Sentinel Poetry (Online) #37
3rd Anniversary Issue – December 2005
Beauty 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
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
G.B: The reality of contemporary
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
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
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
One of the most interesting literature
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
G.B: I am currently out of
What is home? To me, home is something we’ve had to
fight for so long that to leave it easily is not possible.
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