Tag Archives: Antjie Krog

Sunshine in my pocket

Every New Year’s Eve local time at midnight, I tune in to my favourite radio station in Austria to hear the live ringing of the St. Stephen’s Cathedral bells in Vienna. Afterwards, they always play Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” waltz, and then usually a pop song of note. This year that song was Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”. I’d never heard it before, but it was catchy enough to remember. When I looked it up, listened to it properly, watched the video, and read the lyrics, I could not stop dancing to it, and realised that it is the perfect song to start this year with.

Last year … should be best forgotten, at least most of it, especially the first half (ugh!). Personally all I can think of is: I survived. Fortunately more intact than I thought possible. And here I am, ready for 2017! All positive energy and smiles, or as Timberlake sings, with “that sunshine in my pocket”.

A whole sun of sunlight in my heart’s pocket, in fact.

New Year’s resolutions? Ah, you know, the usual: write a few books, win the lottery, travel the world.

In all honesty, I hardly have any plans. It’s the year I turn 40. I will publish two books. All monumental stuff, but it feels like my life should be: I am getting older. I write. I publish. I am embracing it all with great joy. What is different about this year is my involvement with PEN South Africa. I have been co-opted as a board member and will be promoting activities celebrating our inspiring literary heritage and contemporary writing.

For a while now, I have also been dreaming of founding an independent publishing house, a home to exquisite writing. This year might see its birth.

There will be literary salons, book festivals, trips – local and overseas – and lots of tennis to watch (Rafa is back!). I am looking forward to the publication of Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia, Antjie Krog’s Lady Anne: A Chronicle in Verse, SSDA’s next anthology of short stories Migrations: New Short Fiction from Africa (edited by Efemia Chela, Bongani Kona and Helen Moffett), Katherine Stansfield’s Falling Creatures, Melissa Volker’s A Fractured Land, and Sarah Lotz’s next novel in which a Polish character features … I was told she gets to have some great mountaineering adventures … Or was it sex? Both, I hope. As long as she reaches the summit.

karinaI have no doubt this will be a brilliant year for books; many more exciting titles await.

I wish you all lots of health, and if not a sun, then at least a ray of sunlight in your pocket.

Let us dance.

Let’s not stop The Feeling.

André Brink Tribute at the Woordfees

Writers, family and friends gathered on Saturday, 14 March 2015, in the afternoon at the Woordfees Book Tent to read from André’s work and correspondence, paying tribute and sharing stories. The event was organised by PEN Afrikaans & the Festival.

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Kerneels Breytenbach, friend, publisher, writer
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Sonja Brink, daughter
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Naas Steenkamp, friend, writer
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Abraham Phillips, writer
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Willemien Brümmer & Matthias, friend, writer, journalist
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Abraham H. de Vries, friend, writer
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Pieter Fourie, friend, playwright, director
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Antjie Krog, friend, poet, writer
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Ingrid Winterbach, friend, writer, painter
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Bettina Wyngaard, writer, activist
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Hettie Scholtz, friend, publisher, literary godmother
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Danie Marais, poet
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& I
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(Photographs: Krystian Szczurek)

Review: Synapse by Antjie Krog

SynapseReading Antjie Krog’s latest volume of poetry translated into English, Synapse (Mede-wete in Afrikaans), I was faced with an old personal dilemma: How much hard work is too much in order to reach that moment where meaning and aesthetic pleasure reveal themselves to you as a poetry reader? I don’t have an adequate answer. Perhaps everyone’s threshold is different anyway. In the end all you have is your very individual frame of reference, as a friend recently reminded me.

In any poetry volume you will find poems which will immediately speak to you. Others will require a specific key to unlock a feeling of appreciation. Rereading, research, or exploration of context will eventually reward your effort. Some poems will forever remain inaccessible no matter the amount of goodwill you put in. And then there will be those which will simply leave you cold. The poems in Synapse fit into all these categories.

The volume is divided into two parts: The Yard and Four Efforts in Linguistic Synapse Tracing. The first part opens with a series of epigraphs which are followed by thirteen poems, all focused on the images of the yard and the farm. These I find the strongest and most captivating in the book. In the epigraphs we are introduced to spaces in which the land and its ownership take centre stage and gender roles are clearly defined. The poems speak of the death of a patriarch, familial roots which reach into a troubled past, grief, guilt, race relations, and the ancient questions of owning and belonging.

As the poem 11. fossilised tree trunk makes clear, everything is connected, embedded, echoed throughout history. And yet, everything changes: “after all the years we gurgle (the only outlasting ones) / burdened with the dying light and bloodsick with heritage / : the new ones prepare to enter the yard” (13. old yard). At the heart of one’s relationship with the land are beauty and language: “places that could always snap my skeleton into language / coil me into voices bore into my entrails / expose a certain wholeness of belonging as my deepest tongue / tear chorales and something like discord from my brain” (6. live the myth).

This is the kind of poetry that leaves one gasping for air, which opens up new spaces in one’s understanding and feeling about the past and everyday reality in this country.

The Yard continues with poems which grapple with morality and reconciliation. The idea of interconnectedness is challenged in hold your ear to the tear in the skin of my country where already the format of the poem signals separate spheres of understanding the concept of forgiveness. The words of the speaker of the first section, Cynthia Ngewu, who testified in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about the murder of her son, one of the Guguletu Seven, cascade onto the page like a waterfall. The neat couplets which follow represent an ordered attempt to understand the motives and worldviews of the officer who was involved in the killing. In the end, we are told, “it was futile to try to weave interconnectedness into / the concrete bunker that lives inside Mr Barnard’s whiteness”.

The bleakness of moving beyond such divisions is captured in miracle where South Africa’s relatively peaceful liberation is juxtaposed with present-day, all-consuming greed and violence: “we have become the prey of ourselves caught up / in ethnic avarice and total incapacity for vision”.

More intimate poems about ageing, memory, grand-motherhood, domesticity, or the I-you constellation of lovers reveal the wonders of the world along deeper philosophical questions about our capabilities and responsibilities. The tone ranges from sombre to light-hearted. Krog is one of the few poets out there who can smuggle Skype, wifi, the Internet and memory sticks into poetry and make them look as if they almost belonged. Also, when she swears, she makes it count.

The poem convivium astounds with its breadth: “what use my caress in the breath-earthed night if a centre- / less universe opens space in the nonexistent for dark / matter to overpower a few broken beads of light?” The poem, like the human body at the core of its universe, “tuneforks such abundance”.

Apart from a handful exceptions, especially the Lament on the death of Mandela, the latter part of the volume, specifically the obfuscated Four Efforts in Linguistic Synapse Tracing left me baffled. The tightness and clarity of the preceding poems dissolved in musings where it became more and more difficult to follow the poet on her journey. The academic in me insisted I persevere and come to grips with the pieces, but the Sunday morning reader just wanted to return to the earlier poems in the collection or open another book. The Sunday morning reader won.

Synapse
by Antjie Krog
translated by Karen Press
Human & Rousseau, 2014

A ‘butchered’ version of this review appeared in the Cape Times on 19 December 2014, p. 12.

Review: in a burning sea – Contemporary Afrikaans Poetry in Translation edited by Marlise Joubert

in a burning seaMy Afrikaans is sufficient enough to follow everyday conversations, watch Afrikaans soapies and read Die Burger. But ever since hearing Antjie Krog read in her deep, melodic voice from her impressive oeuvre in Afrikaans I have wanted to understand more than just basics. Until that moment arrives, only translations allow me to savour some of the riches of Afrikaans writing. In poetry, these are not easy to come by. Of the few available in recent years in English, Krog’s Body Bereft (2006), Ingrid Jonker’s Black Butterflies (2007) and Wilma Stockenströrm’s The Wisdom of Water (2007) in particular belong to my all-time favourites.

in a burning sea is thus a highly anticipated publication which will hopefully pave the way for more translations. Altogether the anthology features thirty contemporary Afrikaans poets. Alphabetically arranged by authors’ names, the collection takes its title from a poem by Breyten Breytenbach, one of only a handful widely translated practitioners of the craft: “how often were we here / where only silver shadows stir / only through you I had to deny myself / through you alone I knew I had no harbour / in a burning sea”.

The editor Marlise Joubert, author of seven volumes of poetry herself and editor of four Versindaba anthologies (a publication inspired by the annual poetry festival by the same name), asked established poets and newcomers (but with at least two published volumes to their name) to submit ten poems from which a selection was then made for the book.

Among those included are the exciting young voices of Ronelda S. Kamfer (“the bullet nestled in his throat / his mother did not cry / the politicians planted a small tree / and the Cape Doctor tore it out / and flung it where the rest of the Cape Flats dreams lie – // on the flats”), Danie Marais (“On seconds thoughts, Stellenbosch, / you are a violated classic – / a bergie with an 1840s gable / for a hat…”), Carina Stander (“in the weak sunlight / filtering into the kitchen / mothers like calabashes / nattered on knitted goatskin”), and Loftus Marais (“and when i have to stand before Him / i’ll curtsy effeminately / and carefully explain to Him / that my catsuit / (folded in the suitcase next to the vanity case) / is fire resistant” – from The Second Coming) who hold more than their own along such greats as Breytenbach, Krog, Stockenström, Petra Müller, T.T. Cloete or Marlene van Niekerk.

Top translators of the likes of Michiel Heyns or Leon de Kock, often in collaboration with the poets, and the authors themselves made the work available in English. Hardly ever was I aware of reading translations, the Afrikaans poems feeling very much at home in their new incarnations. The originals are presented alongside the English for parallel reading.

André Brink’s introduction gives a short historical overview of Afrikaans poetry and its various trends, placing the selection in context. Most poems included are very recent, with a few exceptions dating back as far as M.M. Walter’s Apocrypha XII (1969): “When Eve clad herself amidst the grove of figs / in fashions by the heavenly Hartnell –”. Some poems had not been published at the time of submission, including Marlene van Niekerk’s eulogy Hamba kakuhle, Madiba.

What strikes one immediately when reading the anthology is how well local flavours mix with global traditions. The anthology opens with a landscape poem by Zandra Bezuidenhout about the last days of summer in the Midi: “the night is balmy with bonhomie / and aromas linger like tongues”. Bezuidenhout’s other poems are steeped in an irresistible sensuality whether she describes the sharing of a fig (“and offer the plum-red sweetness / as token of our bonded state”) or an exhibition by Marlene Dumas (“how transparent the nipple-bud / bleeding in berry-red passion”).

Universal themes are presented along concerns closer to home such as in Martjie Bosman’s Scorched Earth (From Ouma Makkie’s stroke-stricken mouth I inherit / two bitter words: insult and scorn / and the mournful knowing that generations / settled this family land in vain”), or Daniel Hugo’s in memoriam poem to Ingrid Jonker, Escape (“I love walking – drunk on ozone – / up to Three Anchor Bay…everywhere sewage smells / algae, seal vertebrae, mussel shells / a clotted, stinking ink-fish / and – stone-cold sober – you see / at times a poet’s body”), or Krog’s colonialism of a special kind (“people are made ashamed that they have forgiven // because at the deepest level / we respect anger / understand hate / admire revenge”).

in a burning sea gives one an enticing taste of what is happening in Afrikaans poetry at this point in literary history. Not all the poems selected take one’s breath away, but they definitely put one in a mood for more.

in a burning sea: Contemporary Afrikaans Poetry in Translation
edited by Marlise Joubert
Protea Book House, 2014

An edited version of this review was published in the Cape Times on 14 November 2014.

A literary ‘rainbow nation’ in Regensburg

University of Regensburg

University of Regensburg

At the beginning of April, I attended a literary conference in Regensburg, Germany. Organised by Prof. Jochen Petzold, the conference intended to shed light on some of the developments in recent South African literature. Two days, various themes, and an intimate crowd of eager participants amounted to a very stimulating experience which reconfirmed for me the decision not to forsaken academia all together just yet. The papers covered a wide range of topics, from youth literature to writing on HIV/AIDS, with the farm novel and Indian Ocean literature thrown into the mix.

UK Quartet Books edition

UK Quartet Books edition

The conference kicked off with a paper by Chris Warnes which put a smile on my face because Warnes spoke about ideas being more productive than theory. Taking popular fiction seriously, Warnes explained how romances, crime novels, and thrillers can tell us more about present-day South Africa than ‘serious’ writing. The next speaker, Michael Cawood Green, read an excerpt from his upcoming novel. Full of scrumptious ideas, it gave one more food for thought than most theoretical writing ever can. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing Green’s fascinating novel For the Sake of Silence (2008). It remains one of my all-time favourite books, and I am deligthed now to own a signed hardback copy given to me by the author.

We continued with papers on Achmat Dangor‘s Bitter Fruit, trauma and memory, and young adult literature. I shared the slot with Sandra Stadler who has done some ground-breaking work on the YA genre in South Africa. Her thesis is something to look forward to.

Focusing on Nadine Gordimer’s The House Gun, Ivan Vladislavić’s Portrait with Keys, Stephen Watson’s A City Imagined , Antjie Krog’s Body Bereft, and the theoretical backbone done on the city in South African literature by such scholars as Achille Mbembe, Sarah Nuttall and Michael Titlestad, I spoke about how among urban spaces, Johannesburg and Cape Town dominate the literary topography of the country, and how the latter is fast on its way to becoming South Africa’s capital of crime fiction with internationally best-selling authors like Deon Meyer, Margie Orford, Roger Smith, Sarah Lotz or Mike Nicol, making Cape Town the preferred settings of their literary crimes.

Mike Nicol and Angela Makholwa

Mike Nicol and Angela Makholwa


That evening, two crime specialists, Angela Makholwa and Mike Nicol, read to us from their latest work, and together with our host, Jochen Petzold, spoke about their experience of the crime genre in South Africa and abroad.
Mike Nicol, Jochen Petzold, and Angela Makholwa

Mike Nicol, Jochen Petzold, and Angela Makholwa

The next day began with two papers on the HIV pandemic as reflected in literature and culture. The farm novel dominated the next slot on the programme. It seems nowadays that no conference on South African literature can do without a vivid discussion on the elusive ending of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. There are usually as many interpretations as people in the room, and so this time. The novel continues to haunt literary scholars.

Speaking about Aziz Hassim’s Revenge of Kali, Felicity Hand quoted a sentence from the novel which stuck in my head: “Only a corpse knows the loneliness of the grave.” The conference ended with three papers focused on Afrikaans literature. Cilliers van der Berg spoke about Afrikaans literature as a “minor discourse”, Adéle Nel about the “sense of ending” in some contemporary novels, and Willie Burger about the difficulties of categorisation that diversity brings with it.

I left Regensburg full of new ideas, a long list of titles to read, and a feeling of being part of a vibrant, exciting, and bold literary culture in South Africa.

27 April 1994: Two Decades Later

27 April 1994SA 27 APRIL 1994: AN AUTHORS’ DIARY * ‘N SKRYWERSDAGBOEK (Queillerie, 1994)
Edited by André Brink

“…here was an opportunity for writers to test their word against, arguably, the most remarkable moment in their history.” André Brink in “To the Reader”, p. 8.

“Later, sun low, tide running out in me, I bus into the township shack of my dear love, my need of her never so strong.
[…]
She reads me, smiles, her eyes soft in the room’s dusk, her hands beckoning me to come.
‘It’s done,’ she whispers, ‘we have walked the last mile!’
Later still, I help her to the bed. We are careful with each other as though we hold a fine glass, and my heart sings.
Yes, against all odds, my heart sings.” Tatamkulu Afrika in “Against All Odds, My Heart Sings”, p. 13.

“Mens se hart is bly: niemand gaan hierdie stukkies toekoms wat die mense vashou weer kan wegneem nie. Byna wil ek sê: hierdie land se politici verdien wragtig nie so ‘n wonderlike bevolking nie.” Breyten Breytenbach in “Joernaal van ‘n wending”, p. 25.

“The day has been captured for me by the men and women who couldn’t read or write, but underwrote it, at last, with their kind of signature. May it be the seal on the end of illiteracy, of the pain of imposed ignorance, of the deprivation of the fullness of life.” Nadine Gordimer in “April 27: The First Time”, p. 52.

“We all know that it won’t be a smooth road ahead.” Jenny Hobbs in “The Day We Minded Our Peace in Queues”, p. 60.

“An Organisation must be disciplined, purposeful, and idealistic in a good sense. It must also be diverse, in that it must encompass others, beyond its own affiliates. It must be committed and dedicated to one goal and one goal only: to change the miserable conditions of people to enable them to live full and rich lives; it must inspire them to realise their full intellectual potential.” Mazisi Kunene, p. 73.

“My greatest victory and achievement as an individual is to know that my children and grandchildren and their age groups in my community move with grace and dignity as full-fledged citizens of South Africa, and with full rights to determine the future of our country.” Ellen Kuzwayo in “The First Democratic Elections in South Africa”, p. 80.

“Peace is like an undying light / Shining and glowing from within / Within each one of us” Gcina Mhlophe in “Peace Is Within”, p. 85.

“Perhaps it [Table Mountain] was reaffirming its old lesson on faith: on election day. That the future is there for us: we need to have faith in it, and in ourselves. And so I ended my day unemotionally, but deeply affirmed.” Njabulo S Ndebele in “Elections, Mountains, and One Voter”, p. 95.

“I picked up the pencil that was well chewed and attached to the makeshift desk by a length of string and put my cross, quickly, trying not to agonise about it yet again.” Mike Nicol in “Voting at the Camel Rock Café”, p. 98.

“Wanner iemand my vra wat dink ek van ons toekoms, dan antwoord ek ons mag die toekoms nie ken nie: so bly elke dag ‘n avontuur.” Jan Rabie, p. 108.

“So, Mammie en Derri, cheers! Ek leef – kyk, ek leef – in ‘n nuwe Suid-Afrika!” Adam Small in “Feniks: ‘n brief, kamma, aan my ouers (wat al dood is)”, p. 123.

“It was after three hours walking, at 7 am, that I cast my two votes at the Dwarsrivier polling station. It was quite clear that I was the very first person to vote there. No doubt the IEC staff manning the station had been expecting something extraordinary all along, but not for the first voter suddenly to appear, as I had done, out of the mountains behind the school-hall that served as the polling station.” Stephen Watson in “Voting With My Feet”, p. 162.

“Want vir die heel eerste keer in my lewe was ek ‘n vry Suid-Afrikaan.” Melvin Whitebooi in “Au revoir”, p. 171.

Contirbutors: Tatamkulu Afrika, Hennie Aucamp, Chris Barnard, Breyten Breytenbach, Kerneels Breytenbach, André Brink, Achmat Dangor, Abraham H de Vries, Arthur Goldstuck, Jeanne Goosen, Nadine Gordimer, Rachelle Greeff, Jenny Hobbs, Peter Horn, Daniel Hugo, Elsa Joubert, Antjie Krog, Mazisi Kunene, Ellen Kuzwayo, Dalene Matthee, Mzwakhe Mbuli, Gcina Mhlophe, Petra Müller, Njabulo S Ndebele, Mike Nicol, Welma Odendaal, Abraham Phillips, Marguerite Poland, Jan Rabie, Albie Sachs, Riana Scheepers, Gus Silber, Adam Small, Berta Smit, Peter Snyders, Klaas Steytler, Alexander Strachan, Pieter Dirk-Uys, Madeleine van Biljon, Marita van der Vyver, Marlene van Niekerk, Lettie Viljoen (Ingrid Winterbach), Stephen Watson, George Weideman, Melvin Whitebooi