Sentinel Poetry (Online) #37

3rd Anniversary Issue – December 2005

ISSN 1479-425X

Frontpage

 

Interview

 

Gabeba Baderoon (c) John Thomas KinyaguBeauty in the harsh Lines.

 

Amatoritsero Ede: Gabeba, pardon me if I go there “where angels fear to tread”, but what was your own personal experience of apartheid? I presume you grew up to see that monster crying for blood.

 

Gabeba Baderoon: Apartheid aimed, like a religion, to shape everything in our lives. As a Black South African, Apartheid determined where I was born, where I went to school, who taught me, what I learned in history, what languages I learned to speak, where I lived, worked, married,

where I would be treated if ill, where I would be buried. It tried to tell me what I should believe about the colour of my own skin, of the minds of those whose skins were lighter or darker than mine; who I should admire, read; what beauty is who I could fall in love with. I say aimed to shape, tried to tell because of course Apartheid didn’t succeed. People resisted, both politically, through the struggle, and through all the small acts of resistance; and inside ourselves, how we insisted on regarding each other, loving each other, living in the places we loved without being less human.

 

To understand what it was like to live under Apartheid, it’s the less obvious you have to pay attention to, how apartheid shapes your own sense of possibility, where the racism it implanted in everything also manifests itself in you. For a long time I literally couldn’t envision something unless someone did it in front of my own eyes. A Black woman getting a PhD? Only once my friends did it, did I think I could do it. Strong Black women have everything to do with expanding the tight realm of my possibilities – women like my mother, who came from a working class family and was the first person to go to university in her family, who was part of a tiny Black minority who went to a white university in the 1950s and graduated as a doctor. I keep her photograph in my purse to keep close to me evidence of what is possible. My father is also important to my sense of myself. He gave our family a unique vision of masculinity. He stayed at home and looked after the children while my mother worked in the state hospital system. He loved to read, and took us to the library every week. He was a gentle, humorous, quiet man, a carpenter and a tailor and a fisherman, who felt that his daughters should grow up to be independent women. I went to a Black state school in Claremont, Cape Town, the same school my mother attended a generation before. When she was young, she and her classmates could walk to school since they lived in the neighbourhood. The year before I was born my mother’s family was ‘removed’ from Claremont, a previously mixed suburb, under the Apartheid government’s plan to purify the cities; so whites lived in the best areas, and Blacks were out of sight. So when I went to school, we couldn’t walk. We took the bus. At my school, I encountered another of Apartheid’s failures. My teachers did not teach us to accept the notion of a second-class humanity that Apartheid decreed for Black people. My teachers were themselves activists and political leaders, some of whom went to jail during the turbulent years of the 1980s. Down the road from where I lived, the police hid in municipal vehicles and shot to death school children during the resistance of the 1980s. This became known as the infamous ‘Trojan Horse’ incident.

 

Living through apartheid, and through its ending has given me a very high regard for the acts of will through which we survive and fight something, for the effort of the mind and the intelligence of the body. But more than that, for the intangible reality of friendship, of one another’s company, of love and solace and inspiration and commitment and loyalty and pleasure that we made in our lives despite apartheid - all the things that add up to being human. Those famous photos of Sophia town and District Six – places where Black people lived in mixed, vibrant communities – which were destroyed through ‘removals’ of Black people to locations, or labour reserves near the big cities, or Bantustans in the rural areas – were of people living their own, full lives. That’s what we resisted the ending of. All the things that keep your humanity alive. And we kept ourselves human and alive.

 

A.E: We all know how much the literature of South Africa’s immediate past has been shaped by the experience of apartheid. I am thinking of writers like Peter Abrahams (Mine Boy), Dennis Brutus (Letters to Martha, Sirens, Knuckles, Boots, and A Simple Lust), Alan Paton (Cry, the Beloved Country); Alex Laguma (A Walk in the Night) and so on. Has the experience of Apartheid influenced your work in any way or is likely to influence it in the future?

 

G.B: Poetry is a strange, beautiful thing. It can be dangerous. It can make us vulnerable, bringing us out briefly outside the fortifications. I write deeply political poems, though perhaps my definition of politics is broader than might be expected. Politics for me means to see the wholeness of people, their vulnerability, their fractures and their pleasures. It is easier to kill people, to forget them, if you do not know their love stories. Imagine Palestinians with full humanity. Imagine women on whose bodies it is impossible to write the word ‘rape’. That would be a different world.

 

To write a different world into existence, I draw on other writers. I have written something called ‘Fanon’s Secret’ – about the way the powerful fear what the weak keep from them. In a poem about immigrants to Europe from Africa, from the Middle East, I show how despised they are, how they are regarded as less than human. How does one write humanity into existence? In my poem I cite Marguerite Duras, the novelist and journalist, who in her reporting marked the street in Paris where an Algerian flower-seller was beaten, and then give my own offering.

 

I write about subjects with depth, and truth, and beauty. Beauty has become crucial to my ethics of the world, because it exceeds usefulness. It is excessive. But it is that excess which is ultimately human. By talking like this, I am not trying to be abstract and theoretical about the harsh realities of the world. Yes, it is possible to bomb, rape, and silence the human. But not to forget them. You can forget the non-human, fail even to register their deaths, but the loss of the human, the beautiful, is something to weep over forever. In the case of the recent Iraq invasion, we learned again that war can only be made on the ‘deserving’, so they describe us – the ones on whom war is made – as vermin first, as unnecessary, as calling down death on ourselves, as asking for it from them- the just, the beautiful.

 

If by beautiful you think I mean the pretty or the narrow consumerism of television’s idea of beautiful you are wrong. Beauty is fullness, the fullness of existence. It is more than mere necessity. It has everything to do with pleasure, with an inside that is mysterious and inviolable. It is choice – to give you access to mine, and knock on the door of your eyes, enter there, asking access to your unseen inside. It is to leave weapons at the door, and remember that you have done so. This is beauty.

 

A.E: And what, one wonders, is the race-relations like in South Africa right now? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission did a lot in diffusing the accumulated tensions, I presume.

 

G.B: The reality of contemporary South Africa is tough and expensive, often violent and sexually predatory, often fatally xenophobic. South African poetry deals directly with these realities. Vonani Bila writes in “Horrors of Phalaborwa” of the murder of a farm-worker by a white farmer, who threw the former’s body to lions. Lesego Rampolokeng writes in “Lines for Vincent” of his cousin, whose body was torn apart, with intent and slow brutality, during the struggle. This is our brutal history and in some ways our present.

 

Yet, the connections of people here are tender and loving. My friends’ children, Black and white, are going to school together, learning one another’s languages, making mistakes together, in a way that was not possible in my generation. In contemporary South Africa we live our personal lives not as exercises in racial reconciliation but as ordinary human beings who are trying to overcome the racist training that we were all indoctrinated in until 11 years ago.

 

A poetry festival like Poetry Africa in Durban, which I attended in October, was a demonstration to all its attendees of a great sweetness, where people who are Black and white and Asian ‘left their weapons at the door’, so to speak, and talked for hours about matters of true importance, like where the spirit goes for solace, the impact of the past on our minds, where poetry comes from and needs to go. The same agonies as elsewhere.

 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission created a certain visibility that meant that those who benefited from Apartheid could not deny that they knew about the violence of that system. It allowed person after person to testify to what it means to lose a child or a wife or a brother to a murderous system. It allowed many to ask of that system, where is the body of the person you took away? In this visibility, the TRC was an important and necessary kind of public drama. However, to some, and to those who refused to be a part of it, the TRC traded its visibility for absolution too cheaply.

 

A more powerful, insidious divider of possibilities these days is materialism. The material divide in South Africa is stark and it often follows lines of ‘race’. The way our society is being degraded by neo-liberal economic policies and consumerism horrifies me. To me, one of the most important ethical tasks is how to find a language of success that is not about consumption, how to take back our rootedness in the landscape, the land – our ground.

 

A.E: What are the preoccupations of the younger generations of writers; is there a major national shift in the thematic thrusts of, especially, South African poetry?

 

G.B: The new landscape of poetry and prose in South Africa has new faces, and new forms. There is electricity around poetry in South Africa. Poets are creating innovative ways of circulating poetry that go beyond traditional channels like publishing houses and universities. Young audiences are being drawn to poetry festivals like ‘Poetry Africa’, ‘Urban Voices’ and ‘Tradewinds’, and informal readings in nightclubs and restaurants in Melville, Johannesburg and ‘Off the Wall’ in Observatory, Cape Town. Small presses like Snailpress and Timbila, journals like Carapace and Botsotso, and radio broadcasts on KayaFM, YFM, and Bush radio are offering new forums for disseminating work. Poetry in indigenous languages is finally receiving some of the resources that are dominated by English and to a lesser extent Afrikaans. There is some beautiful new writing by Black writers in Afrikaans. Malika Ndlovu, a respected playwright and poet based in Cape Town, has been associated with two ground-breaking poetry and performance collectives, ‘And the Word was Woman’ and ‘WEAVE’. Makhosazana Xaba, Masello Motana, Myesha Jenkins and Lebo Mashile are well-known and very popular poets in Johannesburg who write lyrical, energetic poetry from a feminist perspective. Ntando Cele, Lexikon and Leo Jansen in Durban define a politically engaged, vibrant, South African slam poetry. Chris van Wyk, Joan Hambidge, Kelwyn Sole and Jeremy Cronin are excellent poets who have a long history of radical political involvement as well as writing that reflects the aching realities of struggle. All refine and stretch such content in their later writing. Bernat Kruger is a young poet who has written luminous love poetry. Sole is also a critic, and along with Dennis Brutus and Zakes Mda have outlined the energies and inadequacies of contemporary writing. Brutus believes that the struggle has been abandoned as a topic of new writing. Vonani Bila, both as a publisher of luminaries like Taban Lo Liyong and himself an important poet, proves the contrary – politics is alive in South African writing, but its domain is longer than the struggle. These factors are all creating poetry that is attentive to local realities, inventive and popular.

 

One of the most interesting literature initiatives in South Africa is Chimurenga magazine. Its founder and editor is Ntone Edjabe, a Cameroonian based in Cape Town. Chimurenga has a pan-African consciousness and publishes some of the most interesting writing in the continent, and other parts of the world. Litnet is a major online literary journal (www.litnet.co.za) - it is well-established and sophisticated. Fito is another interesting Cape Town based magazine with a global reach. It is edited by Desiree Lewis, Pumla Gqola and myself. Important critics, both in the academic and media fields, are Desiree Lewis (Cape Town), Pumla Gqola (Pretoria), Robert Greig (Johannesburg), Gail Smith (Johannesburg), Michelle McGrane (Pietermaritzburg). The Mail and Guardian (www.mg.co.za) has a significant arts audience, though the scale of its coverage has fallen.

 

Who are the writers who catch attention always an idiosyncratic list. Established figures of demonstrable gifts include Zoe Wicomb, J. M. Coetzee and Antjie Krog – who are formally compelling as well as being gifted writers. The best newly published poet is unquestionably Rustum Kozain. Kozain is also an essayist and editor of an important anthology of prose and a forthcoming one of poetry. Mary Watson is a searingly powerful prose writer. Pumla Gqola’s scintillating academic work competes with her creative non-fiction and prose for interest.

 

A.E: From what I have read of your work, I would describe it as ‘tender’; in fact when I read your poems, I keep remembering these lines from the late Nigerian poet, Esiri Dafewhare, “tender is the night…/when my fears comes out of her choking night/ and from the pop/ life glides to light...” This tenderness, this happy, satisfied celebration of life …is it a sign of the times in South Africa. Life glides to light?

 

G.B.: I embrace the word ‘tender’ in your description of my work. Thank you for your generous view. Though, I find less understandable your reading of my poetry as a ‘happy, satisfied celebration of life’. Perhaps what you were referring to is my writing about love, artistry and vulnerability. Yes, undoubtedly I do this. My impetus is that to see South Africans only as victims renders us into such limited creatures. We survived through resistance, but we were always more than what Apartheid deemed and also more than the struggle against Apartheid.

 

Writing is intensely pleasurable to me. It is silence, beauty, joy, learning about the self. And from that has come, for me, deep empathy for other people – and as a result of their reading of my work – from other people with me. One man wrote to me after hearing me read my work and said, ‘I heard you say the word intifada and I was so moved. I am Palestinian.’ In most accounts Palestinians, except in the words of their great poets like Mahmoud Darwish, only appear as killers of Israelis or as those killed by Israelis. Beyond that, there is nothing. In my poem ‘War Triptych Silence, Glory, Love’, I not only said intifada. Through the poem, I said ‘human’.

 

Someone asked me recently, do you only write love poetry? Where is the oppressed woman in your poems, demanded another person. I think part of people’s bewilderment is that they don’t find my work recognisably South African enough. I’m delighted to blur these borders, to be a South African writer who expands people’s expectations of South African writing – not an accusation I find unwelcome. Politics and vulnerable women are present in my writing, but I don’t use them as an alibi for writing. I could point out that I write about rape, war, apartheid’s impact on me and my family, on poverty, on domestic violence yet I don’t believe in having to prove my worth as a poet by parading such credentials to them. Either overtly or unconsciously, I am often asked to do that as a poet, and also as a Muslim woman.

 

Despite hearing my other poetry, what remained with the person who asked the initial question was the impression made by the love poems. And that’s fine, even wonderful. Is it wasting the opportunity to write to write about love, sexuality and beauty – are they a distraction from politics, from suffering, justice? Not according to Audre Lorde, and Patricia McFadden and Desiree Lewis, powerful Black women writers who have testified to the radical subversiveness of actually looking at beauty as well as resistance. And yet, I often encounter this claim of a clear opposition between the two kinds of writing. My own view is that they are not separate, and certainly not opposed.

 

I don’t NOT write poems about apartheid, or the continuing struggles of a divided country. Those realities are present in my writing when I consciously address those topics and, importantly, they are also there in the substratum when I write about the landscape or about love. I simply don’t believe that’s the overt focus on struggle is the only legitimate topic for South Africans to address.

 

In any case, I refuse to write functionally. If I write about war and domestic violence, that writing has to succeed as poetry. Otherwise, I can write essays, which I do. I’m not the first person to stretch beyond expectations. First things first, people say. Don’t be diverted by love, beauty, pleasure, people say. Write about this, and write like that. If as writers we listened to those demands, we’d never reinvent ourselves and create in art the new realities that we are living. Sello Duiker, the incandescent young South African writer, before his terribly early death this year gave him some kind of affirmation, was often regarded as indulgent for writing about sexuality and madness. What truly Black writer wrote of these things?, was the assumption. Why waste the chance, thought others? In the mean time, our notions of sexual behaviour, which we clearly need to reinvent, are killing thousands of women, battering men and abusing children. We need absolutely and fundamentally to cross such boundaries that keep us in place. And writers do that.

 

A.E: What or who were your influences?

 

G.B: For a long time, I did not think of myself as a poet but, rather, as an academic. I can tell you of my academic influences but, while I have poetic heroes and sheroes, my poetry was written in the interstices of my academic writing and did not need defining - I was not part of a school, or a stream. However, the presence of writers whose work I love and crave to read is unmistakable. To me, the work of Rustum Kozain seems to have resolved all the questions of writing. He is a transcendently gifted writer of the landscape, of politics, of love, of the irrecoverable and murderous past that he offers somehow with truth and stark beauty. His collection This Carting Life (Kwela/Snailpress, 2005) is the best debut collection in decades. Then there is Keorapetse Kgositsile, an agile and vivid intelligence whose poetry has been singing our realities throughout the years of the struggle and of the post-apartheid world. To hear the music of his words, his bounteous humanity, his anger, his tenderness is a continuing gift (in If I Could Sing and This Way I Salute You). The great, generous-hearted poet Ingrid de Kok, of clear and heartbreaking observation of the world, of grave delicacy is a true hero of mine (Transfer, Familiar Ground, and Terrestrial Things). There is Vonani Bila, whose performances are only transcended by the quality of his writing. Incantatory, attentive, a poet of searing honesty who did not leave behind his critical eye with the end of apartheid but also measures the brutalities of the present. Yet, he is also a poet of patience and gentleness, and his meditation on the love story of a political activist is unforgettable (in Dahl Street, Pietersburg). A very important publisher himself, Bila is an invaluable asset to poetry in the country.

 

A.E: You are also an academic, not necessarily professionally. Do you feel a contradictory pull as both poet and academic?

 

G.B.: To me, both are intellectual practices of different kinds. For me, the great gift is the conversation between thinkers, both academics and poets. I treasure the deep, resonant, fantastic conversations with both academics and writers until we forget we have our own homes to go to. People who you want to share a meal with and talk to for hours.

 

I am fortunate in having come to poetry late. I taught in the English Department at the University of Cape Town for seven years before I started to learn the basics of writing poetry, as a novice in an extramural evening class.

 

The academy and poetry value emotion differently, but both insist on craft and learning and integrity. To be open to learning is crucial to both practices.

 

A.E.: Is there a thriving culture of dub poetry in South Africa? I know of Rampolokeng alone.

 

G.B.: Lesego Rampolokeng is quite admissibly important in South African poetry. It is educational to hear him perform, with his combination of linguistic acuity and poetic incandescence with political attentiveness. You know every word, every choice matters for both audience and poet. However, Lesego is joined by others in the arena. Sandile Dikeni, who sadly was seriously injured in a recent car accident, brought an urgent political consciousness to his work that is crucial to the current generation of performance poets. Particularly important are the new woman MCs and poets who are redefining the field - Lebo Mashile and Ntsiki Mazwai of Feelah Sister are names to conjure with. You have to understand how music, spoken word, politics are intertwined. Johannesburg is alive with spoken word venues, poetry readings, music, film and the intersections of all of those genres. Cape Town brings its own dynamics, with its history of genocide of the Khoi-San people and slavery (Muslim slaves brought in the 17th century from East Africa, India and south-east Asia, along with widespread conversion of indigenous people who experienced conditions similar to slavery). In the Cape, Brasse van die Kaap, preceded by ‘Prophets of Da City’, are a hugely important hip hop group who have rewritten separated identities, languages, religions, ‘races’ to make a music that pounds out of the new streets of the country.

A.E.: What in your opinion as poet and academic – I have my pet theories about them – do you think is responsible for the upsurge of these popular forms, from dub to sound poetry to spoken word and so on?

 

G.B: I think the reason for the explosion of exciting, intelligent performance poetry in South Africa is that this kind of poetry is cheap and democratic – all you need is talent and one listener. It also circumvents the official channels that keep poetry an elite art.

 

In less positive ways, performance poetry suffers from being fashionable. It’s starting to dominate poetry to its young audience, without the balancing impact of written poetry or poetry that is less centred around performance and physical appeal. This is less healthy and it is reflected in some of the lazy, uninteresting, commercialized trends.

 

A.E: What is the experience of living outside South Africa like and are you out of South African due to a feeling of alienation at home?

 

G.B: I am currently out of South Africa for work, as a Guest Writer at the Nordic Africa Institute in Sweden. At other times, I am out of South Africa for love – my partner is an academic with a job in another country. I do not feel remotely alienated from South Africa. Your question leaves me trembling with strangeness. I am fundamentally Capetonian. By this, I mean I am so profoundly shaped by the city in which I grew up that when I am away even my dreams register my distance from the place and the sounds to which I usually fall asleep. Since I grew up in that city, it’s not the tourist side I’m referring to - it’s the place built by slaves, with the smell of spices, which were transported on the same shipping routes as the ships carrying slaves. It’s a beautiful city, with a long memory – its mountain, its water, its fish and rooibos tea have meanings in indigenous KhoiSan spirituality that transcend Cape Town’s reputation as a tourist haven. The city is older and crueller and more important to those who live there than that image. My friend, Pumla Gqola, teases me that I’m so much a Capetonian she can’t get me to live in other parts of South Africa – but she forgives me because claiming Cape Town as my home ground was a struggle first, before it became as ordinary as breath.

 

What is home? To me, home is something we’ve had to fight for so long that to leave it easily is not possible. South Africa is a complex, difficult place, but not ever one I ever leave happily. To learn to live outside of South Africa gracefully, I look to friends from Nigeria, China, and Indonesia. In contrast, South Africans feel torn out of our country, it often seems. We have not yet learned to leave easily, as though not able to believe that returning is easy. It has often been wrenching. The more comfortable loops are what my friends from other parts of the world are teaching me. Knowing that I will return has indeed opened me to the beauties of other places.

 

A.E.: Thank you for your precious time.

 

G.B.: Thank you for appointing me your featured poet for December. Having looked at the previous holders, this is an honour. Also, my appreciation for this long conversation, precisely the kind of pleasure I savour. I hope we will have other chances.

 

“Beauty In The Harsh Lines”  Amatoritsero Ede & Gabeba Bederoon 2005. All rights reserved. 
Baderoon’s photograph  John Thomas Kinyagu
 
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