Postcard from Johannesburg: How One Student Got the Most Out of Her Library

By Aaron Welborn

It isn’t often that librarians find out what happens to the people we help. Most interactions follow a familiar pattern—another question answered, another obscure reference tracked down, another student sent off feeling smarter and more confident. But what then? What comes of all that knowledge and discovery? Most of the time, we simply don’t know.

But once in a while we receive encouraging reports from the field, as in the case of Ryan Brown.

In 2010, when Ryan was a junior history major at Duke, she wrote a paper for a course on twentieth-century South African history about a brilliant though little-studied journalist from Johannesburg named Nat Nakasa. She never expected it would be anything more than a small research project. “The short life of a writer from a repressive society halfway around the world seemed both too obscure and too specific to be effectively researched at Duke,” Ryan said.

Ryan Brown in South Africa, where she spent a year as a Fulbright Fellow researching the life of journalist Nat Nakasa.
Ryan Brown in South Africa, where she spent a year as a Fulbright Fellow researching the life of journalist Nat Nakasa.

But she soon found herself spending long hours in the study carrels in Perkins Library, immersed in a wealth of information about Nakasa. He was a victim of cruel times, forced to relinquish his citizenship in 1964 when he accepted a prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard and the apartheid government refused him a passport to return home. The experience of living in exile ultimately led Nakasa to take his own life, ending a brief but prolific journalistic career.

The paper Ryan wrote for that class got an A. Not only that, but it struck her professor, Karin Shapiro, as “superbly researched and written.” Ryan had used almost every primary and secondary resource at her disposal—biographies, databases, scholarly books and journals, theses and dissertations. For an undergraduate, it was impressive work.

Shapiro nominated Ryan’s paper for the Duke University Libraries’ Robert F. Durden Prize, which recognizes undergraduate excellence in research. Ryan won that prize and the $1,000 that goes with it. But more than that, she had found a topic she could sink her teeth into.

During her senior year, Ryan expanded her research on Nakasa into a 160-page honors thesis. It was, Professor Shapiro acknowledged, “well beyond what was required.” This time Ryan really dove deep into her subject, combing through obscure South African newspapers on microfilm and poring over the Rubenstein Library’s complete set of Drum magazine, the South African periodical for which Nakasa did most of his writing.

When she learned of a slim volume authored by Nakasa’s father in the 1940s, Ryan tracked down the only known copy of it for sale in the United States, offered by a rare book dealer in Chicago. With the help of Professor Shapiro, Ryan contacted librarian Margaret Brill, who set in motion the process of purchasing the book and adding it to Duke’s collections. Another librarian, Mark Thomas, aided Ryan in filing Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain classified U.S. government documents relating to Nakasa, which had never been seen or used by other researchers.

“The Libraries’ resources allowed me to hop across oceans and decades,” Ryan said, “pulling from obscurity the life story of a man whom I once assumed would be too difficult to access.”

Once again, Ryan got an A on her paper. Once again, she was awarded the Libraries’ Durden Prize and racked up another $1,000. But this time, Ryan turned her honors thesis into a Fulbright Fellowship to South Africa, where she has spent the last year completing her research and writing a book about Nakasa. She sought out and interviewed people who knew him personally, including members of his family and contemporary South African writers like Nadine Gordimer. She unearthed original papers and letters at the South African National Archives and the University of Witswatersrand.

Nat Nakasa (front row, second from right) with other Nieman Fellows at Harvard, 1965.
Nat Nakasa (front row, second from right) with other Nieman Fellows at Harvard, 1965.

The result is A Native of Nowhere: The Life of South African Journalist Nat Nakasa, the first full-length biography of this important South African author and public figure. The book has already been accepted by a South African press and will be published in 2013. Not bad for her first year out of college.

“I never thought the first city I would live in after graduation would be Johannesburg,” joked Ryan, who grew up in Denver. But the experience of interviewing subjects connected with Nakasa’s life opened her eyes to the fascinating cultural landscape of another country. “These are people who have been observers and critics of South Africa for over fifty years. They are some of the most sharp, witty, and insightful people I’ve ever met.”

Her year abroad also helped Ryan discover a career interest in journalism. In order to supplement her Fulbright funds, she wrote occasional freelance pieces for the Chronicle of Higher Education and the South African Mail & Guardian. “What I would love to do is tell international stories to American audiences,” she said.

She may soon get that opportunity. Ryan was recently hired as an intern by the Christian Science Monitor editing international news.

Reflecting on her former student’s success, Professor Shapiro said that she wasn’t surprised Ryan was so drawn to a subject like Nat Nakasa: “I think she saw something in him that she sees in herself. Like him, she has an eye for the magnificently turned phrase and for irony and satire.” As a researcher and journalist, she is also dogged and resourceful. “If it’s out there, she will find it,” said Shapiro.

And what about the Durden Prize money? How did Ryan use that $2,000?

“I bought a rickety old Toyota, which I drove all over Johannesburg and all the way to Durban and back,” she said. In a country with poor public transportation, there’s no other way she could have conducted all those interviews and visited all those archives. “I call it my research-mobile.”

“As Ryan’s advisor, I am incredibly proud to be associated with her work,” said Shapiro recently, “and I can only imagine that the many librarians she consulted will be, too.” Indeed, and when her book is published next year, it will have a place in Perkins Library, where it all started out as a question looking for an answer.

The "research-mobile" that Ryan Brown purchased with money she won from the Libraries' Durden Prize.
The “research-mobile” Brown purchased with money she won from the Libraries’ Durden Prize.

One thought on “Postcard from Johannesburg: How One Student Got the Most Out of Her Library”

  1. Dear Ryan

    Well done, can’t wait to purchase that book, please can you send me details it should be published by now. I myself live and work in Durban (Drama Department at DUT) and do research on the Jazz musical ‘King Kong’ and of course all ‘Drum’-Journalists are interesting to me.

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