SOME AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL reflection on the interplay and tensions between Afrikaans and English, originally published at LitNet, (October 2005).
In memoriam: Lisbé Smuts
Nog eenmaal wil ek in die skemeraand
weer op ons dorp en by ons dorpsdam staan,
weer met my rek óp in die donker skiet,
en luister, en al word ek seer en dof,
hoe die klein klippie ver weg in die riet
uit donker in die donker water plof.
– NP van Wyk Louw
Junkie walking through the twilight,
I’m on my way home.
I left three days ago
but no one seems to know I’m gone.
Home is where the hatred is.
Home is filled with pain.
And it might not be such a bad idea
If I never went home again.
– Gil Scott-Heron
While preparing my manuscript of poetry (in English) for publication, the designer at Kwela Books noticed that the glossary explaining mainly Arabic and Afrikaans words had a number of gaps: Afrikaans words used in two poems towards the end of the book were not glossed. It was an ordinary oversight on my part. The two poems “Kingdom of rain” and “Winter 2003” were added to a manuscript I had completed for submission to a publisher two years earlier. With the submission of an expanded document to Kwela, I had forgotten to expand the glossary.
The editing was a lengthy and meticulous process, and I was surprised that I had not noticed the gaps throughout this process. Explaining it to myself as a simple editorial oversight, however, seemed only half of the story. It occurred to me, instead, that there was a measure of naturalisation going on so that, during the many times that I checked and rechecked the document, the presence of Afrikaans words in the English text did not stand out – that, at some point, Afrikaans becomes fully integrated into my own half-anglicised poetic voice.
At the outset, however, I should state that the use of Afrikaans in the poetry is not an attempt to add local colour. Nor is it an attempt to inject the poetry with comic and colourful wordplay. In South Africa, especially in the Western Cape, there is a certain kind of (“colourful”) Afrikaans that many people (often white English-speakers) keenly associate with, well, “coloured” speech, an association I detest because – yes, the old story – it equates the way people look not only with the way they speak, but also with a certain sociolinguistic tone. In other words, “coloured” (since I must use this word I also detest) implies “colourful Afrikaans” or the mixture of English and Afrikaans into “kombuisengels” (“kitchen English”). Like an advertisement which reduces the Western Cape to a few banjo-strumming coons or two buffoons djying and djouing each other over a burger, the automatic, almost instinctive association between “coloured” and colloquial versions of Afrikaans is a detestable stereotype because it understands the association only through those comic associations which are, already, only its own inventions. The same may be said for the two women serriaasing each other about low ISP prices, the henpecked man with a bakkie-load of masala, and the farmer with the heavy Afrikaans accent who mucks up his subject-verb concords.
This is not to deny or detest colloquial versions of Afrikaans (or any language), or the fact that people speak as they speak. All languages have colloquial versions, and it is foolhardy to deny the colloquial. But my issue with the social associations we ascribe to colloquial Afrikaans in the Western Cape is that it reduces the speech and the people who speak it to a constant state of comedy. In all languages, the colloquial is a dialect like any other version of the language and millions of people all over the world live their lives, love and hate, laugh and murder, and write, in the colloquial.
All over the world, of course, people are subjected to stereotyping because of their language – and withheld from power because they do not speak the appropriate dialect of a language. And while Hollywood and local media creatives may churn out comedies that exploit and normalise this further, it remains a political and ideological error.
A further concern is with the kind of stereotyping that happens not because of the dialect one does speak, but because of the dialect a listener assumes one speaks – a stereotype based on association with a language that may not even feature in one’s daily repertoire – an implied stereotype.
And I may as well say it: something uncontrollable stirs in me when an English speaker in South Africa, perhaps newly introduced to me, makes, by way of that introduction, some witty colloquial Afrikaans comment, as if to say “Duidelik, my broe, I can talk your lingo.” As a reasonably well-educated product of an English-speaking university, I speak and feel most comfortable in a broad South African Standard English (SASE). Estranged from family and friends in my childhood community of Paarl, I am an outsider to a decade of linguistic development in both colloquial and standard forms of Afrikaans, making the association between me and Afrikaans a somewhat erroneous one, at once laughable and detestable because the association is, to a significant extent, unfounded. In South Africa, in the Western Cape, when people associate a certain colloquial version of Afrikaans with me, the mistake is some ignorant image they hold of me. In other words, they are not stereotyping my actual speech, they are stereotyping me by associating me with a version of a language they imagine I speak and am comfortable in. Also laughable is that many South African English speakers just get it wrong when they play with colloquial Afrikaans (for example, not all people who say “djy” also say “djou”). This stereotype is not innocent, but follows well-worn racial and racist patterns of South Africa.
But I digress.
I do not use Afrikaans for local colour. It is not, in other words, an extraneous, artificial addition. In considering the gaps in my glossary, and in once again going through the manuscript to check the glossary, it struck me that Afrikaans has actually been a consistent shadow language in the poetry – nothing unusual, given South Africa’s linguistic history. Some poems use images or ideas from Afrikaans poems that have stuck in my mind since school days and since undergraduate university days. Sometimes English syntax is modelled on Afrikaans syntax. “Winter 2003” quotes the whole of NP van Wyk Louw’s “Nog eenmaal wil ek …” Nothing unusual for people who speak more than one language. In South Africa in particular, nothing unusual for people of, how can I say, my “demographic”. And nothing unusual in the relationship between English and Afrikaans, given the history of economic, political and cultural dominance these two languages have enjoyed in South Africa. (Or, more accurately, given the economic, political and cultural dominance some of the speakers of these languages in general have enjoyed, and then, by subsequent extension, their languages.)
Perhaps the surprise is a private surprise. Having come to inhabit English (dreaming, counting, arguing in English), I am surprised to discover an Afrikaans poetic foundation in my writing. And while this linguistic profile is not unusual in South Africa, the process of moving from one language into another strikes me as holding a good antidote for any kind of linguistic essentialism. Learning another language involves becoming accustomed to and growing comfortable in its unwritten rules – knowing, for instance, how much weight tone and rhythm carry in English in order to produce social meaning or in order to test the limits of the social relationship in a particular speech moment.
But the important point is that this is all historical. It may be a difficult and long process to pick up enough extra-linguistic information to inhabit a language more fully, but it is a process. To make a banal point, there is nothing essential, automatic and natural in the relationship between a particular human being and the language he or she speaks. Anybody, given the will and right environment, can end up speaking any language he/she chooses as a first language and as if it is a mother-tongue. If, after my birth in Paarl, I had been kidnapped and whisked away to, say, Japan, and grew up there, I would surely speak some dialect of Japanese as if it was my mother-tongue. Strangely, South Africa (and the world) continues to peddle notions of language and culture closely associated with race and ethnicity. The words language and culture have become euphemisms for race.
In “Winter 2003”, then, I use the Van Wyk Louw poem as a rhetorical device that points to the problematic history of Afrikaans for many Afrikaans-speaking South Africans. But his poem is also a strong expression of nostalgic desire, a desire for a return to a childhood landscape which, ultimately, underlies his aesthetic. And it occurred to me that, more and more, Afrikaans words have slipped into my own poetry when I name childhood landscapes or inhabit a similar space of nostalgic desire. Afrikaans words enter my poetry when I reach for that same return. After twenty years of anglicisation by virtue of an overly long attachment to a historically English-speaking university, the almost imperceptible entrance of Afrikaans into my poetry (or the stubborn persistence of it?) has led me to think again about mother-tongues and first languages. And longing.
* * *
A decade ago, while filling out a sheaf of forms for a Fulbright Scholarship, I got stuck at the question: “What is your native language?” I could have lied and said: English. For whatever reason – perhaps a sense that Americans did not understand that not all native speakers of English in South Africa are white – I felt it necessary to write a mini-essay explaining that English was not quite my mother-tongue (native language?). But neither was Afrikaans, the other language I can (could?) speak and (can still) write. Neither quite my mother-tongue. By then (mid-1990s), English was my first language, certainly. But it was not always my first language, even if it had been a mother-tongue. It had become my first language and was now the language in which I dreamed, in which I counted, wrote poetry, argued. For all intents and purposes, it was the language I used much like most people use their mother-tongue or native language, “naturally”. Afrikaans, perhaps a mother-tongue, had been a first language, had been a language in which I dreamed, and which I tried for its poetry.
I grew up in a household that was bilingual in English and Afrikaans – not a rarity in Paarl, but certainly not a majority practice. People who spoke English in Paarl were accused of being “sturvy”, of putting on airs. Paarl, after all, was where the taalstryders first gathered to plan and plot from 1875 onwards. It is the place where, in 1876, the first Afrikaans newspaper was published, as part of the taalbeweging of said lingua terrorista. (I still read its descendant, The Paarl Post, every Thursday on the web, though its masthead no longer declares its genealogy.)
One hundred years later, in 1975, my brother and I would rush out onto our lawn to watch Impalas dip and loop to scrawl “100” in the sky with their jet-trails while, far below, BJ Vorster and his ilk celebrated a century of Afrikaans by exposing a great big phallus on the slopes of Paarl Mountain. A year later, this seed of arrogance in ignorance would ripen and the rest, as we know, followed. Soon, a feeling of alienation from, and rancour towards, Afrikaans would spread among myself and many of my peers – among even us, on whose tongues that language lay like a smooth river stone.
But I get ahead of myself.
My family’s bilingualism was, how shall I say, historically determined. My maternal grandfather was a school principal and organist in an Anglican church, so my mother came from a typically Anglophile and middle-class background. They lived in Templier Street, in the heart of Paarl, close to the Bergrivier. And they spoke English: educated, middle-class South African Standard English, different only in accent from white SASE. My father, on the other hand, grew up dirt poor, and in an Afrikaans-speaking household, a little bit further downriver, where most Muslims lived. When my parents married, they rented a room for a while in Van Der Lingen Street, two blocks away from Lady Grey Street, and still in the heart of Paarl.
Given the economic and cultural status of English (perception and fact), my parents spoke English to my brother and me. Since my mother’s sister was married to my father’s brother, this English environment was also doubled up, especially since my brother and I would later spend school holidays playing at my aunt and uncle’s house. But the adults spoke Afrikaans to one another, unless we children were included in conversation. And sometimes, when my brother and I had angered my father, his English would dissolve and he would switch to Afrikaans, the language in which he was more comfortable.
Thus our household was bilingual: English as mother-tongue and first language and Afrikaans as another tongue and more than a second language. (Xhosa lay completely beyond our ken, except for my father, who knew some and could talk to the friends and acquaintances whose cars he fixed in Mbekweni.)
But schooling and growing up changed the balance between English and Afrikaans. Since there were no black schools in Paarl offering English-medium instruction (except, I think, for the Roman Catholic primary school which some childhood friends attended), Afrikaans eventually became a dominant language. It was the language not only of instruction, but also of the playground and of playground friendships. There were some families we knew of who managed to send their children to English-medium schools in Cape Town, but they were more sturvy than us.
I do not recall any difficulty in this shift from English to Afrikaans. It was imperceptible because, in terms of linguistic ability, these languages were on more or less equal footing in our household. At school I did well in both languages since I read voraciously in both languages. And even as Capetonian friends made fun of us as boeijongens (boerjongens – farm hands) and plaasjapies (country bumpkins), my brother and I could make fun of them for saying hawter, pawk the caw, yous (water, park the car, you). While we felt free to mix up our informal Afrikaans with English, when we spoke English, however, it had to be proper, lest we gave my mother the heebie-jeebies.
So Afrikaans gradually became my first language in the sense that it was statistically dominant – I spoke it more often than English. And English became another language, yet one in which, at least in the context of Afrikaans-medium schools in Paarl, I felt academically superior. But English also became, more and more, a second language, a language that required more effort and more thought in the speaking of it. Afrikaans was now the language closest to the non-rational and to the instinctive, to dream and anger.
I do not imagine these two languages as wholly distinct entities, though; I do not recall the moment when my brain shifted from counting in one to counting in the other – although later I would realise that for some time I had not been counting in the first.
By the time I entered an English-medium university in the mid-1980s, Afrikaans was, for all intents and purposes, more of a mother-tongue to me than English. Since it was now a first language, it was the language in which I felt most comfortable. Fortunately, English lay close enough. While I had to translate back and forth between two languages in lectures and while doing algebra and arithmetic in calculus classes, I was still far better off than thousands of other students in South African universities who were receiving tertiary instruction in languages other than their mother-tongue and for whom the language of instruction was further removed even than a second language.
Sooner or later I became re-anglicised. Having dashed my dreams of becoming a mathematician by failing my first-year BSc, I switched to a BA. I needed only one major and I decided on English. Since I was on academic probation, I also needed to populate my curriculum with courses that would be easier for me – and for a Boland plaasjapie, Afrikaans was an automatic choice. I could lick it without having to do too much.
The choice of English as major, however, was informed by a host of conscious and unconscious factors. Consciously, the same perceptions and facts about English as a global language that encouraged my parents’ use of it with their children, swung me. The economic odds were a bit more in one’s favour if one could use English. It was also an easy decision to make because of the history – darkening more and more during the 1980s – perpetrated by the people who had appropriated Afrikaans as the vehicle par excellence for their ethno-nationalist project.
Easy irony was to be manufactured out of boycotting schoolkids who, especially in the Western Cape, denounced Afrikaans as an oppressor’s language in that very language. As I would learn at university, critics found some radical gesture in the figure of Caliban remarking on, and cursing Prospero for, the former’s own ability to curse his master in his master’s language. For me, however, rapidly assimilating a radical vocabulary, Caliban’s contortion was neither easy irony nor radical gesture. Instead, to me it was both cause and symptom of the colonised subject’s hysteria, the simultaneous avowal and disavowal of the oppressor’s language. Since I had an ability in English, it was further easier to make the ticks against Afrikaans and switch to English: Soweto 1976, Christian National Education, “Die Stem”, the sombre cultural television programming on public holidays (we haven’t quite left those behind, but such is nationalism, no matter the language), and that tome of a textbook, Afrikaans My Taal, lugged around in matric, weighing me down on my springtime shortcut to school through a not yet shallow enough Bergrivier.
As throughout school I had been good at narrative opstelle, I also figured that since mathematics kept its doors closed to me, I would try, erm … the world of letters. And English strengthened its case, of course, via the things one couldn’t quite note down with a quartermaster’s exactitude, but which existed as a penumbra of association: English and its discourse of civility (as opposed to boorish Afrikaans), English as vehicle for enlightenment (versus the dark of Afrikaans because of apartheid), and the iambic pentameter. Shakespeare. Dickens. And then English as the language of the national liberation struggle, against the separate ethnic identities engineered by apartheid. These all existed around the corner, a flicker of light to guide the way, while the most I knew and felt about Afrikaans was its weight, as taught by teachers under the thrall of the fashion of the times: Afrikaans and the study of its grammar was a SCIENCE. TAALWETENSKAP. And its poetry became doodgooi.
No. Everything that Afrikaans offered was disjuncture, between liberating potential (because it was my language) on the one hand, and the heavy drag of nationalism and apartheid, dour doodgooi, on the other. The extra-curricular joys of its youth literature (no matter how narrow its definition of South African youth, no matter its early indoctrinations against kommunisme and a host of other gevare) – Fritz Deelman, Jasper, Seuns van die Wolke – versus TAALWETENSKAP. Brink and Breytenbach, Kennis van die Aand and Om te Vlieg, both wrapped in brown paper and lent to me by a teacher in Std 7 (Grade 9), versus “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika”. Andre le Toit versus Gé Korsten. Max du Preez, Vrye Weekblad and Takhare vir Vrede versus Dan Roodt. Poes en Piel is maats versus Sus en Daan is maats. Aanklank versus wanklank.
On the one hand … Yet, on the other …
While at university some teachers in the Afrikaans department opened up its poetry to me, I was studying Afrikaans simply as an academic convenience. Ultimately, English was far more attractive. But the movement into English, the process of anglicisation, was no longer that imperceptible shift between languages. For the first few years while I maintained connections with friends in Paarl, I was still more sure-footed in Afrikaans than in English. In English, I still mucked up my subject-verb concord (I still do) and my tongue couldn’t decide whether r was rhotic or non-rhotic. It would only be by the early 1990s that I caught myself counting in English in my head.
Thanks, after all, to rigorous rote training in both English and Afrikaans grammar, however, and, as grammar was still 50 percent of first-year English studies, I had a fall-back. While Eliot’s objective correlatives eluded me, I could parse the hell out of a Dickens paragraph. But sometimes my tongue let me down, going rhotic when it should have been non-rhotic and vice versa. Fellow black, English-speaking students would make fun of me – I was once again being sturvy. Code-switching, I said, I am code-switching, a social skill, a linguistic skill! When I spend two weeks in Upington, I come home saying dik klip instead of groot klip! Boom not boem!
They just laughed and shook their heads.
But, in many ways, it was natural that my accent should change, should move closer (and back) to SASE. My dominant linguistic environment was formal tertiary education, in an English department, and my closest friends now were English mother-tongue or English first-language speakers, they too products of that same formal environment. And all this as I had grown estranged from my childhood linguistic community.
So, my anglicisation was part deliberate, part “natural”. But, while my anglicisation was aspiration and circumstantial, my turn away from Afrikaans was disavowal. And perhaps the poetry, where the aesthetic (and therefore the unconscious) takes over, is the locus for the return of a repressed. Or the return of longing. “Nog eenmaal wil ek in die skemeraand …”
But what does it say about my relationship with and to English when, in reaching for the idyll of a childhood landscape – idyll in spite of, or perhaps because of, apartheid – I return to the disavowed language of Van Wyk Louw, one-time Nazi sympathiser and a favourite son of an Afrikaans literary establishment? Why not exclusively in the language of national liberation:
Nog eenmaal wil ek in die skemeraand
weer op ons dorp en by ons dorpsdam staan,
weer met my rek óp in die donker skiet,
en luister, en al word ek seer en dof,
hoe die klein klippie ver weg in die riet
uit donker in die donker water plof.?
Now that English is a first-language-become-mother-tongue, now that it is more than a decade since I last attempted poetry in Afrikaans, now that, when I walk, lines come to me almost always in English… why is it that when I read these lines by Van Wyk Louw, I myself grow dull and ache?
There are some clear answers. Van Wyk Louw’s obvious nostalgia (the ache or longing for home) speaks to me of someone himself estranged from a childhood home and landscape. More importantly, his lines speak to me in the language in which I grew cognisant of that landscape. Yet the language in which those lines speak is at once also the language by which any tentative relationship my childhood self may have had with the South African landscape is foreclosed. The language of Van Wyk Louw is also the language of the law that would keep me from the landscape.
So why not English? What is it that I want to (re)claim that, in some way, causes my English to falter? Causes my writing self to reach for Afrikaans as more expressive than the language in which I feel most comfortable?
Two popular tropes about the tension between Afrikaans and English come to mind. Firstly, there is the opposition, learnt as a child, that you trust an Afrikaner more than an Engelsman. Whatever the sociological veracity or shortcoming of that folk wisdom, whatever its reactionary ideology, this trope suggests a shortcoming (or not), also, of a language (English) that has the ability to not say what you are saying. The second trope, linked to the first, is that Afrikaans somehow evinces an authenticity that evades English in South Africa; that Afrikaans attains an expressibility about South Africa that English, despite its good intentions, always misses. In the popular English-speaking mind, swearing in Afrikaans is exemplar of this authenticity.
The trope about authenticity has an ambiguous ideological dimension. On the one hand, it is vested with an Afrikaans interest: the language without authenticity is an uitlander language, an alien language. But the trope can also operate in the interests of English. If English cannot attain the authentic expression of South Africa, it is only because it is not a boorish language; its speakers are not capable of the true vulgarities that bergies can come up with in their very colourful Cape Afrikaans. So expressive.
Have I been seduced by this trope of authenticity? Or is it only natural that I should look for my childhood landscape in the language of my childhood? Seduced, in other words, by the trope without knowing the seduction?
While I don’t want to suffer attack by political economists, I do think of English and Afrikaans as both being languages of colonisation. The custodians of these languages have both created political systems in South Africa which, via cultural institutions (universities, publishing houses, print and broadcast media), created similar structures of feeling: the custodianship of both languages is or was the expression of a colonial arrogation of power.
And it is this sense of custodianship over English that, all throughout my anglicisation at university, started an ambivalence towards English similar to the one that I developed towards Afrikaans post-1980, when a younger generation of schoolchildren went on national, months-long class boycotts. In other words, the disavowal of Afrikaans because of its deep imbrication with apartheid didn’t mean that my relationship with English would remain clear of a similar politics with regard to English. Growing to inhabit English presented no less problematic politics than those surrounding Afrikaans. In the great story that is the history of English, the language and its speakers are no less kragdadig (brutish, forceful) than the Nationalists who eventually claimed themselves as the rightful custodians of Afrikaans.
In South Africa the English vaandel is, of course, carried by the historically English university, and woe betide you if you do not speak opreg. Surrounded by the real native speakers of English, cramped against them in tutorial rooms and, I swear, medieval benches in lecture halls, I clamped up. Although my tongue was sharp as a rasper – so sharp that my school teachers suggested I study law – I swallowed it nevertheless. Surrounding me, it became clear, were the actual holders of that light that I sought. And how crystal clear their speech, how bright their thought, how like gods in apprehension.
A common experience for fellow students from my, erm… demographic, I also noticed the excessive politeness, the excessive effort made to pay attention to me on the few occasions I spoke up or was forced to answer a question on trochees or chiasmus. We were all equal, after all. Except for cultural patrimony.
While I remained astounded at the privilege of studying at a university with fulsome resources, my fellow students for the most part easily accepted their inheritance. It was naturally theirs, and the patronisation both they and teachers doled out – difficult to pinpoint in that language that can say things without saying them – served as a reminder that my language marked me as an outsider to this patrimony. There was the assumption that all students in an English department would know all things English or British: “What? You don’t know Python’s Holy Grail/ Winnie the Pooh/ the boroughs of London?”
Then, strangely, I also felt stung whenever I heard a dismissive remark or joke about Dutchmen or about Afrikaans. Or on seeing a piece of graffiti in a campus toilet: “Afrikaans is a throat infection.” I was both insider and outsider, privy to the stereotyping of Afrikaans and its speakers, but simultaneously locked out (as someone who spoke Afrikaans) by virtue of the joke to which I was privy. Somehow, strangely, the subtle demarcations of the English patrimony allowed moments of solidarity with another language, the patrimony of which had been demarcated by the Nats.
One the one hand… Yet, on the other:
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?
– Derek Walcott, “A Far Cry from Africa”, 1962
Thus Walcott ends a poem written in response to reports about Kenya’s Land and Freedom Army (Mau Mau) revolts. And thus he fingers an ambivalence that postcolonialists and deconstructionists will reify into a critical shibboleth. But Walcott is not caught, like Caliban, in ambivalence; instead, he straddles the ambivalence. He makes it his own.
Decades away from the circumstances that led Walcott to this poem, I nevertheless felt its resonance and started reading Walcott obsessively. In a later poem, “Sainte Lucie” (1976), he addresses a linguistic split in himself (he grew up speaking English on St Lucia, where the majority language is French Creole). A list of French Creole words in an English poem is interrupted but enhanced by more English, deepening the nostalgia. But it is the presence of the French Creole words themselves that is there as the thing longed for. Allow me to quote at length:
I have forgotten
what pomme for
the Irish potato,
by the crisp
au bord de la ’ouvière.
Come back to me,
the scissor-bird …
Here I found not only a major poet in English yearning for a non-English childhood language and landscape, but a model that gave voice to a similar sense of nostalgia in myself. Or, here I found a moment where Walcott, supreme as a poet of English, turns towards another language in an English poem, and makes it work. On a recording of him reading the poem, one hardly notices that the words are French Creole. The English verse preceding the above only takes him back to a point; from there it is the French Creole that does the work of his archaeology, that resonates for him and, by extension, for the reader. But poetically, tonally, rhythmically, there is no distinction between the English language that delivers him to the French Creole, and the French Creole that delivers him to himself.
Having the model, though, I didn’t immediately and deliberately incorporate Afrikaans words into my poetry. Neither is my poetry liberally peppered with Afrikaans words. The Afrikaans words are few, and they came – I cannot say this in any other way – naturally. In retrospect I can see how it happens only at a politically appropriate moment, when a poem that I was writing (“Kingdom of Rain”) called for the Afrikaans of my childhood landscape. But by then I was also inhabiting Walcott’s poem, so that whenever I felt dissatisfied in my battles with English, his lines would come to me: “Come back to me my language, come back.” The tone of “Sainte Lucie” was now partially in my unconscious, and it was that that I was gunning for – come back to me, my language, come back.
“Kingdom of Rain” addresses a child’s awakening both to a paradisal South African landscape and to apartheid that would regulate access to that landscape. Writing in English, I felt, however, that South African landscape poetry in English did not quite strike the tone I wanted. Most landscape poetry in English tended to be by white writers, and while I envied the easy ability with which these writers could call on the taxonomies of bird and bush and rock, those taxonomies were to me also evidence of a particularly imperial relationship with the landscape.1) The ease and fulsomeness of such enumeration were evidence of a particular ease in inheriting a landscape and a will to maintain that inheritance. It is the quartermaster’s exacting bill of cargo and stores.
Afrikaans landscape poetry, too, resonates with a colonial-like politics of power over the landscape, especially when set in the echo chamber of apartheid. And yet there is something different about the relationship with land found in its aesthetics. Despite its politics, the aesthetics of Afrikaans landscape poetry is based on a tradition of an actual agricultural relationship with land (irrespective of how that relationship was established) before the 1920s (Coetzee, pp 175-176). This allows, I suppose, for there to be some merit in the idea of authentic expression. Colonial-like, but not imperial.
Coetzee notes how Afrikaans landscape writing is characterised by “highly metonymic itemization of particulars” strongly evocative of mood (p 176). A few details and a fulsome rural scene is set. English landscape writing, however, despite its careful enumeration of the landscape, falls short of this evocation.
Perhaps it is this evocative power that makes me reach for lines like those by Van Wyk Louw, a testing of a language I have not entirely forgotten, and which lies underneath the tell of English now two decades deep. But it can only be a testing. Trying to write lines in Standard Afrikaans, in the literary Afrikaans of school and university, I cannot escape a certain stiffness, a certain artificiality. And colloquial Afrikaans would be a different artificiality, a different lie, as I hardly speak it.
Maybe this is serendipitous, as my personal history of English and Afrikaans determines a certain evocativeness in itself: English perhaps a mother-tongue become a first language and Afrikaans more than a second language, perhaps once a mother-tongue. If Afrikaans then stipples itself into the poetry, perhaps it will deepen the evocation of that thing that was never mine which is still lost. And then, perhaps, in such evocation will lie a stronger expression of desire, because in desire itself the thing desired appears by way of evocative detail rather than by scientific enumeration. In Afrikaans, after all, that desire is necessarily strong because it has to overcome its own ethical obstacles in its relationship with the South African landscape.
And so perhaps I reach, despite these ethical obstacles, for the one language I know in which a desire for ownership of the South African landscape finds an expression stronger than in the other language I know. Evocation is what I have, even if only in the very language that leaves me only with evocation.
Drunk on cheap wine and rum,
neighbourhood trilling with youth
and coloured lights, the words
that come to me now like a long lost lover
I can believe I had or even want to have had:
granaatboom in an aunt’s backyard;
behind the pigeon coop, in the big yard
that holds the hanslam, mischievous
eight-year-old twins smoking wildedagga;
and from the kitchen, gemmer, anys, kaneel;
and dennebol of summer, dennepit
and when dry how the cones knetter
in a gellieblik, brazier of my youth
glowing on a streetcorner or building site
in the dead of winter of a dark decade.
My bra, my brother, ghazilam
friends now gone god knows where
in alcohol, in debt, perhaps
now closer to God and these words.
These words always for light
relief, the tragi-comic
in a play or in a colourful ad;
always caricature but never
when heard from my mouth
its ordinary, human
like a day-long rain-filled day.
- See Chapter 7 of JM Coetzee’s White Writing in this regard.