Tag Archives: Black Butterflies

The heart has spaces – the love letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker

Drawing in Ingrid's letter of 15 October 1963
In the beginning there were the women of his past, a ghost among them. André Brink had never been afraid to love. After the life-defining relationship of his youth with Ingrid Jonker, her suicide, and four divorces, at the age of 69 he had the guts to say yes to a delicate possibility.

When we met in Austria towards the end of 2004 I was terribly young, on the verge of a divorce, broken by betrayals, and almost paralysed by mistrust. Continents and cultures apart, 42 years between us, the odds staked against us could not have been higher. Yet we somehow mustered enough courage to dare the impossible and turn it into reality. For ten years, the first thing we did every morning after waking up next to each other was to smile. No matter what. Of course it hadn’t been easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. And coming to terms with our respective pasts was our greatest challenge.

André first introduced me to Ingrid in a letter on 23 December 2004:

She was a year or so older than me, and light-years older in terms of sexual experience. It was an incredible, hectic, heady, head-over-heels love of extremes, swinging wildly from ecstasy to the depths of misery; and it became just too exhausting and demanding. After two years (and several break-ups and new starts) she started a new love-affair, and then I did too (both of us, I think, grasping at possibilities of getting out of our own relationship which had become suffocating). And so it ended. She had one more mad love-affair, and committed suicide.

Coming to live with André in the South African spring of 2005, I very quickly realised that in order to know him – truly know him – I had to understand what had happened between him and Ingrid 40 years earlier. We both had to. No other woman in André’s life had left as indelible a mark on him as Ingrid. No other haunted me as much in the beginning of our relationship.

I am proud of countless things André and I have achieved together, but the one that made all else possible is the space we created in our relationship for sharing, for being painfully open with each other. André and I met at Vienna International Airport when I went to pick him up and accompany him on the train journey to Salzburg, where he was participating in a symposium I’d helped organise. On that trip we began a conversation which, literally, lasted ten years until I told him I loved him for the last time and closed his lips with a final kiss just before he died earlier this year. It was a stripping of minds and hearts. Time after time, we stood completely soul-naked in front of each other, risking everything, and eventually knowing that love would prevail, always, no matter how terrifyingly ugly the revealed truth – on both sides – was. It is the kind of knowledge which can lay any ghost to rest.

At the end of Everything I Know I Learned from TV: Philosophy for the Unrepentant Couch Potato, my favourite philosopher, Mark Rowlands, writes: “If I could repay you with a wish it would be that you find something in your life so important that without it you would not be the same person. If you’re lucky you’ll have it already.” The relationship with Ingrid was such a thing for André. He wrote in his memoir, A Fork in the Road (Harvill Secker, 2009): “On that memorable afternoon of 15 April, 1963, a group of us were gathered in the lounge of Jan Rabie’s rambling old house in Cape Town, when Ingrid walked in, barefoot and provocative, and the movement against censorship officially began, and the course of my life was changed.” Her influence permeated everything: his personal life, and, just as crucially, his writing. One only needs to look at André’s women characters, walking in Ingrid’s footprints across the pages of his novels, to comprehend what an impact their meeting had on his creativity. And they are only the most obvious example. But despite the evidence, for many years André was exceedingly reluctant to speak or write about Ingrid after her death.

At the time of our engagement in early 2006, together with Antjie Krog and Ingrid de Kok, André was working on the new translations of Ingrid Jonker’s poems which would result in the publication of Black Butterflies: Selected Poems (Human & Rousseau, 2007). It must have been during this period that he showed me his and Ingrid’s correspondence for the first time. He kept the letters in the same place as his diaries which he reread for the writing of the introduction to Black Butterflies, the first text of its kind after many years of silence. An intimate treasure and a chunk of literary history many had wondered about for decades, even back then the letters had an irresistible appeal for me. Although my grasp of the Afrikaans language and literature was shaky at this stage, I understood their importance as a key to André’s life story and to the creative and intellectual forces culminating in the literary movement of the Sestigers. We looked at them together, he told me their story, and allowed me to comment on the translations as well as on the introduction. The title for the collection followed from a suggestion I’d made. Being included felt like a form of exorcism.

I wrote in my own diary of the time: “Dear Ingrid, are you smiling at us after all?”

Continue reading: LitNet

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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.

Our Literary Felines

Mozart after finishing Imre Kertész's Liquidation

Mozart after finishing Imre Kertész’s Liquidation

Inspired by a chat over dim sum and pu-erh tea with Alex Smith and her recent Three Cats blog post, as well as an exchange of cat photographs on twitter with Katherine Stansfield whose four Cats seem as literary as our Feline Family, I decided to share a few stories and photographs here with you.
Anya and Mozart supervising the writing of my PhD thesis on Nadine Gordimer

Anya and Mozart supervising the writing of my PhD thesis on Nadine Gordimer


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André and I don’t want to remember the ordinary boring life we led before Anya and Mozart (named after Anna Netrebko and Amadeus – they were born in the Mozart year) arrived on a KLM flight from Austria in 2006. It was quite a dramatic occasion, because their documents got lost along the way and their trip was postponed by 24 anxious hours. However, at last we received the news that they were safely on their way and we could pick them up from the airport. The plane landed, all the passengers – human and non-human – deboarded and we were told that we would get ‘our dog’ in a few minutes.
‘But we are expecting two cats,’ we protested with hearts in our throats.
The man glanced at the documents in his hands, ‘Yeah, right.’
Minutes passed, we remembered the lost documents and began to prepare ourselves for the Rottweiler travelling on Mozart’s pet passport while he and Anya were on their way to Australia for all we knew.
The airport official returned empty-handed, but assured us that ‘our dog’ was on his way.
‘You mean our TWO CATS!’ we shouted, but he was gone again.
At last, he returned with a cage containing two very vocal Kitties we recognised. Relief, relief!
We had read all the available cat books and prepared the house for their welcome, stressing about getting it all right, but Anya and Mozart were completely blasé about the entire trip to the other side of the world. The moment we arrived home, we let them out of the cage and stood around helplessly, watching for any signs of distress. They stretched, looked around, located the litter box, did their business, saw the food and the water, helped themselves, sniffed a bit around, and literally twenty minutes later were both stretched out on our bed, looking up as if to say, ‘So, when are you coming to bed?’

Our lives changed that day. They became a million times better!

Anya with one of her favourite novels, Jeanette Winterson's Lighthousekeeping

Anya with one of her favourite novels, Jeanette Winterson’s Lighthousekeeping


To lose Anya to a speeding car a few months later was shattering, for all three of us, worst for Mozart of course, but we all didn’t know how to deal with the loss. I still see her strolling through the house, waving her gorgeous bushy tale as if the world belonged to her. It did. We miss her terribly.
Mozart showing Salieri the ropes of supervising my PhD on Gordimer

Mozart showing Salieri the ropes of supervising my PhD on Gordimer


After the tragedy, friends recommended a kitten. That is how Antonia Salieri came into our lives in 2007. Born in a sewage pipe, she was a bit of a rough diamond at first, and so tiny that she constantly got lost under Mozart’s feet when he tried to play with her. Eventually, out of desperation, I presume, not knowing how to engage her otherwise, he danced on the scratching pole for her, bum and tail high in the air like a real pro. None of us will ever forget the performance, least of all the flabbergasted Salieri. Once she recovered from the shock, they settled into a co-habitation of mutual respect. Salieri quickly realised that the circumstances of her birth shouldn’t stand in her way of behaving like royalty and she earned herself the nickname Principessa from an Italian visitor to the Brink household. She only eats her food if served on the kitchen table (Royal Albert plates), takes up half of my half of the bed (she doesn’t care much for my back problems), and screams at me if I misunderstand ‘Catlise’, the most important language for any human to understand. Any cuddles happen only and entirely on her terms when she is ready for them.
As a kitten Salieri read Olga Tokarczuk

As a kitten Salieri read Olga Tokarczuk


Salieri pensive after reading the Sunday newspapers

Salieri pensive after reading the Sunday newspapers


Salieri shocked how little she knew about Paris after reading The Most Beautiful Walk in the World by John Baxter

Salieri shocked how little she knew about Paris after reading The Most Beautiful Walk in the World by John Baxter


Salieri supervising André's translations of Ingrid Jonker's poetry for Black Butterflies

Salieri supervising André’s translations of Ingrid Jonker’s poetry for Black Butterflies

Salieri getting her teeth into Roget's Thesaurus

Salieri getting her teeth into Roget’s Thesaurus


Salieri trying to put some order into the chaos on André's desk

Salieri trying to put some order into the chaos on André’s desk


Mozart is our wanderer and partly adopted the neighbours as his other family. He is very wise, speaks Polish, German, English, Afrikaans, and Catlise fluently, understands many more languages and loves David Attenborough bird documentaries.
Mozart contemplating whether to read Granta magazine or Gordimer's Selected Stories next

Mozart contemplating whether to read Granta magazine or Gordimer’s Selected Stories next


Mozart searching for a dictionary

Mozart searching for a dictionary


We never thought of another cat to join the household, but when Michela Glinka was placed in my hands with a red bow around her neck and we were told that she desperately needed a home, we had no choice. She arrived in 2008 with a tummy problem and kept us awake the whole first night. Between trying to somehow help her and changing our bed sheets for the third time, I was ready to give her back, but when we eventually all fell asleep in the morning and woke up together, I knew she was here to stay. She is now sleeping on my chaise longue in one of her nests.
Glinka in a nest

Glinka in a nest


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Glinka is the ultimate nest-builder, fresh laundry is best, but any blankets or quilts will do. We also call her our birdie-cat because she chirps like a little bird. The moment I set foot out of the bed in the morning, she will be running through the house, chirping along the way to welcome me into the day. We make coffee together and then return to bed where she will sit on my chest (as close to my face as possible), have rusk crumbs, and read with me or go over to André to check whether his book is more interesting. Most of my writing happens with her in my lap or somewhere in the room.
Glinka with Lauren Beukes's Moxyland toy

Glinka with Lauren Beukes’s Moxyland toy

Glinka pondering a word she'd just looked up in a German-English dictionary

Glinka pondering a word she’d just looked up in a German-English dictionary


Glinka inspiring my writing

Glinka inspiring my writing

Glinka and I writing in winter close to the fireplace

Glinka and I writing in winter close to the fireplace


Glinka is most famous in the literary circles around the world as the cat who inspired Kleinkat in André’s Philida (2012), recently also published in Taiwan (I love the cats on the different covers).
Philida3Philida2Philida cover TaiwanFrom the acknowledgements of my Invisible Others: “My furry family, Glinka, Salieri and Mozart, true experts at life, keep trying to teach me how to make the most of it; I hope they will succeed one day.”