An email exchange between South African poet, translator, scholar-activist and former TORCH International Fellow Antjie Krog and Peter D. McDonald on the 'publicness’ of the writer; the political potential of the creative act; translation as activism; and art as, or in, action.
Art & Action: An exchange with Antjie Krog
This exchange took place via email between June and August 2020. It has been published under a Creative Commons licence. In broad terms, this means that you can copy, distribute, and display the content, provided you credit the authors, acknowledge the source (using this link if published online: Art & Action), do not use the content for commercial purposes and distribute any derivative work under the same Creative Commons licence.
Antjie Krog is a poet, translator, and Professor in the Arts at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. She has published fourteen volumes of poetry in Afrikaans and her prose writings in English include Country of my Skull (1998) and A Change of Tongue (2003). She has won numerous prizes for poetry, prose, translation and journalism as well as the Stockholm Award from the Hiroshima Foundation for Peace and Culture and the Open Society Prize from the Central European University.
Peter D. McDonald is Professor of English and Related Literature at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St Hugh’s College. His publications include The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences (2009, theliteraturepolice.com), and Artefacts of Writing: Ideas of the State and Communities of Letters from Matthew Arnold to Xu Bing (2017; artefactsofwriting.com).
Peter McDonald: Antjie, I am very grateful to you for agreeing to this email exchange, which replaces the conversation we planned for the TORCH Art & Action conference in Oxford, fatefully booked for 20 and 21 March in what has now become our plague year. The organizers asked us to speak to the following brief, which I’ll quote in full:
‘Authors have at all times been fiercely outspoken campaigners for a wide range of socio-political causes. At the same time, debates have long revolved around literature as a form of political intervention in its own right, thus undermining the seemingly clear-cut distinction between politics and poetics. What are the strategies employed by writers in the construction and performance of their public personae as political office-holders, activists, and cultural critics? How do they negotiate the tension between ethics and aesthetics in their public interventions, the potential conflict between authorial and activist selves? How have writers’ literary/political border-crossings been perceived by their audiences and to what extent have they affected their (posthumous) reputations? What are the risks faced by the politically engaged and outspoken writer? This two-day conference explores the intersections of authorship, politics, activism, and literary celebrity across historical periods, literatures, and media. Interrogating the ideological dimension of literary celebrity and highlighting the fault-lines between public and private authorial selves, ‘pure’ art, political commitment, and marketplace imperatives, this conference joins current debates on authorship and literary value. It brings together writers, academics, literary activists, and industry stakeholders to explore the wider implications of authors’ political responsibilities and cultural authority in today’s heavily commodified literary marketplace and age of celebrity activism.’
You have lived ‘the intersections of authorship, politics, activism, and literary celebrity’ over the course of a tumultuous half century in South Africa’s history, but I know you are uneasy about some of the formulations in this statement. Could I start by asking which aspects of the brief concerned you most and why?
Antjie Krog: My whole being revolts mentally and physically at the word ‘celebrity’, not to mention the phrase: ‘literary celebrity’. I want to use Afrikaans expletives like kots [vomit] and walg [wretch/disgust] when I see that word linked to literature and art. Even the thought that I have to try and explain it, sickens me.
Should I begin by how poetry festivals changed from the 1990s (where some of the most powerful poets of that century read their work dressed in dreadful clothes, with unkempt hair, bad teeth, terrible eyesight, physical features distorted with fear, eccentricity and loneliness) to what it has become now: young poetesses with perfect faces, big hair, daily facebook entries, dressed in breath-taking evening gowns performing their work with electronic sounds?
Or should I tell how Random House, when approached to publish a book of mine, asked: how marketable is she?
I became aware of all of this when Time magazine published their list of best statesmen, great leaders of the 20th century, I assumed Nelson Mandela would be there? But no, he was under icons. To my horror I realised that that was a castration of his powerful message. It no longer mattered what he said, he was simply the kind handsome black old man everybody likes to celebrate. The deep challenging values he held were of no importance. His celebrity status disempowered his life’s work.
Or should I tell that I often assist prospective poets? While going through a poem discussing lapses, unclarities, clichés, etc., one once angrily said: But I already received over a hundred likes for this!
Or the day I found students filing at the door after class to take selfies with me… a question here and there proved that they didn’t know my work at all. How do I stop this? I wondered.
Or how book signings have also become major selfie opportunities with people not even embarrassed that they haven’t bought a book. So suddenly I have to worry about my hair, my ageing teeth, my wrinkles, my pulled up shoulders, the face spasm that distorts my face when I am stressed. Really?
It was about ten years ago that I decided to take definite steps to resist becoming a celebrity. I refuse bluntly any invitation to appear on television, or in the press for any other reason than having published a new book. I only answer questions about my work and will NOT be on any programme about my life, or even worse answer those standard questions: what is your worst nightmare? what is your favourite recipe? (Talking about recipes, jesus christ Peter, the whole fucking world is cooking or writing about cooking!) South Africa loves doing series about icons, role models and of course the whole visual industry depends on celebrities. I refuse all of these requests. But as it became too complex even for me to explain the difference between being a writer and being a celebrity, I have learned to say: I don’t think I should be on your show because I still want to commit a terrible, disgraceful scandal. This works like magic. It’s understood immediately: she will not be good for our show/magazine/image.
The problem with the term celebrity perhaps lies in its etymology. The word Latin celibritatem means ‘multitude, fame,’ from celeber ‘frequented, populous’. It is a combination of fame and numbers, which more and more has nothing to do with the REASON for the fame, but only the numbers around the fame.
One of the best descriptions I could find for a celebrity comes from the introduction to the historian Greg Jenner’s Dead Famous (2020): ‘A unique persona made widely known to the public via media coverage, and whose life is publicly consumed as dramatic entertainment, and whose commercial brand is made profitable for those who exploit their popularity, and perhaps also for themselves.’
What I am trying to describe here is that the term celebrity contaminates, no! deeply corrupts, the hard courageous lonely work writers do. Celebrity is a trap. It disturbs the focus of doing what has to be done, to consider physical and social mores, demands and yardsticks. Trying to please an audience is the beginning of the rot for a serious artist.
PMcD: Many writers share your feelings about ‘literary celebrity’, I think. We could look back to Henry James, who deplored the rise of the intrusive personal interview in the 1890s, or sideways to the contemporary Indian writer Amit Chaudhuri, who campaigns against what he calls the ‘market activism’ of today’s corporate publishers. Perhaps we could shift the terms of the discussion from celebrity to publicness more generally.
AK: Publicness! What an excellent word. It maintains the notion of being public, but keeps the space open for risk, failure and disgrace. Should every creative act not be a fall/jump down a waterfall – never sure that one will come up breathing…?
I would like to return to the 1980s, but am concerned that it all may sound too self-servingly autobiographical...
PMcD: Tricky, I know. I am writing a series of lectures in a form you could call ‘autobibliobiography’ (basically about the way some books rewired my brain), where the challenge is to avoid navel-gazing at all costs while using my experience as a raidable archive. But maybe I could persuade you to be other-servingly autobiographical…
AK: Let us try… I know no other way to explain how complicated the choices are when one feels compelled by injustice, but when one’s talent is based in an undetermined introspection manifesting in a kind of art that is appreciated by a small number of people.
As the apartheid state grew in harshness during the 1980s, one felt driven to respond. But how? The oppression was so crushing, so fully destructive that to write a political poem, no matter how good, in Afrikaans and to publish it with an Afrikaner publishing house became shamefully inadequate, even dastardly cowardly. So I thought: well, I have a daily life as an ordinary human being and I have a life as a poet. With the poems I will follow Nadine Gordimer’s dictum: a revolutionary’s duty is to write as well as s/he can. But my daily life is something else and will be involved with the struggle. At first that brought major ethical relief and changes. I started teaching at a college in the townships, became involved with COSAW [Congress of South African Writers] and ANC activities, participated in marches and tried to live as activistically as possible, experiencing how my privileged and public whiteness (more than my literary publicness) was used brazenly by the local activists in the small rural town where I lived [Kroonstad]. I also began assisting younger township poets with their work.
But of course, this ‘new’ life inevitably influenced my writing. I began working on a poetry volume where the whole foundation, and not only part of the volume, was political, choosing a political theme to encompass everything and link it to politics. The volume Jerusalemgangers (1985) has poems about the disruption of bourgeois suburban life by angry blackness interspersed with black mythological figures. I also drenched my theme and style in the concept of ‘haplography’ - so this was my first book with a complete political foundation.
But again, in the avalanche of assassinations, anger, fear and retaliation, it felt pathetically inadequate. So I decided to move away from a successful important Afrikaner publishing house [Human & Rousseau] to a small, but struggling publisher [Taurus] who published mainly banned texts, giving up any royalty I might earn. I was hoping this shift would set me free to write what I wanted and not what I felt I should write. In vain. My next volume Lady Anne (1989) deals with the specific challenge of the poet confronted by severe injustice. The poet’s senses should wean the cries of outrage from the leaves, the blood from the barricades of groceries and pick up the murders from the blockades near her desk. But how to write effectively without falling into propaganda and crude rhetoric? Can I split my poetry as well? Write cruder poems with well-known slogans only to be read in front of agitated rally-audiences, while writing others for publication to a small poetry-loving but elite audience?
And yet, despite all this, I haven’t figured out how to write a political poem (for that matter any poem) that will visibly CHANGE things. At the same time I do believe that poetry can bring human beings into what Heidegger calls ‘the open clearing of truth’. All I know is that one should never move from unstable shaking ground to safe steady ground. One should always be harassed by the various contexts within which one writes and—like in Ingrid de Kok’s poem—have an acute sense of context, yet the bravery to dare to imagine: ‘In this country you may not suffer the death of your stillborn,’ yet the group of black women:
…will not tell you your suffering is white
They will not say it is just as well.
They will not compete for the ashes of infants.
I think they may say to you:
Come with us to the place of mothers.
We will stroke your flat empty belly,
let you weep with us in the dark,
and arm you with one of our babies to carry home on your back.
(‘Small Passings’, The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry, 1995)
The moment one moves from publicness to celebrity, one exchanges the flagellation of the conscience and the risk to dare, for the caressing of a fickle one dimensional popularity.
PMcD: Are there other ways in which the changes in the publicness of the literary life have affected your own ‘hard courageous lonely work’ as a writer? Since you made your debut in the early 1970s, the publishing industry, for instance, has undergone a dramatic transformation. I am thinking not only of the digital revolution, but, in your case, of the move from a world of relatively small Afrikaans literary publishers like Human & Rousseau and Taurus to multinational and multilingual conglomerates like Random House Struik (now Penguin Random House South Africa), to say nothing of the change from an era of draconian state censorship to one in which you have a Constitution explicitly committed to upholding the ‘freedom of artistic creativity’ and linguistic rights in a democracy with eleven official languages.
AK: In 1970 six copies of my first poetry volume were sent by post. And that was that. Nowadays I have to fill in a form in which I make suggestions of how to market my book, who its potential readers might be, suggest publicity events, etc. Special photo sessions are organised. Interviews – often by journalists who have NOT read the book, but have a lot of googled questions about your previous interviews.
I also became aware of agents and creative writing schools. I watch in shock how young ambitious students who have not written more than 5000 words have to write a proposal for a book that must include the literary theory behind their story, the other texts it follows and competes with, as well as ethical clearance. And before the book is even finished the student has an agent…
PMcD: There are many avenues I’d like to follow in response to what you have said so far, but I can’t resist the temptation to take what could be a slight detour at this point via the questions you raise about poetry, specifically political poetry, and ‘CHANGE’. Jerusalemgangers (1985), your sixth collection, marked a turning point for you. It was, as you put it, ‘my first volume with a complete political foundation’ because it ‘has poems about the disruption of bourgeois suburban life by angry blackness interspersed with black mythological figures.’ This way of mapping your poetic biography makes good sense to me—though I do wonder about the framing effects of the fiercely anti-patriarchal, anti-volk title poem in your debut Dogter van Jefta (1970). My question concerns the potential risks of this account, which threatens to reduce the political to a matter of theme or content, opening up the issue of audience in the ways you suggest (‘agitated rally-audiences’ vs. ‘a small poetry-loving but elite audience’). Is there any merit for you as poet in seeing every creative act, every ‘fall/jump down a waterfall’ (I like the equivocation over intention), as political simply because it occurs in the medium of language? I say this not because ‘all language is ideological’ but because all language is public and therefore entangled in structures of power, struggles over ownership and correctness, the nightmares of history and injustice, etc. At the same time, language is intimately and democratically private in so far as it permeates (shapes?) every speaker’s way of being with herself, with others, and with the world. On this account every creative act, even one with no ostensibly political content, could be a politically charged ‘change of tongue’ in form as well as potential effect. I’ll leave the question of actual effects on real audiences open for now.
AK: Of course you are right. I wrote ‘My Mooi Land’ [‘My Beautiful/Pretty Land/Country’] and was completely thrown to learn that it was read on Robben Island and that the political inmates said: If an Afrikaner girl is saying this, we will be free in our life time. So yes, in terms of ‘changing’ things, the very first poems perhaps already did that. But at the same time it was a kind of easy attack on one’s own people, with hardly any knowledge of who it was that one was reaching out to. One became aware of the absence, the not-knowing, then of the anger, the real murderous intent and black writers asking: where are the Afrikaner writers when the country is burning?
So the framework within which Afrikaans poetry was written during the 1980s complicated any nuanced way of thinking about the political. With the exception of Breyten Breytenbach, most poets, backed by the literary establishment, thought that poetry should be universal, and that universality was the opposite of writing against apartheid – the latter being too localised to bring forth great literature and politics the death of any art. At the same time there was from the English and black literary establishment the demand to write ‘effectively’; to be part of the movement to bring the apartheid regime to its knees – remember the criticism of Nadine Gordimer of Coetzee’s Michael K (1983)? To hide in a hole feeding a pumpkin plant with a teaspoon full of water, was NOT ‘effective’, driving away with the freedom fighters, or understanding or celebrating them, that was ‘effective’. So where I previously battled to find a way, a style, a metaphor, a theme to express the injustice and the weight of it, Jerusalemgangers enabled me to universalise apartheid politics through history and everyday life. Whether you have a suburban affair, or attend a party, or stretch out a hand to Adamastor, or Shaka’s sangoma, all was political in its foundation of unjustness.
So my involved ordinary public self allowed me to obey my conscience; that in turn challenged my writing, enabling the poet to make peace with what and how she writes. So if the art changes nothing, one could hold on to the notion that one’s life (as an ordinary white woman in a march of black people) does make a difference; when one lands in muddy and compromising political waters, one can still hold on to the clarity of the poems.
(The other day I heard one of the Afrikaans writers who wrote ‘universal’ literature snottily say that he did not ‘jump on the bandwagon of politics in the 1980s’… I could just shake my head. He was so safe, he was so lauded by the literary establishment, while Breytenbach sat in jail and I received death threats and my family harassment.)
Nowadays of course, everything is political. It has become nearly impossible to write anything without being political in the way you don’t want to be political…
PMcD: ‘…in the way you don’t want to be political…’ Could you elaborate?
AK: Today one is suddenly exposed, without a personal past or a body of writing, in front of everybody who has access to the internet in English. To write a poem about, say Nelson Mandela, or a black rape victim, is high risk. To end a poem with: ‘only black lives taken by whites seem to matter HERE’ is total suicide. So one thinks: I don’t want to be political in that way… At the same time the idea of criticising the government of the day (as I did before 1994) has also become highly problematic. Criticising a black government means becoming part of precisely that conservative element of whites who didn’t bat an eyelid during apartheid. Criticising a black government is humiliating those very people who are what they are because of your people and your centuries of privilege. I find that more and more, I can only write strong political poems when outside the country, and then trim, cut, soften and hone once I get back.
PMcD: The establishment framework you mention, particularly the old shibboleth of ‘universality’, permeated the apartheid censorship system as well. It was partly on these grounds, for instance, that J. M. Coetzee’s Michael K was never banned. As Rita Scholtz, the censor, wrote in the conclusion to her report: ‘although the tragic life of Michael K is situated in South Africa his problem today is a universal one.’ At the same time, she recognised that the book ‘contains derogatory references to and comments on the attitudes of the state, also to the police and the methods they employ in carrying out their duties.’ So, caught between the Gordimer-framework and the Scholtz-framework, maybe Coetzee could never win, or perhaps, on a careful re-reading, Michael K sails cunningly between that particular Scylla and Charybdis.
Before we move on from publicness as such, I’d like to return to the question of audience you raised earlier. You spoke in terms of ‘agitated rally-audiences’, on the one hand, and ‘a small poetry-loving but elite audience’, on the other. This reflects your experience of, and engagement with, two (more?) very different publics, though, in your case, other important differences come into play as well: medium (the printed book/the spoken-word performance), form (poetry/prose), language (Afrikaans/English), and location (South Africa/elsewhere). As I understand it, you spent the first two decades of your public writing life essentially as an Afrikaans poet of the page. Then you began to explore new media, new forms, new languages, and new locations. How important or formative have these various transitions been to you? And what bearing have they had/are they having on the sense you have of your own publicness as a writer?
AK: Although I deeply believe that the essence of poetry is oral/aural, when I was younger, it felt extremely narcissistic to read one’s own work in public. But black South Africa literally pushed me through an initiation from page to stage. During the 1980s I was invited to ‘perform’ at a local Free Nelson Mandela rally. I was in a sweat. Perform?
Hoewel my werk nog altyd ’n politieke inslag gehad het, was ’n opdrag om iets onwettigs en gevaarliks in die openbaar op te voer oor ’n verbande man, was iets heeltemal anders. Ek het waansinnig begin soek na goeie voorbeelde van bevrydingsretoriek: Brecht (Alles of niks. Almal van ons of niemand), Eluard se Liberty, Mao Tse-Tung se: wanneer die lug neerstort, lig dit weer op. Uiteindelik kom ek af op Aimé Césaire se ‘Ek wil storm sê. Ek wil rivier sê. Ek wil tornado sê. Ek wil blaar sê, ek wil boom sê … .’ Ja! Ek wil Mandela sê. Ek vra rond. Ek raadpleeg studente en aktiviste. Maar dit is duidelik: Mandela is eenvoudig ’n simbool. Niemand weet hoe hy lyk nie, niemand weet wat hy presies gesê het nie. Ons weet net dat hy in die tronk op Robben-eiland is vir ons almal se vryheid.
[Trans.: Although my work has always had a political slant, an assignment to stage something illegal and dangerous in public about a banned man was something completely different. I frantically started looking for good examples of liberation rhetoric: Brecht (All or nothing. All of us or none), Eluard's Liberty, Mao Zedong’s: when the sky crashes, it rises again. Finally I come across Aimé Césaire’s Return to my Native Land (1956, English trans., 1969): ‘I want to say storm. I want to say river. I want to say tornado. I want to say leaf, I want to say tree…. ’ Yes! I want to say Mandela. I ask around. I consult students and activists. But it is clear: Mandela is simply a symbol. Nobody knows what he looks like, nobody knows what exactly he said. We only know that he is in jail on Robben Island for the freedom of us all.]
Toe ek by die rally in die township opdaag waar letterlik duisende mense wag, besef ek drie dinge tegelyk. Eerstens, oor die grensmuur kyk honderde polisiemanne met gewere. Tweedens, die bladsytjies waarop die gedig netjies in Sesotho, Afrikaans en Engels uitgetik is, gaan so fladder in die wind dat ek nie daarvan sal kan lees nie. En derdens, ek is verkeerd aangetrek. Ghangha, die hoofdigter is uitgevat in vere-tossels in die kleure van die ANC. ‘Julle digters op papier,’ skud hy die kop toe hy my poging sien en organiseer binne ’n ommesientjie dat dit met die noodhulptassie se bandaid netjies geplak word op ’n tamatiekassie se plankie – drie velletjies ondermekaar.
[Trans.: When I arrive at the rally in the township where literally thousands of people were waiting, I realize three things at once. First, hundreds of policemen with rifles are looking over the boundary wall. Secondly, the pages on which the poem is neatly typed in Sesotho, Afrikaans and English are going to flutter so much in the wind that I will not be able to read from them. And thirdly, I am not properly dressed. Ghangha, the chief poet, is dressed in feather-tassels in the colours of the ANC. ‘You poets on paper,’ he shook his head when he saw my effort and immediately arranged for the pages to be neatly pasted on the plank of a tomato box with the first-aid kit band-aid - three little sheets under each other.]
When I took the megaphone that day it was in a kind of disbelief. I stammered the first line. The main poet came and stood next to me, he shouted my first line loudly and repeated it. I got the idea and yelled the first line into the megaphone, my voice felt from another planet. There was cheering. The chief poet repeated and I repeated. The cheering doubled. By the third time the crowd joined me rhythmically in Afrikaans: Die vuis is Mandéla! Mandéla in Máokeng (This fist is Mandela! Mandela is in our township Maokeng [Kroonstad, Free State]). From there the poem took on a life of its own. Mandela was among us. Mandela in a coat—we saw him, we heard him stirring in the sirens, we sat with him behind the school desks, we saw his tracks in the dusty streets of the township, Mandela breathed among us, he ate in the outbuildings, he raised his fist in the prisons. From the dusty winds blowing across the plains, he would come to us and set us free. People jumped: Thaaa! Tha-thaa!: Die vuis is Mandéla! a mixture of Afrikaans and Sesotho. People furiously toyi-toyied which then turned into an angry thumping dance where everyone aimed imaginary AK-47’s at the faces of the policemen, who, not to be outdone, were brandishing their own weapons across the fence.
That day taught me: you have to respect your audience - the trouble they went to come to HEAR you, their own situation, their desires and anguishes, their languages and their furies – if a poem manages to put a temporary band-aid on one wound in that audience, the poem was not in vain. Bugger universality. Secondly, one can crush and turn a poem in any way to assist the performance; the poem on your page and the poem in your performance have nothing to do with each other. So I keep one copy of each volume with a big V on the cover: Voorlees [Read aloud]. Inside the poems are cut, things are added, parts are linked to other parts, all for a specific reading. I would also often make changes while reading… and I began to write poems with a stronger sense of aurality like ‘Paternoster’ [Gedigte, 1995; Skinned, 2013]. While reading this poem to a Dutch audience in Utrecht with translation screened behind me, something happened and I felt myself transported into a fiery angry sound. The next poem was quieter and I read it in a whisper and became aware of the absolute silence in that big hall. Even when I walked off the stage, it was so totally quiet. The reviews of that reading established me in the Netherlands and since then, over time my audience has become Dutch. I sell more books there and my poetry readings have become quite legendary. I steadfastly try not to think why that is, or who my readers are…
But wherever I read in the world, at home or elsewhere, the moment there is a black person in the audience I feel my whole stomach constrict. I feel in the wrong. I feel I am offending. Am taking up too much space. Sometimes I can scarcely breathe and find that I am reading only for that one black person. My eyes are searching to find those of that one black person. I read to reach, to find forgiveness, to mend…
PMcD: Talk about art and action tends to focus on individual writers and their creative integrity. But writers have often worked collectively, forming professional and other groups to defend their interests, campaign for various causes, and more. This was especially true in South Africa during the apartheid era. PEN South Africa (1927) and the Afrikaanse Skrywerskring (1934) were well-established, but many other local groups emerged in the course of the 1970s and 1980s as well. These included the white-led Artists’ and Writers’ Guild (1974), the Afrikaanse Skrywersgilde (1975), the Medu Art Ensemble (1977), a revived, short-lived, black-led branch of Johannesburg PEN (1978), the African Writers’ Association (1981), the Writers’ Forum (1985), and the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW, 1987). You have already mentioned your involvement with the latter. Could you say a bit more about that experience and about any of the other groups of which you were aware? How did the possibility of collective action affect your sense of your own publicness, integrity, and/or activism as a writer? And do you see any viable avenues for such action today?
AK: The Afrikaans novelist, Etienne le Roux, once said: a writer only joins a guild, or a representing body, in order to resign dramatically. In a way this rings true, as all these kinds of bodies need exactly that in which writers are not good. They desire uniformity of opinion, simplicity in expressing the banal, commitment to stick uncreatively to the issue at all times; they need a constitution, the dry routine of organisation, of boring tailor-made-for-news declarations and statements, while writers can only produce the opposite: a creative variety around a theme, encompassing many opposing views, individual, unusual language and expression, a deep sense of undermining, a resentment of bureaucracy, etc.
(Therefore it is not strange how clumsy writers often express themselves when they do ‘issue’ a statement as a group. Take, for example, the letter recently signed by among others Salman Rushdie and J.K. Rowling (‘A Letter on Justice and Open Debate’, Harper’s Magazine, 7 July 2020). One cannot believe so many writers signed it: it is so flat and full of holes, so embarrassingly opaque in its argumentation that one doesn’t know what to make of it. I also think of the speech of Lionel Shriver rebelling against particular constraints around theme and character pressed upon by academics (‘Fiction and Identity Politics’, Brisbane Writers Festival, 8 September 2016). It was so crude, that one could not possibly support her.)
Writers and poets write because they cannot talk (metaphorically speaking!), because their true medium not only fits, but enhances their expression. They find the form of the literature they engage in: nuanced, subtle, multi-vibratory, multi-voiced, daring, rule breaking, incoherent in a purposeful way – in other words adequate to sufficiently express the complexity of what they want to express with clarity.
Personally, I deeply distrust the full sentence. There is something restrictive about it. I cannot breathe in my thoughts if there is not enough white on the page around a poem. Accessible prose, talking, reacting like we are doing now and despite the trouble we go to, to capture clarity within the complexity, blunts me. I need the brilliant-cut of the metaphor, the vividness of the simile, the telescope of the title, the universe of the white page, the risk of the personal third eye and most of all, that undetermined and undeterminable ‘thing’ of creativity – that something opens up that is more than the logical brain (I call it at times the creative IQ as it runs along a different unassailable logic) - that thing that is free and can never be corseted within a communal body. What I am saying is that any issue is more than often better served by writers writing, than by writers talking and making statements.
Looking back, I find every participation in a writer society or every petition signed, a complete waste of time, except perhaps joining COSAW during the 1980s. Not because it did anything for me as a writer or even for writing per se, but because it brought a group of people together across the apartheid boundaries, assisting one in experiencing for short moments the country as it should /could have been.
Having said that so vehemently – supporting a cause at certain junctures in history is very important and fortunately there have often been people involved in writer societies who could effectively guide and lead. Locally, the Afrikaans Skrywersgilde presented an important anti-censorship stance under apartheid, while the Swart Afrikaanse Skrywers [Black Afrikaans Writers] held three symposia that are still being studied for the invaluable input they made around thinking about Afrikaans literature.
Today I personally practise activism in various ways that are solely literary: I assist young poets who do not have access to any assistance. My work at the University of the Western Cape [UWC] fortunately entails that I assist anybody from the community with their manuscripts, whether they are students or not, and we have published an impressive list of books and some of the most important young poets in Afrikaans today have come through UWC. I also found that I have a talent for assessing and placing quite accurately a text within the broader history of South African literature. I can point out: this is new in a shout or a readers report.
The second kind of activism is an obsession with translation. I found funding to translate a relevant selection of poems from indigenous languages into Afrikaans [Met woorde soos met kerse, 2002]. Then started to re-evaluate the work of an African writer who wrote the first novel ever written in an indigenous language in Africa [Thomas Mofolo]. And more recently I coordinated one of the largest translations of a variety of African language classical literary texts into English [Oxford’s Africa Pulse series]. The project is continuing with two students who are translating three major epics written in Sesotho and Sepedi.
I also regularly translate from Dutch into Afrikaans believing that translation is necessary gymnastics for a language. It keeps Afrikaans fit and it makes me continuously aware how effectively and obviously the borders stretch between Afrikaans and Dutch.
Another way is perhaps simply the wishful thinking of an old poet: the poems by pre-internet poets like me, have no monetary value. Nobody can put a price on any of my poems. Poems push back the notion that you can pay for art. Poems make a mockery of the ridiculous prices people pay for visual art. Maybe poets my age, as Geert van Istendael suggests, are the last true heretics of the world?
PMcD: There is one particularly charged moment in your career when many of the issues we have been discussing came to a head: the moment you won the Hertzog Prize in 1990 for Lady Anne, arguably your most sustained poetic reflection on art and action. Established in 1916, the Hertzog, which honours poetry every three years, is the most prestigious Afrikaans literary accolade. Reflecting some of the complexities of the time, the list of winners has you flanked on both sides by T.T. Cloete who was both a leading poet and a censor. He won the Hertzog in 1987 and 1993. You won it again for Mede-wete in 2017. On the first occasion, the award rules required you to give a short acceptance speech (see note 5). The poem-speech you read takes issue with the prize, raises questions about your relationship to the literary establishment of the time and to Afrikaans, and concludes with a public expression of solidarity with COSAW and anti-apartheid publishers. From this distance, how does that moment seem to you now? Or, put another way, could you comment on the public symbolism of the Hertzog in 1990 and in 2017?
AK: The Hertzog of 1990 was given by people I deeply resented: the Afrikaner establishment. I knew all too well they have given it to signal to the new-powers-to-be that the Afrikaner establishment is changing, see how it embraces critical voices, see they are with everybody in the new South Africa. Some years before Breyten Breytenbach had refused the prize. I thought to take the prize and give the money where it should have been in the first place – with the marginalised. The people who gave the Hertzog in 2017 are a shadow of the previous lot. They are hanging shivering by their anxious white nails on to a literature the context of which has radically and irretrievably changed and they smell their own redundancy. So I took it in 2017 as one powerless one from another powerless one. I firmly believe that the context in which the poetry that I write makes any sense, is disappearing like a sheet in the dark…
About the poem-speech in 1990: I was angry, young and strong and fundamentally understood the cruel, false, powerful context into which I was writing. Now I am angry, old and weak with a pathetic grasp on the black context into which I am writing. At the same time, being initiated into compassion by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I’m filled with despair about the dire, dehumanising poverty drowning our country, yet have compassion for the corrupt, inept and insecure establishment that has to deal with the mess of colonialism and apartheid. Standing on an over-elaborate stage a few years ago, receiving literary acknowledgement from the black government among young black celebrities in the arts, with the knowledge that the food and drink and evening gowns could keep a rural town in electricity for a month, I had nothing to say. I took the award, and said Kea Leboha [Thank you]. I was stumm – as I should be… a coward, I think.
PMcD: In the conference brief, the organizers framed this discussion as a tension (contest?) between literary writing and activism.
AK: It is a tension, and a healthy one I believe. At the same time, it becomes problematic when celebrity status is regarded as a condition for real activism.
PMcD: They used phrases like ‘politics and poetics’, ‘authorial and activist selves’, ‘literary/political border-crossings’, etc. Responding in part to this oppositional logic, the Indian writer Amit Chaudhuri, who I have already referenced in passing, has in recent years been a leading proponent of what he calls ‘literary activism’. At a time when, as he sees it, questions of value have either been abandoned (notably by academic literary studies) or co-opted (especially by the ‘market activism’ of corporate publishing world), he has been calling for a public activism focussed on the literary as such.
AK: We have to pause at the word ‘value’. (It is, thank God, no longer necessary to honour the Atwood dichotomy: … if you turn your back on Social Relevance, won’t you find yourself making the equivalent of verbal doilies for the gilded armchairs in the Palace of Art?) The kind of value that the Nobel Prize is seeking is worth exploring: the worthy candidate should bestow ‘the greatest benefit on mankind’ delivering ‘the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’ (my italics), while former Nobel Prize Committee member Horace Engdahl talked of ‘the great dialogue of literature about the improvement of humanity’. Therefore the work should be ‘outstanding’, aesthetically I gather, while what it says should point in an ‘ideal direction’ / ‘greatest benefit on mankind’. There is clearly a very broad yet very precise expectation of influencing humankind in a progressive way here. Should this not be the essence of literary activism? Should we not try to find works often extinguished by the loud noise of market activism or those un-mainstream works in smaller languages falling soundlessly into a dark hole of nothingness? Should we not elucidate the direction in these works and generate discourses around that, especially also those empty ones ramped up by market activism?
I think academia is doing it, but I ask myself why have I stopped reading the winners of the Booker or Pulitzer, even the T.S. Eliot poetry prize – why do I often find nothing there, nothing new, nothing related, nothing shifting one? The names of writers I find worth reading are passed on by friends like a secret treasure.
I remember a PEN conference in Germany where there was a special session for agents. I asked them whether they do research or go out into non-European countries and unknown languages to look for works to represent. One man responded with the utmost confidence and conviction: No, we don’t need to. The good works find us (!!).
PMcD: Chaudhuri’s kind of project carries a number of predictable risks. It can all too easily be dismissed as reactionary (revivalist aestheticism?), quixotic (nostalgic universalism?) or, worse still, cast as a desperate rear-guard effort on behalf of an old elite to postpone their inevitable redundancy.
AK: Chaudhuri’s literary activism seems to me in the first place a reaction to, and against, a particular market activism. His examples refer to publishers who pursued really good writers whom they then actively marketed for a deservedly larger audience. Nobody would have a problem with any publisher who is active: rather publish with someone flying somewhere because he is reading, than a bank-manager-publisher – not staying longer than four years before moving on to a higher bean-counting position.
I share however a restlessness with another kind of market activism: books and authors published because they are fashionable merchandise often based on a popular blog, in other words, it’s ‘value’ lies in its sales.
At the same time one does understand that publishing houses were to an extent forced to revert to this activism for various reasons. One is that so many newspapers, television and radio stations do not carry one second or iota about books or a discussion on the content of books, be they literary or popular. Interviews with ‘marketable’ writers yes, stories about their lives on the celebrity pages yes, their houses, their recipes, their heart-opening-ups yes, their scandals, fights, accusations of plagiarism or plundering, appropriation, yes, but no engagement with the works themselves.
So because a good book can no longer reverberate enough publicness that rewards publishers, they have to publish the work of those who already reverberate through their own efforts ranging from a scandalous life to a popular blog. Perhaps the most crucial reason is the technology of our times. The soul of the internet is short and fast and infinite. If you are not on that jet, you do not exist, so fewer and fewer are educated into the slow grip of a piece of writing and how it can forever transform your innermost being.
PMcD: As you have already pointed out, talk of literary value is also inherently risky. I have in mind your comments on writers seeking out ‘unstable shaking ground’, being ‘harassed by the various contexts within which one writes’, and your reference to the ‘undetermined and undeterminable “thing” of creativity’. As I take it, a value-centred literary activism, understood in these terms, will always be fraught in fact and in principle. This makes Chaudhuri’s project look necessary and opportune from your point of view.
AK: I would think the project crucial precisely because the backbone of the literary lies mainly in academia: that which is being prescribed, studied, researched and written about, is what will outlast trendy one-day-sparrows. We have seen in South Africa how particular writers have come to the fore only through the slow painstaking work of academic studies (as one of Chaudhuri’s examples [Zoë Wicomb] shows this), how the work of generations of students studying a great poet finally engages a wider public. Even new fashionable themes like identity, or the animal, send scholars back to both older and new work. This activity and knowledge has always spilled over into more accessible spaces like book reviews, book discussions, newspapers, and electronic media.
But academia seems in trouble as Chaudhuri correctly suggests. For me the problem arose the moment scholars pulled themselves back into small subthemes, picking a seed here and one there (either because they felt overwhelmed by the sheer forceful volume of publications in English, or because they had been terrified by cause-fighters into submission to minor themes), without keeping abreast of the values and issues of contemporary literature. It becomes very difficult to determine where and how ‘new’ ground is being broken in terms of say, the novel… Who is changing the format into something new? What are the main themes and who and how are they transgressing?
In South Africa things have become even more dire: the ‘made’ or ‘imagined’ gulf between black and white or feminist writing is causing the death of much literary activism. Some academics now prefer to stick to ‘their’ field, others sow destruction in every text they touch, others are so busy championing that there is hardly time for in-depth analysis. The moment somebody touches an overview on South African literature the critics mercilessly slaughter the person – and often rightly so because so little is known about the literature being written in nine of South Africa’s official languages. Scholars also seem reluctant to write book reviews for a more popular audience.
The mainstays of Afrikaans writing are leeskringe/reading circles. Spread across the country these groups decide on their reading list for the year and often get a scholar to discuss the book with them. Afrikaans newspapers still offer some solid space for book reviews. Then there are various awards where academics often serve as judges—reading circles then often select the books of prize-winners to discuss. So the potential for a rewarding integration of literary activism is (still?) there in the Afrikaans literary world.
But it is different for English literature in South Africa. As nobody wants to be caught ‘on the wrong side’, the newspapers have stopped reviewing. Literally ALL the literary prizes for poetry and fiction have fallen away, because the fights about white and black judges, white and black publications, publishers, editors, standards etc. became too explosive to touch, or rather the noise does not warrant the puny benefit for those giving the money for the prize. Our two most important prizes: the Alan Paton and Barry Ronge prizes have simply stopped this year. And really nobody cares.
Literary activism is a response to the distortion of market activism and should work in conjunction with and in addition to the market.
So great changes lie ahead.
PMcD: At the same time, you say ‘I firmly believe that the context in which the poetry that I write makes any sense is disappearing like a sheet in the dark.’ This makes ‘literary activism’ in Chaudhuri’s sense look like a lost cause in your eyes. Is there a genuine discrepancy here? I suppose I am, in part, asking if your comment about vanishing contexts applies solely to innovative poetry in Afrikaans or to inventive poetry in general.
AK: Let me stick to Afrikaans, but I have to say it seems also present in South African English poetry and Dutch. A poet finds and forges her voice among the voices that came before her—in my case Afrikaans poets writing in an Afrikaans with its tight grid of Dutch and German intact. Until about ten years ago, almost all the Afrikaans poets were schooled in a literature that was mainly Western and white. In the meantime the majority of speakers in Afrikaans are no longer white, but of colour and still suffering the total destruction of apartheid. This means that poets from this group are writing about their surroundings, their anger, the consequences of the devastation, breaking new ground writing about poverty in a literature that existed on middle class longings, sense of beauty, notions around poetry, and a solid sense of how ‘style’ in poetry has developed from naive rhymes to complicated layered structures to the avant garde (e.g. I love simile, the swiftness and surprise of it, but find very few young poets using simile. I can write endlessly about landscape, but realise now that nature is a pure middle-class and ownership passion).
The coloured poets have their own version of Afrikaans: they create their own vocabulary and style, quote their own heroes (Tupac Shakur and no longer Paul Celan), make a whole set of new audiences and bring in innovative themes of injustice and suffering which make the middle-class poetry look like indulgent candyfloss. They are therefore contributing very effectively in an ‘ideal direction’.
But there is also the younger internet generation of poets – who thrive on publishing on the internet with immediate gratification of making an impact. They don’t work with poetry volumes with titles feeding and broadening the themes, or the coherent gathering, shaping and cutting of something that cannot be said. With videos and other electronic material they have vast influences on their audiences. It is within these kinds of contexts that my poems, despite dealing with injustice and humaneness, would make less and less sense. I do not begrudge anybody for it. It is, for me at least, the biggest challenge for literary activism – how do these contribute to a more progressive and just society?
PMcD: Art as action, in other words, not simply art and action. This is perhaps a good note on which to conclude, though I hope you’ll indulge me if I do so in a speculative way. On the central issue of art as action, I have long felt we live in the shadow of a misconception about language that has its origins in the colonial era and in a series of mistranslations. I am thinking of the German philosophical tradition exemplified by the early nineteenth-century Prussian linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt. On this view – I’m abridging the caricature – languages determine thought and express the linguistic community’s self-enclosed ‘worldview’; and poets speak for ‘the people’ (von Humboldt used the phrase das Volk). This misreading, which fed the ever-tenacious ‘linguistic relativity thesis’, affected most European and many other languages too, given the deforming effects of colonial linguistics and language policies. It also played an influential role in the history of Afrikaans. It is, however, a crude caricature of von Humboldt’s thinking which ignores his championship of multilingualism, his interest in non-European languages, and his belief in the transformative potential of translation and poetry. ‘The mind, seeing language to be actually engaged in endless creation, no longer regards it as closed,’ he argues, ‘but strives unceasingly to import new matter, so as to have this, once patched into the language, react upon itself.’ Or, again, humanity ‘has intimations of a region that transcends language, and is actually constricted by language; but that language in turn is the only means of exploring and fertilizing this region.’ To my mind, these observations, which bear on the linguistic and on the ethical aspects of poetic creativity, have a particular pertinence to your work as a poet and translator – and to other contemporary Afrikaans poets: Jolyn Phillips and Nathan Trantraal, among the younger generation for example, or Breyten Breytenbach, to name only three. (In my view, they are no less pertinent to the work of the great South African linguist Neville Alexander.) Given von Humboldt’s commitment to transformation, the future, and the ideal, they also seem to prefigure the kind of literary activism you envisage, one dedicated to creating ‘a more progressive and just society.’ Idle speculations on my part?
AK: Our conversation has been stretching over so many months, covid-isolation months, that one’s own views have shifted into forms of despair – especially as South Africa has so frighteningly and nonchalantly let this unique moment to radically change the country’s social and economic structures, slip through our fingers. The epidemic has harshened, broadened and intensified the existing unjust structures here and sent us over the cliff. Instead of hearing wind as one falls, one sees the encroaching desperation of hungry, angry, betrayed masses of people. The rich are lifting themselves silently in droves to wherever they have already stashed their riches, while the rest of us are a bit like Mrs Curren [in J. M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron (1990)] – giving and sharing ‘with a despairing heart’.
In a melodramatic mood this morning, I feel like saying: the writing of J.M. Coetzee and Njabulo Ndebele have saved my life in this country – the translated works from indigenous languages as well. The African writings gave me access to a world-conception that I have lived with all my life, but was not really aware of (its radical profoundness, depth and beauty), while Coetzee gave me the tools to do meaningful dissections from it. So I guess that is art in action.
Translation of literary works is also art as action as you suggest, so allow me an example or two. Scholars have always pointed to the metaphorical quality of indigenous languages. Words have a literal and a figurative meaning, as in these Sesotho words, for example:
ndiyazidla—I eat myself (literal); I am proud (figurative);
ukutshona—to set (sun); to drown/go down (literal); to die (figurative);
letlokoa—straw (literal), vanity (figurative);
pelu ea ithatha—my heart loves itself (literal), I am happy (figurative).
The task of the translator of indigenous languages is therefore to capture the figurative meaning without losing the poetry of the literal. How wonderful the material then becomes in indicating a much broader view of the world, can be seen below through only one single poem, moving from isiXhosa to two versions in English:
IiMbongi zakwaNtu (by Bulelani Zantsi, leading isiXhosa praise poet)
Awu! Ndiqale ngaliphi na, makwedini?
Ndithi makhe ndiyiloze ndibhexesh’ amaxethuka
ndixongx’ iilwimi ngoba ndixelel’ abaxongxi besiXhosa,
ndaxel’ inxanxad’ intak’ eneengxak’ ezingxakangxaka
suka ndaxananaza ndaxel’ amaphiko exhalanga. etc
The imbongi of the House of Ntu (translation by poet himself focusing on the meaning)
I ask you to be quiet,
for the imbongi from Xhalanga to speak.
Let the weak ones be quiet
I am speaking of important matters.
I shall show the lies in good Xhosa
The liars will be shaking,
I will talk clearly in opposition.
Iimbongi, lend me two opportunities
I will use them both.
Young men lend me two opportunities
I will use them inside as well as outside.
Young men, lend me two opportunities
I will use them to look after the aged.
You who are men, lend me two opportunities.
I will use them both to protect us.
Young men, lend me two opportunities.
I will respect the elders and be brave.
Praise-singers of the House of Humans (A final version in English by Koos Oosthuyzen):
Silence please, for the imbongi of Vulture hill is bellowing.
Those who trudge along like wasted livestock
will be speechless for a change
because I am going to say things that weigh heavily
I am going to say them in deep Xhosa from Xhosaland
My words will let some people fall about frightened like liars,
They will jump around like rattling rhebuck in a rapid wind.
I will sing clear and solid like a songbird on a stony mountain.
Iimbongi, lend me two bush tiger capes
With one I shall gird myself and with the other sweep the way clear.
Boys, lend me two fighting sticks.
The one I will take to meetings and with the other one hack away weed.
Initiates, lend me two curved hilt knives.
With the one I will slaughter for the ancestors
and with the other cut strips to eat for the grey headed.
Men, lend me two wild olive tree staffs.
With one I will tame animals and with the other chase the thunder away.
Young men, lend me two dancing canes.
One I will give to the cranefeather heads
and with the other loudly beat my shield.
A thesis can be written about the texts, but what I want to point out is the total integration of people and nature in caring and nurturing their interconnectedness.
Let me give an example of an effort to ‘import’ new matter and have language ‘react upon itself’, as von Humboldt put it. The Truth Commission lifted scales from my eyes revealing the continuous presence of an interconnected-awareness among the majority of South Africans: I suddenly came across it absolutely everywhere in writing, gestures, events, unfathomable rulings – often regarded as Christianity, primitive behaviour or simply as meaningless cliché. I wanted to find a language in Afrikaans to express that, but whatever I tried either sounded like a platitude, or some aerie-faerie new age jargon. After attending some lectures in Berlin on Paul Celan I realised: but I should MAKE that language of caring. One could bore open the clogged syllables of apartheid Afrikaans, recalibrate the burnt out diphthong , saw off consonants, have a continuous chiselling of the plaque on vowels so that merciless petrified words become challenged – so that air can rush in to form a new language that will say apartheid is dead among the anger and hatred.
The first challenge was of course the pronouns - to break the construct of ‘I’ and ‘you’. But how do you say ‘ek/I’ but understand ‘ons/us’ meaning you as interconnected plural and all those that have come before the ‘I’? So I contracted the Afrikaans expression ‘my pa-hulle’ (my father-and-them) or ‘my tannie-hulle’ (my aunt-and-them) into ‘jou’le’ (you and them), ‘ek’le’ (I-and-them) and that enabled me to forge an expression of interconnectedness that I could live with:
hoor jou’le my?
jy wat ons’le is
as weg geskrote sompige lewers leef ons
wreedmoedige afstompings: laat sein oor die spleet
alle jou’le ons’le alle aard’le arm’le honger’le
asmekaar waks ons’le almals voete voer meekaars monde
vervullings van meesalwing
voort in erbarmde armadaskes sterre
dit wat anders ek’le gryp die ons’le
in ’n nuwe woordeskot van etaak
ons knal gans die aar-eerde tot kielblou-klank
(hoor jy die nuwe-newe die safte hoe verlosbluffend
spoel die swoegtels van apoorte aardes los?)
do your’nthem hear me’nthem?
you who are our’nthem?
as scrap(p)ed away swampy livers we live
cruel-tempered stumps: signal through the synaptic cleft
all yours ours all earth’s-us poor’s-us hunger’s-us
asone(ach)other wash everyo(ur)ne’s feet feed eachwithother’s mouths
fulfilments of eachsalvingother
henceforward in compassioned star armadasques
that which differently mine grasps the ours
in a new overflowording of ethi(n)ck
we detonate the whole earlierth to keelblue clamour
(do you hear the newnearbeneath the softed how startlingly freely
the toils of apartgated earths float loose?)
Nowadays Afrikaans is anyway flooded with the new language of young poets of colour doing in the most natural way what an old apartheid born poet had dreamt of!