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February 06, 2009
Vol. 50 No. 14

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Professor set to release South African memoir

A new book titled "The Jack Bank," written by Glen Retief, associate professor of English and creative writing and faculty-in-residence, is due for a wide release in 2010 from St. Martin's Press.

"The book is a memoir that focuses on my life from the ages of 7 to 23," Retief said. "It tells the story of how I came to leave South Africa."

Retief spent his early life in apartheid South Africa. He grew up in Cougar National Park, the setting of some "wildlife adventures" in the book, he said.

"At some points the story gets very dark," Retief said. "As a gay boy growing up in South Africa-- a police state, not a democracy-- I was the target of some pretty intense abuse, hatred and violence." However, he said, he hopes that the darker portions of his tale are leavened with some humor and an underlying message of hope.

For Retief, making the transition from living in South Africa to living in the U.S. was not an entirely easy one.

"The hardest thing for me to deal with in coming here was feeling that everything I had experienced before and all I had achieved were meaningless here," Retief said. As an activist in South Africa, he partook in making it the first country to protect the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people.

"It was interesting arriving to a country that was less racially polarized," Retief said. "I had been involved in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and upon arriving here I gravitated toward African-American liberation groups."

When former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner in the early 1980s, Retief said he banded together with the activist community who believed that he had been wrongfully accused.

Retief's passion for teaching has led him to some interesting places. He said the most stirring was his experience teaching HIV-positive homeless people in New York City.
"One of the things that was magical to me was being able to teach students who had been undefeated by such circumstances," said Retief, who helped them with their writing skills and the process of preparing for their General Education Development (GED) tests. He got the job through a personal contact in the activist community.

Retief said that he was struck by the calmness, maturity and strength of people who had been living in boxes literally weeks before he met them, as well as the sense of community that exists between people who live on the streets.

"I learned much more from them than they learned from me," Retief said.

Tom Bailey, professor of English and creative writing, offered his congratulations to Retief for his success. "Glen's a great guy to work with," said Bailey. "He's always willing to do more than he's asked [...] The book is a wonderful reward for the years of work he's put in."

Bailey noted that the publisher of Retief's memoir is based in New York City, one of the most prestigious locales in the publishing world. "To move into that tier of publishing is a big deal," Bailey said.

"Glen is a good fit for us," said Gary Fincke, director of the Writers' Institute and professor of English and creative writing. "He brings a way of looking at creative nonfiction that's distinctive and interesting."

"It really is a culmination of my earlier work," Retief said of his book. He has had several essays published before. The themes of these and his previous "fairly autobiographical" short stories resonate in "The Jack Bank."

Retief did not want to give too much of the book away before its release. "Like many writers, I try not to talk too much about a book I'm writing; I want readers to discover for themselves," Retief said. "When I talk too much, I talk and don't write. The story's inside me, and if I tell it aloud too much, the impulse to write it is reduced."

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