries, poems and quotations. Her biographies are also autobiographies and her histories are also personal histories. This all works well because Blackburn is such good company: witty, thoughtful and a great friend to her reader. Dreaming the Karoo is composed in the same way and includes Blackburn’s diary entries for the period March 2020 to March 2021, along with quotations, drawings, photographs, half-recalled memories, imaginings and dreams.

The earliest inhabitants of South Africa were pastoralists in the Western Cape and Northern Cape and hunter-gatherers who lived throughout the country. The pastoralists are now generally referred to as the Khoikhoi, the hunter-gatherers as the San or Bushmen. Collectively they are called the Khoisan. /Xam was one of

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