‘Niwt’: the hieroglyph for ‘city’

1. This is the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph niwt (pronounced ‘nee-oot’), one of the earliest known written inscriptions meaning ‘city’ or ‘town’. As the economic historian Robert S. Lopez (1910-86) intimated in his 1966 essay ‘The Crossroads within the Wall‘, it is also an apt symbol for the intricacies of what it might mean to think  interculturally.

The cross represents the convergence of roads which bring in and redistribute men, merchandise, and ideas. This convergence entails a quickening of communication which is nearly always a great advantage, but may become a handicap if speed grows so frantic that the city has no time to keep its share of the incoming goods and to impress its mark on the goods it re-exports. The circle, in the hieroglyph, indicates a moat or wall. This need not be materially erected so long as it is morally present, to keep the citizens together, sheltered from the cold, wide world, conscious of belonging to a unique team, proud of being different from the open country and germane to one another. The wall, too, may become an obstacle if it is too high and tight, if it hinders further growth, above all if it frustrates the opportunity for exchanges beyond it. (27)

‘Communication plus togetherness,’ Lopez continues, ‘or, a special aptitude for change combined with a peculiar feeling of identity: is this not the essence of the city?’ Lopez’s astutely balanced analysis has a particular pertinence to ancient city-states, which are also intimately associated with the origins of writing (see the ‘Scott’s paradox’ post). It could just as well be applied, figuratively if not literally, to the modern nation-state, whether in its older, Europeanized monolingual, monocultural forms, or its newer, post-European multilingual, multicultural iterations. In each case, the double-edged symbolism of the circle and the cross points to the promise and the perils of belonging and interconnection, identity and change. The need to juggle these competing imperatives is, as I argue in the book, central to Joyce and Tagore’s thinking about language, culture, community, state-making and more.

2. A. K. Ramanujan (1929-93), the great Indian poet and scholar, quotes Lopez in his 1970 essay ‘Towards an Anthology of City Images‘, which is, among other things, a powerful defence of literary thinking — Ramanujan is especially interested in literature’s potential as a complement to the positivistic forms of thought that dominated the social sciences in the first half of the 20th century. After citing the descriptions of two cities, modeled on the ancient port of Pugaar (Pukar) and the inland capital Madurai (Maturai), in the Tamil epic Silappatikāram (c. 5th century CE), he comments: ‘Pukar is pre-eminently the Crossroads City and Maturai, the Walled City.’ Yet the epic does more than weigh the costs and benefits of these two contrasting cityscapes. For Ramanujan, it shows the classical poet’s ‘intuitive grasp of a typology of cities’ as well as a ‘grasp of structural relations and their entailments in the details of experience’, which is ‘worth the social scientists’ attention.’ The reason? ‘The poet’s detail not only offers realisations and intuitions of structure, but a whole repertory of hypotheses that might be the beginnings of fresh scientific observations’ (69).

3. Much the same could be said of the way Joyce imagines the Dublin of Finnegans Wake (1939) neither as an idealized city on the hill in the Platonic/Christian tradition, nor as one of the many fallen cities of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), but as an ever-changing intersection of two world-historical forces, each potentially creative and destructive: a free-flowing, circulatory ‘feminine’ force, associated chiefly with the river Liffey and Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP); and a master-building, rising-and-falling (tumescent-detumescent?) ‘masculine’ one, linked primarily to the port city of Dublin itself and Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (HCE) — see the history of the phrase ‘beyond the pale‘. Tagore applied his version of this doubling vision to India as a whole, or, rather, to the free, independent future India he dreamt in Gitanjali (1910), where he wrote (in Ketaki Dyson’s English translation): ‘We shall give and receive, mingle and harmonise: / there’s no turning back / on this seashore of India’s grand concourse of humankind’ (151). Again, as with Joyce and the ancient Egyptian scribes, the crossroads, or crosscurrents, are as necessary, and potentially as dangerous, as the containing circle or wall. 


“I’m not a robot” – revisiting Xu Bing

Xu Bing “A Case Study of Transference” Performance with two live pigs inked with fake English and Chinese characters, discarded books, cage 1993-1994 Enclosure: 500 x 500 cm Performance at Han Mo Arts Center, Beijing, 22 January 1994 徐冰 “一个文化转换个案的研究” 装置及表演,两只种猪,猪圈及印刷 © Xu Bing Studio

1. With ‘A Case Study of Transference’ (1993-94), Xu Bing radically extended the scope and philosophical import of his breakthrough work 天书/ Tiānshū or Book from the Sky (1988). In that vast, composite installation, for which he devised 4,000 pseudo-characters, he raised questions about the Chinese writing system and its classical, paper-based media — printed books, scrolls, placarded newspapers. Now he took issue with the Latinate (‘alphabetical’) writing system and the ‘Western’ book form as well. In addition, by creating a live installation in an art gallery using real pigs in a pen littered with books, he brought the wordless, extra-literate world of non-human animals into view.

1.1 As the photograph above intimates, this created an intricate play of perspectives as well as an element of unpredictability. While monoliterate spectators at the Han Mo Arts Center in 1990s Beijing might have contrasted the evidently asemic Chinese characters on one pig with the potentially legible English (?) words on the other, those able to read both scripts might have made more of the difference between the nonsensical characters on the ink-stamped pigs and the legible print in the books. Yet, as the expressions on the spectators’ faces suggest — read them as you will — the real, challengingly Zen-inspired contrast in this performance piece is between the world of awkward (?), embarrassed (?), puzzled (?), meaning-seeking (?) human beings and other, less conceptually and ethically troubled forms of warm-blooded life. As Xu Bing commented of the pigs:

These two creatures, devoid of human consciousness, yet carrying on their bodies the marks of human civilization, engage in the most primal form of “social intercourse.” The absolute directness of this undertaking produces a result that is both unthinkable and worth thinking about. In watching the behavior of the two pigs, we are led to reflect on human behavior.

Thinking the unthinkable, or at the limits of the thinkable, lies at the heart of Xu Bing’s koan-like artistic practice. The shift in perspective ‘A Case Study’ demands recalls Rabindranath Tagore’s aphoristic poem, no. 147 from the collection Fireflies (1928): ‘The worm thinks it strange and foolish / that man does not eat his books.’

2. From today’s perspective, these early asemic works do more than invite us to think about human behavior. They ask us to reflect on the bio-cultural peculiarities of human learning and intelligence, where the pertinent contrast lies not only with the natural intelligence of non-human animals but with the artificial intelligence of machines. This is particularly true for the literate — now the overwhelming majority of the world’s population (see Fourth Proposition) — for whom culture alone effects a radical transformation of the brain. Whereas we have evolved to pick up speech naturally — hence Steven Pinker’s ‘language instinct‘ — we must be taught to read and write, a process which, as Stanislas Dehaene and others have argued, re-purposes parts of the visual cortex evolution produced — hence ‘bio-cultural’. 

3. As any user of Google, Weibo or Facebook knows, machine learning has been developing apace since the 1990s, re-shaping societies and everyday life across the world for better or worse. Think only of landmark spectacles like IBM’s Deep Blue beating Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997, or Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo defeating Ke Jie in 2017. Yet over the same two decades ordinary literate brains held their own in one vital domain. Unlike the AI machine learners, they could solve the semic or asemic Latinate letter-strings known since 2003 as CAPTCHAs. Named after the English polymath Alan Turing (1912-54), CAPTCHA (later reCAPTCHA) stands for ‘Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.’ They are most commonly used for online security purposes and to block spam.


4. The first-generation, text-based CAPTCHAs exploited the human brain’s extraordinary ability to abstract generalizable patterns from very little experiential data and many, often distorting contexts: first, during the ‘natural’ learning phase, picking out phonemes like /w/ from many differently accented voicings of the w-sound, and then, during the ‘cultural’ phase, extracting graphemes like ‘w’ from countless written, printed, or digitized forms of the letter W/w. Learning to read Latinate systems involves the further process of connecting these abstract sound-letter types neurologically, and, for Anglograph readers, mastering the many exceptions — as in the word ‘write.’

W fonts

As early as 2007, reCAPTCHA (version 1) took advantage of this bio-cultural prowess, turning all its users into proofreaders for various newspaper and book digitizing projects — hence the company slogan ‘stop spam/read books’. After acquiring it in 2009, Google continued to use free human brain power in this way to compensate for the limits of the OCR scanners it was using for Google Books.

5. All this changed in 2017 when Dileep George and his colleagues developed a probabilistic algorithm for cracking text-based CAPTCHAs with human-like efficiency, obliging us, once again, to think at the limits of the thinkable. As literate viewers of Xu Bing’s ‘A Case of Transference’, we may once have wanted to say (or at least think) ‘I read therefore I’m not a pig.’ But for how much longer will we feel so assured about our bio-cultural uniqueness when we tick the box ‘I’m not a robot’? For Stanislas Dehaene, the leading contemporary neuroscientist, the answer clear: ‘this computer algorithm, however sophisticated, applies only to CAPTCHAs. Our brains apply this ability for abstraction to all aspects of our daily lives’ (Dehaene, 2020, 29). For instance, when it comes to natural language learning, ‘children quickly manage to surpass any existing artificial intelligence algorithm’ long before they can read (67):

By the time they blow out their first candle, they have already laid down the foundation for the main rules of their native language at several levels, from elementary sounds (phonemes) to melody (prosody), vocabulary (lexicon), and grammar rules (syntax).

So, for Dehaene, the prospect of machines posing a real threat to our precarious bio-cultural uniqueness is a long way off. The challenges developers face getting bots to unscramble tricky visual cues offers some reassurance too. One recent example: OpenAI’s otherwise highly advanced ‘neural network’ Clip continues to be derailed by some elementary mixed-messages — the percentages measure the accuracy of the algorithm’s object classifications. For the broader question of AI and natural language, see  Stefanie Ullmann, “‘Can I see your parts list?’ What AI’s attempted chat-up lines tell us about computer-generated language“, 28 April 2021; and Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis, “GPT-3, Bloviator: OpenAI’s language generator has no idea what it’s talking about“, 22 August 2020. For the latest on AI and human creativity, see ‘Art for our sake: artists cannot be replaced by machines‘, 3 March 2022. And, finally, for an entertaining demonstration of machine learning and the Latinate alphabet, see Tom Murphy’s video (and associated paper) Uppestcase and Lowestcase Letters, April 2021.

Xu Zhimo responds to Joyce

Xu Shimu and James Joyce

Xu Zhimu’s poem ‘康桥西野暮色’ (‘Wild West Cambridge at Dusk’, 1922) is among the earliest literary responses to James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). As the award-winning translator Stuart Lyons explains in the note below, the 25-year-old Xu read Joyce’s new work in the spring of 1922 when he was studying at Cambridge University. Ulysses had only just appeared in book form: the first edition was published in Paris on 2 February, Joyce’s 40th birthday. Xu was particularly struck by its final section: Molly Bloom’s almost unpunctuated, eight-sentence, 62-page interior monologue (aka ‘Penelope‘).

Given the subject of his own poem, Xu may have had the closing turn of her nocturnal thought-drift in mind. Recalling Leopold Bloom’s proposal of marriage — it is 1904 and she is thinking back to 1888 — Molly relives the sensual memories that flooded the erotic intimacy of the moment, most of which centre on the time she spent in Gibraltar as a young girl. She remembers it as a place with ‘glorious sunsets’. These memories of memories form a vital part of her secret inner life which remains hidden from Bloom — they also inspired Kate Bush’s 1989 song ‘The Sensual World‘, retitled ‘Flower of the Mountain‘ in 2011.

I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes

Gibraltar sunset

Stuart Lyons’s English rendering of Xu Zhimu’s poem was awarded first place (open category) in the Stephen Spender Prize 2020 for poetry in translation. I am grateful to him for allowing me to reproduce it and his accompanying note here. For more see Xu Zhimu in Cambridge — life and poetry (2021) and Lyons’s illustrated presentation (2021).

Among the other fruits of Xu’s year in Cambridge is the ‘Friendship/Handscroll’ (see below) for which he solicited contributions during his second visit to England in 1925. Contributors included the Chinese artist Zhang Daqian, the Chinese poet and artist Wen Yidou, the English artist Roger Fry, and the English feminist and socialist campaigner Dora Russell.

Xu has a further connection to this site because he admired and corresponded with Rabindranath Tagore, hosting him when he visited China in 1924 and 1929.  Shortly before his death in 1941, Tagore wrote the following poem about his first visit, which speaks to the sentiments underlying the ‘Friendship Scroll’, to the intercultural ideals Tagore drew from the Baul tradition (see Chapter 4 of the book and the Fifth Proposition), and perhaps even to the inspiration Xu found in Joyce. Tagore’s conception of the ordinarily hidden ‘inner man [or self]’ certainly invites comparison with Joyce’s in Ulysses. It is poem #30 in the Bangla collection Janmadine (On My Birthday, 1941). The translation comes from Nirupama Rao’s Foreword to Tagore and China (2011). Tagore recalls the occasion, during his 1924 visit, when the leading Chinese intellectual Liang Qichao gave him the name ‘Zhu Zhendan’.

In the vessel of my birthdays
Sacred waters from many pilgrimages
Have I gathered, this I remember.

Once I went to the land of China,
Those whom I had not met
Put the mark of friendship on my forehead,
Calling me their own.

The garb of a stranger slipped from me unknowing,
The inner man appeared who is eternal,
Revealing a joyous relationship, unforeseen.

A Chinese name I took, dressed in Chinese clothes.
This I know in my mind:
Wherever I find my friend, there I am born anew.
Life’s wonder he brings.


In the spring of 1922, Xu Zhimo read James Joyce’s newly published novel Ulysses. He was bowled over by Molly’s punctuation-free monologue in the final chapter.  ‘Wild West Cambridge at Dusk’, depicting scenes around his home village of Sawston, was the result. When Xu sent it for publication, he included an introductory note. ‘A snake does not need feet in order to move,’ he wrote, ‘and a poem does not need punctuation.’  In Ulysses, he noted, there were ‘no capital letters, no  ‘ ……? : —- ; —- ! ( ) “ ” but a cascade of truly great writing.’ 

I treated the exclamation mark in the standard Chinese text (stanza three, line six) and the inverted commas around 可可 (stanza two, line six) and 北京 (stanza six, line four) as probable interpolations and removed them from my English translation. Xu overcomes the need for punctuation through the clarity of his poetic writing. Every stanza describes an acutely observed phase of the closing day. His lines have colour, texture, sound and wit – ‘beijing’ refers to his pregnant wife.

Xu’s sometimes unusual choice of Chinese characters adds to the enchantment; he uses duplicated characters frequently and on occasion innovatively, a feature which I referenced through alliteration and assonance. I tried to respect Xu’s rhythmic and rhyming schemes and to be true to his imagery, while using vocabulary that was close to the Chinese but would strike a chord with English readers, for example in the star’s boat-ride across the clouds. In the last stanza, I aimed to express the scene though Xu’s eyes – the night sky as a mosaic, the needle of light from a darkened cottage and the pagoda-shaped shadows from the trees. ‘Wild West Cambridge at Dusk’ broke new ground. It is rhythmically compelling and artistically spectacular.

©Stuart Lyons 2020. All rights reserved.


Chun shu mu yun (Spring trees autumn clouds), written by Zhang Daqian, 1899-1983. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Landscape, monochrome ink wash, Roger Fry (1866-1934). © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Impression of two Westerners, ink, Lin Fengmian. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Figure under a pine tree, Zhang Daqian. Inscription: ‘The dualism of mind and matter is essentially a masculine philosophy.’ Signed ‘Dora Russell, Carn Voel, Porthcurno, July 1925.’ © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Tolstoy, ink, Wen Yidou (1899-1946). © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Still Life, ink, Jiang Xiaojian (1894-1939).© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Memorial stone to Xu Zhimo with the first and last two lines of his poem ‘再別康橋” (Farewell to/On Leaving Cambridge), King’s College, Cambridge (Credit: cmglee)

Finnegans Wake/Nakshi Kantha

Credit: Niaz Zaman, The Art of Kantha Embroidery (1995), 93.

1. For all his openness to the unpredictable, James Joyce could never have imagined that the word ‘googling’, one of many he coined in Finnegans Wake (1939, p. 231), would become an everyday intransitive verb describing an action he always dreamed his most idiosyncratic book might conjure into being: ‘To use the Google search engine to find information on the internet.’ The OED dates this sense to 1998, the year Google was launched, suggesting the founders may have derived it from the noun ‘googol’ — ‘a fanciful name (not in formal use) for ten raised to the hundredth power’, dating from 1940. Google was, in other words, conceived as a gateway to the oceans of information on the internet — hence ‘googling’, the act of searching their vast digital expanse, following countless interconnecting currents wherever they flow.

2. Googling in this sense led S M Mahfuzur Rahman, a lecturer in the Department of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, to ‘Creative Abcedmindedness‘, a talk I gave on Finnegans Wake in 2019. He was particularly struck by my discussion of this sequence:

Maass! But the majik wavus has elfun anon meshes.
And Simba the Slayer of his Oga is slewd. (FW, 203)

These sentences are typical of the way Joyce re-foreignizes the English language: ‘maji’, ‘wavu’, ‘elfu’, and ‘simba’ are all Kiswahili words — meaning, respectively, ‘water’, ‘net’, ‘a thousand’, and ‘lion/warrior’ — and, while ‘Oga’ means ‘boss or chief’ in Yoruba, ‘Oba‘ is the name of a Yoruba spirit of rivers. The sentences also show how Joyce toys with the polyphonic/semic potential of the grapheme (‘elfun anon’ becomes ‘a thousand and one’ once you get the Kiswahili cue). Read aloud or silently by readers competent in different languages, they open up an infinite rabbit-hole, ramifying across an internet (or interwavu) of languages, cultures, and traditions in ways that make the Wake an incitement to googling. Said in a certain accent (or drunken slur) the phrase ‘Simba the Slayer’, for instance, could be misheard as ‘Sinbad the Sailor‘, pointing to One Thousand and One Nights, the classic compilation of Middle Eastern folk tales; then again, switching or mishearing just a few letters, the phrase evokes the Hindu God ‘Shiva the Destroyer.’

Simba the Slayer

3. All this ramifying reminded Rahman of the Nakshi Kantha, the ancient and ongoing tradition of quilt embroidery typically practised by women across rural Bengal, now spanning West Bengal in India and Bangladesh. ‘These stitching-techniques, worked into pictorial prayers (e.g. floral designs, undulating vines, omnipotent deities),’ Rahaman notes in a recent article, ‘have absorbed the batteries of the ages through invasions, settlements, and colonization – from palanquins and peacock-powered boats to bicycles and steam-propelled trains.’ One characteristic example — the Jessore Kantha above and below — was particularly Wake-like, he felt, because it ‘anachronistically plays with a central lotus, paisley patterns, hurricane lantern, earrings, pen, inkpot, umbrella, football, bicycle, Bangla inscriptions, and misspelled English “Hause”.’


4. Seeing the Wake as a Nakshi Kantha, and vice versa, is a testament to the connectivity and intercultural thinking the internet has made possible in the past two decades. It also opens up the beguiling prospect of a world in which the most extreme artefact of modernist writing to emerge out of Europe in the interwar years shares a set of impulses with an ancient but no less radical — because feminized and marginalized — folk tradition of South Asia. ‘The cacophonous collages in Kanthas emerge from the interplay between chaosophy‘, Rahman comments with a nod to Félix Guattari, ‘and chaosmos — ceaseless creativity trickling down the production of the cosmos that restructures the fascistic State apparatuses from within.’ Or, as the Wake has it, so much escapes the state, and statist thinking, because ‘every person, place and thing in the chaosmos of Alle’ is ‘moving and changing every part of the time’ (FW, 118). It is difficult not to hear Rabindranath Tagore applauding in the background.


My thanks to S M Mahfuzur Rahman for reaching out and for alerting me to his work on the Nakshi Kantha:

Rahman, S M Mahfuzur. ‘Subversion in Subterfuge: Chaos in the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ Environment and Culture in the Anthropocene, ed. Shruti Das (New Delhi: Authorspress, 2020), 44 – 69.


Traditional Nakshi Kantha
Contemporary Nakshi Kantha

Art & Action: An exchange with Antjie Krog

This exchange took place via email between June and August 2020.  It has been published under a Creative Commons licence. In broad terms, this means that you can copy, distribute, and display the content, provided you credit the authors, acknowledge the source (using this link if published online: Art & Action), do not use the content for commercial purposes and distribute any derivative work under the same Creative Commons licence.

Antjie Krog is a poet, translator, and Professor in the Arts at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. She has published fourteen volumes of poetry in Afrikaans and her prose writings in English include Country of my Skull (1998) and A Change of Tongue (2003). She has won numerous prizes for poetry, prose, translation and journalism as well as the Stockholm Award from the Hiroshima Foundation for Peace and Culture and the Open Society Prize from the Central European University.

Peter McDonald: Antjie, I am very grateful to you for agreeing to this email exchange, which replaces the conversation we planned for the TORCH Art & Action conference, fatefully booked for 20 and 21 March in what has now become our plague year. The organizers asked us to speak to the following brief, which I’ll quote in full:

‘Authors have at all times been fiercely outspoken campaigners for a wide range of socio-political causes. At the same time, debates have long revolved around literature as a form of political intervention in its own right, thus undermining the seemingly clear-cut distinction between politics and poetics. What are the strategies employed by writers in the construction and performance of their public personae as political office-holders, activists, and cultural critics? How do they negotiate the tension between ethics and aesthetics in their public interventions, the potential conflict between authorial and activist selves? How have writers’ literary/political border-crossings been perceived by their audiences and to what extent have they affected their (posthumous) reputations? What are the risks faced by the politically engaged and outspoken writer? This two-day conference explores the intersections of authorship, politics, activism, and literary celebrity across historical periods, literatures, and media. Interrogating the ideological dimension of literary celebrity and highlighting the fault-lines between public and private authorial selves, ‘pure’ art, political commitment, and marketplace imperatives, this conference joins current debates on authorship and literary value. It brings together writers, academics, literary activists, and industry stakeholders to explore the wider implications of authors’ political responsibilities and cultural authority in today’s heavily commodified literary marketplace and age of celebrity activism.’

You have lived ‘the intersections of authorship, politics, activism, and literary celebrity’ over the course of a tumultuous half century in South Africa’s history, but I know you are uneasy about some of the formulations in this statement. Could I start by asking which aspects of the brief concerned you most and why?

Antjie Krog: My whole being revolts mentally and physically at the word ‘celebrity’, not to mention the phrase: ‘literary celebrity’. I want to use Afrikaans expletives like kots [vomit] and walg [wretch/disgust] when I see that word linked to literature and art. Even the thought that I have to try and explain it, sickens me.

Should I begin by how poetry festivals changed from the 1990s (where some of the most powerful poets of that century read their work dressed in dreadful clothes, with unkempt hair, bad teeth, terrible eyesight, physical features distorted with fear, eccentricity and loneliness) to what it has become now: young poetesses with perfect faces, big hair, daily facebook entries, dressed in breath-taking evening gowns performing their work with electronic sounds?      

Or should I tell how Random House, when approached to publish a book of mine, asked: how marketable is she?    

I became aware of all of this when Time magazine published their list of best statesmen, great leaders of the 20th century. I assumed Nelson Mandela would be there. But no, he was under icons. To my horror I realised that that was a castration of his powerful message. It no longer mattered what he said, he was simply the kind handsome black old man everybody likes to celebrate. The deep challenging values he held were of no importance. His celebrity status disempowered his life’s work.

Or should I tell that I often assist prospective poets? While going through a poem discussing lapses, unclarities, clichés, etc., one once angrily said: But I already received over a hundred likes for this!  

Or the day I found students filing at the door after class to take selfies with me… a question here and there proved that they didn’t know my work at all. How do I stop this? I wondered.

Or how book signings have also become major selfie opportunities with people not even embarrassed that they haven’t bought a book. So suddenly I have to worry about my hair, my ageing teeth, my wrinkles, my pulled up shoulders, the face spasm that distorts my face when I am stressed. Really?   

It was about ten years ago that I decided to take definite steps to resist becoming a celebrity. I refuse bluntly any invitation to appear on television, or in the press for any other reason than having published a new book. I only answer questions about my work and will NOT be on any programme about my life, or even worse answer those standard questions: what is your worst nightmare? what is your favourite recipe? (Talking about recipes, jesus christ Peter, the whole fucking world is cooking or writing about cooking!) South Africa loves doing series about icons, role models and of course the whole visual industry depends on celebrities. I refuse all of these requests. But as it became too complex even for me to explain the difference between being a writer and being a celebrity, I have learned to say: I don’t think I should be on your show because I still want to commit a terrible, disgraceful scandal. This works like magic. It’s understood immediately: she will not be good for our show/magazine/image.         

The problem with the term celebrity perhaps lies in its etymology. The Latin word celibritatem means ‘multitude, fame,’ from celeber ‘frequented, populous’. It is a combination of fame and numbers, which more and more has nothing to do with the REASON for the fame, but only the numbers around the fame.

One of the best descriptions I could find for a celebrity comes from the introduction to the historian Greg Jenner’s Dead Famous (2020):

‘A unique persona made widely known to the public via media coverage, and whose life is publicly consumed as dramatic entertainment, and whose commercial brand is made profitable for those who exploit their popularity, and perhaps also for themselves.’

What I am trying to describe here is that the term celebrity contaminates, no! deeply corrupts, the hard courageous lonely work writers do. Celebrity is a trap. It disturbs the focus of doing what has to be done, to consider physical and social mores, demands and yardsticks. Trying to please an audience is the beginning of the rot for a serious artist. 

PMcD: Many writers share your feelings about ‘literary celebrity’, I think. We could look back to Henry James, who deplored the rise of the intrusive personal interview in the 1890s, or sideways to the contemporary Indian writer Amit Chaudhuri, who campaigns against what he calls the ‘market activism’ of today’s corporate publishers. Perhaps we could shift the terms of the discussion from celebrity to publicness more generally.

AK: Publicness! What an excellent word. It maintains the notion of being public, but keeps the space open for risk, failure and disgrace. Should every creative act not be a fall/jump down a waterfall – never sure that one will come up breathing…?

I would like to return to the 1980s, but am concerned that it all may sound too self-servingly autobiographical…

PMcD: Tricky, I know. I am writing a series of lectures in a form you could call ‘autobibliobiography’ (basically about the way some books rewired my brain), where the challenge is to avoid navel-gazing at all costs while using my experience as a raidable archive. But maybe I could persuade you to be other-servingly autobiographical…

AK: Let us try… I know no other way to explain how complicated the choices are when one feels compelled by injustice, but when one’s talent is based in an undetermined introspection manifesting in a kind of art that is appreciated by a small number of people.

As the apartheid state grew in harshness during the 1980s, one felt driven to respond. But how? The oppression was so crushing, so fully destructive that to write a political poem, no matter how good, in Afrikaans and to publish it with an Afrikaner publishing house became shamefully inadequate, even dastardly cowardly. So I thought: well, I have a daily life as an ordinary human being and I have a life as a poet. With the poems I will follow Nadine Gordimer’s dictum: a revolutionary’s duty is to write as well as s/he can. But my daily life is something else and will be involved with the struggle. At first that brought major ethical relief and changes. I started teaching at a college in the townships, became involved with COSAW [Congress of South African Writers] and ANC activities, participated in marches and tried to live as activistically as possible, experiencing how my privileged and public whiteness (more than my literary publicness) was used brazenly by the local activists in the small rural town where I lived [Kroonstad]. I also began assisting younger township poets with their work.

But of course, this ‘new’ life inevitably influenced my writing. I began working on a poetry volume where the whole foundation, and not only part of the volume, was political, choosing a political theme to encompass everything and link it to politics. The volume Jerusalemgangers (1985) has poems about the disruption of bourgeois suburban life by angry blackness interspersed with black mythological figures. I also drenched my theme and style in the concept of ‘haplography’ – so this was my first book with a complete political foundation.

But again, in the avalanche of assassinations, anger, fear and retaliation, it felt pathetically inadequate. So I decided to move away from a successful important Afrikaner publishing house [Human & Rousseau] to a small, but struggling publisher [Taurus] who published mainly banned texts, giving up any royalty I might earn. I was hoping this shift would set me free to write what I wanted and not what I felt I should write. In vain. My next volume Lady Anne (1989) deals with the specific challenge of the poet confronted by severe injustice. The poet’s senses should wean the cries of outrage from the leaves, the blood from the barricades of groceries and pick up the murders from the blockades near her desk. But how to write effectively without falling into propaganda and crude rhetoric? Can I split my poetry as well? Write cruder poems with well-known slogans only to be read in front of agitated rally-audiences, while writing others for publication to a small poetry-loving but elite audience?

And yet, despite all this, I haven’t figured out how to write a political poem (for that matter any poem) that will visibly CHANGE things. At the same time I do believe that poetry can bring human beings into what Heidegger calls ‘the open clearing of truth’ (see Krog’s, ‘To Write Liberty‘, 2018). All I know is that one should never move from unstable shaking ground to safe steady ground. One should always be harassed by the various contexts within which one writes and—like in Ingrid de Kok’s poem—have an acute sense of context, yet the bravery to dare to imagine: ‘In this country you may not suffer the death of your stillborn,’ yet the group of black women:

will not tell you your suffering is white
They will not say it is just as well.
They will not compete for the ashes of infants.
I think they may say to you:
Come with us to the place of mothers.
We will stroke your flat empty belly,
let you weep with us in the dark,
and arm you with one of our babies to carry home on your back.

(‘Small Passings’, The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry, 1995)

The moment one moves from publicness to celebrity, one exchanges the flagellation of the conscience and the risk to dare, for the caressing of a fickle one dimensional popularity.  

PMcD: Are there other ways in which the changes in the publicness of the literary life have affected your own ‘hard courageous lonely work’ as a writer? Since you made your debut in the early 1970s, the publishing industry, for instance, has undergone a dramatic transformation. I am thinking not only of the digital revolution, but, in your case, of the move from a world of relatively small Afrikaans literary publishers like Human & Rousseau and Taurus to multinational and multilingual conglomerates like Random House Struik (now Penguin Random House South Africa), to say nothing of the change from an era of draconian state censorship to one in which you have a Constitution explicitly committed to upholding the ‘freedom of artistic creativity’ and linguistic rights in a democracy with eleven official languages.

AK: In 1970 six copies of my first poetry volume were sent by post. And that was that. Nowadays I have to fill in a form in which I make suggestions of how to market my book, who its potential readers might be, suggest publicity events, etc. Special photo sessions are organised. Interviews – often by journalists who have NOT read the book, but have a lot of googled questions about your previous interviews.

I also became aware of agents and creative writing schools. I watch in shock how young ambitious students who have not written more than 5000 words have to write a proposal for a book that must include the literary theory behind their story, the other texts it follows and competes with, as well as ethical clearance. And before the book is even finished the student has an agent…  

PMcD: There are many avenues I’d like to follow in response to what you have said so far, but I can’t resist the temptation to take what could be a slight detour at this point via the questions you raise about poetry, specifically political poetry, and ‘CHANGE’. Jerusalemgangers (1985), your sixth collection, marked a turning point for you. It was, as you put it, ‘my first volume with a complete political foundation’ because it ‘has poems about the disruption of bourgeois suburban life by angry blackness interspersed with black mythological figures.’ This way of mapping your poetic biography makes good sense to me—though I do wonder about the framing effects of the fiercely anti-patriarchal, anti-volk title poem in your debut Dogter van Jefta (1970). My question concerns the potential risks of this account, which threatens to reduce the political to a matter of theme or content, opening up the issue of audience in the ways you suggest (‘agitated rally-audiences’ vs. ‘a small poetry-loving but elite audience’). Is there any merit for you as poet in seeing every creative act, every ‘fall/jump down a waterfall’ (I like the equivocation over intention), as political simply because it occurs in the medium of language? I say this not because ‘all language is ideological’ but because all language is public and therefore entangled in structures of power, struggles over ownership and correctness, the nightmares of history and injustice, etc. At the same time, language is intimately and democratically private in so far as it permeates (shapes?) every speaker’s way of being with herself, with others, and with the world. On this account every creative act, even one with no ostensibly political content, could be a politically charged ‘change of tongue’ in form as well as potential effect. I’ll leave the question of actual effects on real audiences open for now.

AK: Of course you are right. I wrote ‘My Mooi Land’ [‘My Beautiful/Pretty Land/Country’] and was completely thrown to learn that it was read on Robben Island and that the political inmates said: If an Afrikaner girl is saying this, we will be free in our life time. So yes, in terms of ‘changing’ things, the very first poems perhaps already did that. But at the same time it was a kind of easy attack on one’s own people, with hardly any knowledge of who it was that one was reaching out to. One became aware of the absence, the not-knowing, then of the anger, the real murderous intent and black writers asking: where are the Afrikaner writers when the country is burning?

‘My Mooi Land’, Sechaba, January 1971

And then the framework within which Afrikaans poetry was written during the 1980s complicated any nuanced way of thinking about the political. With the exception of Breyten Breytenbach, most poets, backed by the literary establishment, thought that poetry should be universal, and that universality was the opposite of writing against apartheid – the latter being too localised to bring forth great literature and politics the death of any art. At the same time there was from the English and black literary establishment the demand to write ‘effectively’; to be part of the movement to bring the apartheid regime to its knees – remember the criticism of Nadine Gordimer of Coetzee’s Michael K (1983)? To hide in a hole feeding a pumpkin plant with a teaspoon full of water, was NOT ‘effective’, driving away with the freedom fighters, or understanding or celebrating them, that was ‘effective’. So where I previously battled to find a way, a style, a metaphor, a theme to express the injustice and the weight of it, Jerusalemgangers enabled me to universalise apartheid politics through history and everyday life. Whether you have a suburban affair, or attend a party, or stretch out a hand to Adamastor, or Shaka’s sangoma, all was political in its foundation of unjustness.     

So my involved ordinary public self allowed me to obey my conscience; that in turn challenged my writing, enabling the poet to make peace with what and how she writes. So if the art changes nothing, one could hold on to the notion that one’s life (as an ordinary white woman in a march of black people) does make a difference; when one lands in muddy and compromising political waters, one can still hold on to the clarity of the poems. 

(The other day I heard one of the Afrikaans writers who wrote ‘universal’ literature snottily say that he did not ‘jump on the bandwagon of politics in the 1980s’… I could just shake my head. He was so safe, he was so lauded by the literary establishment, while Breytenbach sat in jail and I received death threats and my family harassment.)

Nowadays of course, everything is political. It has become nearly impossible to write anything without being political in the way you don’t want to be political…

PMcD: ‘…in the way you don’t want to be political…’ Could you elaborate?

AK: Today one is suddenly exposed, without a personal past or a body of writing, in front of everybody who has access to the internet in English. To write a poem about, say Nelson Mandela, or a black rape victim, is high risk. To end a poem with: ‘only black lives taken by whites seem to matter HERE’ is total suicide. So one thinks: I don’t want to be political in that way… At the same time the idea of criticising the government of the day (as I did before 1994) has also become highly problematic. Criticising a black government means becoming part of precisely that conservative element of whites who didn’t bat an eyelid during apartheid. Criticising a black government is humiliating those very people who are what they are because of your people and your centuries of privilege. I find that more and more, I can only write strong political poems when outside the country, and then trim, cut, soften and hone once I get back.       

PMcD: The establishment framework you mention, particularly the old shibboleth of ‘universality’, permeated the apartheid censorship system as well. It was partly on these grounds, for instance, that J. M. Coetzee’s Michael K was never banned. As Rita Scholtz, the censor, wrote in the conclusion to her report: ‘although the tragic life of Michael K is situated in South Africa his problem today is a universal one.’ At the same time, she recognised that the book ‘contains derogatory references to and comments on the attitudes of the state, also to the police and the methods they employ in carrying out their duties.’ So, caught between the Gordimer-framework and the Scholtz-framework, maybe Coetzee could never win, or perhaps, on a careful re-reading, Michael K sails cunningly between that particular Scylla and Charybdis.

Before we move on from publicness as such, I’d like to return to the question of audience you raised earlier. You spoke in terms of ‘agitated rally-audiences’, on the one hand, and ‘a small poetry-loving but elite audience’, on the other. This reflects your experience of, and engagement with, two (more?) very different publics, though, in your case, other important differences come into play as well: medium (the printed book/the spoken-word performance), form (poetry/prose), language (Afrikaans/English), and location (South Africa/elsewhere). As I understand it, you spent the first two decades of your public writing life essentially as an Afrikaans poet of the page. Then you began to explore new media, new forms, new languages, and new locations. How important or formative have these various transitions been to you? And what bearing have they had/are they having on the sense you have of your own publicness as a writer?

AK: Although I deeply believe that the essence of poetry is oral/aural, when I was younger, it felt extremely narcissistic to read one’s own work in public. But black South Africa literally pushed me through an initiation from page to stage. During the 1980s I was invited to ‘perform’ at a local Free Nelson Mandela rally. I was in a sweat. Perform?

Hoewel my werk nog altyd ’n politieke inslag gehad het, was ’n opdrag om iets onwettigs en gevaarliks in die openbaar op te voer oor ’n verbande man, was iets heeltemal anders. Ek het waansinnig begin soek na goeie voorbeelde van bevrydingsretoriek: Brecht (Alles of niks. Almal van ons of niemand), Eluard se Liberty, Mao Tse-Tung se: wanneer die lug neerstort, lig dit weer op. Uiteindelik kom ek af op Aimé Césaire se ‘Ek wil storm sê. Ek wil rivier sê. Ek wil tornado sê. Ek wil blaar sê, ek wil boom sê … .’ Ja! Ek wil Mandela sê. Ek vra rond. Ek raadpleeg studente en aktiviste. Maar dit is duidelik: Mandela is eenvoudig ’n simbool. Niemand weet hoe hy lyk nie, niemand weet wat hy presies gesê het nie. Ons weet net dat hy in die tronk op Robben-eiland is vir ons almal se vryheid.

[Trans.: Although my work has always had a political slant, an assignment to stage something illegal and dangerous in public about a banned man was something completely different. I frantically started looking for good examples of liberation rhetoric: Brecht (All or nothing. All of us or none), Eluard’s Liberty, Mao Zedong’s: when the sky crashes, it rises again. Finally I come across Aimé Césaire’s Return to my Native Land (1956, English trans., 1969): ‘I want to say storm. I want to say river. I want to say tornado. I want to say leaf, I want to say tree…. ’ Yes! I want to say Mandela. I ask around. I consult students and activists. But it is clear: Mandela is simply a symbol. Nobody knows what he looks like, nobody knows what exactly he said. We only know that he is in jail on Robben Island for the freedom of us all.]

Toe ek by die rally in die township opdaag waar letterlik duisende mense wag, besef ek drie dinge tegelyk. Eerstens, oor die grensmuur kyk honderde polisiemanne met gewere. Tweedens, die bladsytjies waarop die gedig netjies in Sesotho, Afrikaans en Engels uitgetik is, gaan so fladder in die wind dat ek nie daarvan sal kan lees nie. En derdens, ek is verkeerd aangetrek. Ghangha, die hoofdigter is uitgevat in vere-tossels in die kleure van die ANC. ‘Julle digters op papier,’ skud hy die kop toe hy my poging sien en organiseer binne ’n ommesientjie dat dit met die noodhulptassie se bandaid netjies geplak word op ’n tamatiekassie se plankie – drie velletjies ondermekaar.

[Trans.: When I arrive at the rally in the township where literally thousands of people are waiting, I realize three things at once. First, hundreds of policemen with rifles are looking over the boundary wall. Secondly, the pages on which the poem is neatly typed in Sesotho, Afrikaans and English are going to flutter so much in the wind that I will not be able to read from them. And thirdly, I am not properly dressed. Ghangha, the chief poet, is dressed in feather-tassels in the colours of the ANC. ‘You poets on paper,’ he shook his head when he saw my effort and immediately arranged for the pages to be neatly pasted on the plank of a tomato box with the first-aid kit band-aid – three little sheets under each other.]

When I took the megaphone that day it was in a kind of disbelief. I stammered the first line. The main poet came and stood next to me, he shouted my first line loudly and repeated it. I got the idea and yelled the first line into the megaphone, my voice felt from another planet. There was cheering. The chief poet repeated and I repeated. The cheering doubled. By the third time the crowd joined me rhythmically in Afrikaans: Die vuis is Mandéla! Mandéla in Máokeng (This fist is Mandela! Mandela is in our township Maokeng [Kroonstad, Free State]). From there the poem took on a life of its own. Mandela was among us. Mandela in a coat—we saw him, we heard him stirring in the sirens, we sat with him behind the school desks, we saw his tracks in the dusty streets of the township, Mandela breathed among us, he ate in the outbuildings, he raised his fist in the prisons. From the dusty winds blowing across the plains, he would come to us and set us free. People jumped: Thaaa! Tha-thaa!: Die vuis is Mandéla! a mixture of Afrikaans and Sesotho. People furiously toyi-toyied which then turned into an angry thumping dance where everyone aimed imaginary AK-47’s at the faces of the policemen, who, not to be outdone, were brandishing their own weapons across the fence.

That day taught me: you have to respect your audience – the trouble they went to come to HEAR you, their own situation, their desires and anguishes, their languages and their furies – if a poem manages to put a temporary band-aid on one wound in that audience, the poem was not in vain. Bugger universality. Secondly, one can crush and turn a poem in any way to assist the performance; the poem on your page and the poem in your performance have nothing to do with each other. So I keep one copy of each volume with a big V on the cover: Voorlees [Read aloud]. Inside the poems are cut, things are added, parts are linked to other parts, all for a specific reading. I would also often make changes while reading…and I began to write poems with a stronger sense of aurality like ‘Paternoster’ [Gedigte, 1995; Skinned, 2013]. While reading this poem to a Dutch audience in Utrecht with translation screened behind me, something happened and I felt myself transported into a fiery angry sound. The next poem was quieter and I read it in a whisper and became aware of the absolute silence in that big hall. Even when I walked off the stage, it was so totally quiet. The reviews of that reading established me in the Netherlands and since then, over time my audience has become Dutch. I sell more books there and my poetry readings have become quite legendary. I steadfastly try not to think why that is, or who my readers are…

But wherever I read in the world, at home or elsewhere, the moment there is a black person in the audience I feel my whole stomach constrict. I feel in the wrong. I feel I am offending. Am taking up too much space. Sometimes I can scarcely breathe and find that I am reading only for that one black person. My eyes are searching to find those of that one black person. I read to reach, to find forgiveness, to mend…    

PMcD: Talk about art and action tends to focus on individual writers and their creative integrity. But writers have often worked collectively, forming professional and other groups to defend their interests, campaign for various causes, and more. This was especially true in South Africa during the apartheid era. PEN South Africa (1927) and the Afrikaanse Skrywerskring (1934) were well-established, but many other local groups emerged in the course of the 1970s and 1980s as well. These included the white-led Artists’ and Writers’ Guild (1974), the Afrikaanse Skrywersgilde (1975), the Medu Art Ensemble (1977), a revived, short-lived, black-led branch of Johannesburg PEN (1978), the African Writers’ Association (1981), the Writers’ Forum (1985), and the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW, 1987). You have already mentioned your involvement with the latter. Could you say a bit more about that experience and about any of the other groups of which you were aware? How did the possibility of collective action affect your sense of your own publicness, integrity, and/or activism as a writer? And do you see any viable avenues for such action today?

AK: The Afrikaans novelist, Etienne le Roux, once said: a writer only joins a guild, or a representing body, in order to resign dramatically. In a way this rings true, as all these kinds of bodies need exactly that in which writers are not good. They desire uniformity of opinion, simplicity in expressing the banal, commitment to stick uncreatively to the issue at all times; they need a constitution, the dry routine of organisation, of boring tailor-made-for-news declarations and statements, while writers can only produce the opposite: a creative variety around a theme, encompassing many opposing views, individual, unusual language and expression, a deep sense of undermining, a resentment of bureaucracy, etc.

(Therefore it is not strange how clumsy writers often express themselves when they do ‘issue’ a statement as a group. Take, for example, the letter recently signed by among others Salman Rushdie and J.K. Rowling (‘A Letter on Justice and Open Debate’, Harper’s Magazine, 7 July 2020). One cannot believe so many writers signed it: it is so flat and full of holes, so embarrassingly opaque in its argumentation that one doesn’t know what to make of it. I also think of the speech of Lionel Shriver rebelling against particular constraints around theme and character pressed upon by academics (‘Fiction and Identity Politics’, Brisbane Writers Festival, 8 September 2016; see also Krog’s ‘To Write Liberty’, 2018). It was so crude, that one could not possibly support her.)

Writers and poets write because they cannot talk (metaphorically speaking!), because their true medium not only fits, but enhances their expression. They find the form of the literature they engage in: nuanced, subtle, multi-vibratory, multi-voiced, daring, rule-breaking, incoherent in a purposeful way – in other words adequate to sufficiently express the complexity of what they want to express with clarity.

Personally, I deeply distrust the full sentence. There is something restrictive about it. I cannot breathe in my thoughts if there is not enough white on the page around a poem. Accessible prose, talking, reacting like we are doing now and despite the trouble we go to, to capture clarity within the complexity, blunts me. I need the brilliant-cut of the metaphor, the vividness of the simile, the telescope of the title, the universe of the white page, the risk of the personal third eye and most of all, that undetermined and undeterminable ‘thing’ of creativity – that something opens up that is more than the logical brain (I call it at times the creative IQ as it runs along a different unassailable logic) – that thing that is free and can never be corseted within a communal body. What I am saying is that any issue is more than often better served by writers writing, than by writers talking and making statements.

Looking back, I find every participation in a writer society or every petition signed, a complete waste of time, except perhaps joining COSAW during the 1980s. Not because it did anything for me as a writer or even for writing per se, but because it brought a group of people together across the apartheid boundaries, assisting one in experiencing for short moments the country as it should /could have been.

Having said that so vehemently – supporting a cause at certain junctures in history is very important and fortunately there have often been people involved in writer societies who could effectively guide and lead. Locally, the Afrikaans Skrywersgilde presented an important anti-censorship stance under apartheid, while the Swart Afrikaanse Skrywers [Black Afrikaans Writers] held three symposia that are still being studied for the invaluable input they made around thinking about Afrikaans literature.

Today I personally practise activism in various ways that are solely literary: I assist young poets who do not have access to any assistance. My work at the University of the Western Cape [UWC] fortunately entails that I assist anybody from the community with their manuscripts, whether they are students or not, and we have published an impressive list of books and some of the most important young poets in Afrikaans today have come through UWC. I also found that I have a talent for assessing and placing quite accurately a text within the broader history of South African literature. I can point out: this is new in a shout or a readers report.

The second kind of activism is an obsession with translation. I found funding to translate a relevant selection of poems from indigenous languages into Afrikaans [Met woorde soos met kerse, 2002]. Then started to re-evaluate the work of an African writer who wrote the first novel ever written in an indigenous language in Africa [Thomas Mofolo]. And more recently I coordinated one of the largest translations of a variety of African language classical literary texts into English [Oxford’s Africa Pulse series]. The project is continuing with two students who are translating three major epics written in Sesotho and Sepedi.

I also regularly translate from Dutch into Afrikaans believing that translation is necessary gymnastics for a language. It keeps Afrikaans fit and it makes me continuously aware how effectively and obviously the borders stretch between Afrikaans and Dutch.

Another way is perhaps simply the wishful thinking of an old poet: the poems by pre-internet poets like me, have no monetary value. Nobody can put a price on any of my poems. Poems push back the notion that you can pay for art. Poems make a mockery of the ridiculous prices people pay for visual art. Maybe poets my age, as Geert van Istendael suggests, are the last true heretics of the world?   

PMcD: There is one particularly charged moment in your career when many of the issues we have been discussing came to a head: the moment you won the Hertzog Prize in 1990 for Lady Anne, arguably your most sustained poetic reflection on art and action. Established in 1916, the Hertzog, which honours poetry every three years, is the most prestigious Afrikaans literary accolade. Reflecting some of the complexities of the time, the list of winners has you flanked on both sides by T.T. Cloete who was both a leading poet and a censor. He won the Hertzog in 1987 and 1993. You won it again for Mede-wete in 2017. On the first occasion, the award rules required you to give a short acceptance speech (see note 5). The poem-speech you read takes issue with the prize, raises questions about your relationship to the literary establishment of the time and to Afrikaans, and concludes with a public expression of solidarity with COSAW and anti-apartheid publishers. From this distance, how does that moment seem to you now? Or, put another way, could you comment on the public symbolism of the Hertzog in 1990 and in 2017?

AK: The Hertzog of 1990 was given by people I deeply resented: the Afrikaner establishment. I knew all too well they have given it to signal to the new-powers-to-be that the Afrikaner establishment is changing, see how it embraces critical voices, see they are with everybody in the new South Africa. Some years before Breyten Breytenbach had refused the prize. I thought to take the prize and give the money where it should have been in the first place – with the marginalised. The people who gave the Hertzog in 2017 are a shadow of the previous lot. They are hanging shivering by their anxious white nails on to a literature the context of which has radically and irretrievably changed and they smell their own redundancy. So I took it in 2017 as one powerless one from another powerless one. I firmly believe that the context in which the poetry that I write makes any sense, is disappearing like a sheet in the dark…

About the poem-speech in 1990: I was angry, young and strong and fundamentally understood the cruel, false, powerful context into which I was writing. Now I am angry, old and weak with a pathetic grasp on the black context into which I am writing. At the same time, being initiated into compassion by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I’m filled with despair about the dire, dehumanising poverty drowning our country, yet have compassion for the corrupt, inept and insecure establishment that has to deal with the mess of colonialism and apartheid. Standing on an over-elaborate stage a few years ago, receiving literary acknowledgement from the black government among young black celebrities in the arts, with the knowledge that the food and drink and evening gowns could keep a rural town in electricity for a month, I had nothing to say. I took the award, and said Kea Leboha [Thank you]. I was stumm – as I should be… a coward, I think. 

PMcD: In the conference brief, the organizers framed this discussion as a tension (contest?) between literary writing and activism.

AK: It is a tension, and a healthy one I believe. At the same time, it becomes problematic when celebrity status is regarded as a condition for real activism.

PMcD: They used phrases like ‘politics and poetics’, ‘authorial and activist selves’, ‘literary/political border-crossings’, etc. Responding in part to this oppositional logic, the Indian writer Amit Chaudhuri, who I have already referenced in passing, has in recent years been a leading proponent of what he calls ‘literary activism’. At a time when, as he sees it, questions of value have either been abandoned (notably by academic literary studies) or co-opted (especially by the ‘market activism’ of corporate publishing world), he has been calling for a public activism focussed on the literary as such.

AK: We have to pause at the word ‘value’. (It is, thank God, no longer necessary to honour the Atwood dichotomy: … if you turn your back on Social Relevance, won’t you find yourself making the equivalent of verbal doilies for the gilded armchairs in the Palace of Art?) The kind of value that the Nobel Prize is seeking is worth exploring: the worthy candidate should bestow ‘the greatest benefit on mankind’ delivering ‘the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’ (my italics), while former Nobel Prize Committee member Horace Engdahl talked of ‘the great dialogue of literature about the improvement of humanity’. Therefore the work should be ‘outstanding’, aesthetically I gather, while what it says should point in an ‘ideal direction’ / ‘greatest benefit on mankind’. There is clearly a very broad yet very precise expectation of influencing humankind in a progressive way here. Should this not be the essence of literary activism? Should we not try to find works often extinguished by the loud noise of market activism or those un-mainstream works in smaller languages falling soundlessly into a dark hole of nothingness? Should we not elucidate the direction in these works and generate discourses around that, especially also those empty ones ramped up by market activism? 

I think academia is doing it, but I ask myself why have I stopped reading the winners of the Booker or Pulitzer, even the T.S. Eliot poetry prize – why do I often find nothing there, nothing new, nothing related, nothing shifting one? The names of writers I find worth reading are passed on by friends like a secret treasure.

I remember a PEN conference in Germany where there was a special session for agents. I asked them whether they do research or go out into non-European countries and unknown languages to look for works to represent. One man responded with the utmost confidence and conviction: No, we don’t need to. The good works find us (!!).  

 PMcD: Chaudhuri’s kind of project carries a number of predictable risks. It can all too easily be dismissed as reactionary (revivalist aestheticism?), quixotic (nostalgic universalism?) or, worse still, cast as a desperate rear-guard effort on behalf of an old elite to postpone their inevitable redundancy.

AK: Chaudhuri’s literary activism seems to me in the first place a reaction to, and against, a particular market activism. His examples refer to publishers who pursued really good writers whom they then actively marketed for a deservedly larger audience. Nobody would have a problem with any publisher who is active: rather publish with someone flying somewhere because he is reading, than a bank-manager-publisher – not staying longer than four years before moving on to a higher bean-counting position.

I share however a restlessness with another kind of market activism: books and authors published because they are fashionable merchandise often based on a popular blog, in other words, it’s ‘value’ lies in its sales. 

At the same time one does understand that publishing houses were to an extent forced to revert to this activism for various reasons. One is that so many newspapers, television and radio stations do not carry one second or iota about books or a discussion on the content of books, be they literary or popular. Interviews with ‘marketable’ writers yes, stories about their lives on the celebrity pages yes, their houses, their recipes, their heart-opening-ups yes, their scandals, fights, accusations of plagiarism or plundering, appropriation, yes, but no engagement with the works themselves.

So because a good book can no longer reverberate enough publicness that rewards publishers, they have to publish the work of those who already reverberate through their own efforts ranging from a scandalous life to a popular blog. Perhaps the most crucial reason is the technology of our times. The soul of the internet is short and fast and infinite. If you are not on that jet, you do not exist, so fewer and fewer are educated into the slow grip of a piece of writing and how it can forever transform your innermost being.

PMcD: As you have already pointed out, talk of literary value is also inherently risky. I have in mind your comments on writers seeking out ‘unstable shaking ground’, being ‘harassed by the various contexts within which one writes’, and your reference to the ‘undetermined and undeterminable “thing” of creativity’. As I take it, a value-centred literary activism, understood in these terms, will always be fraught in fact and in principle. This makes Chaudhuri’s project look necessary and opportune from your point of view.

AK: I would think the project crucial precisely because the backbone of the literary lies mainly in academia: that which is being prescribed, studied, researched and written about, is what will outlast trendy one-day-sparrows. We have seen in South Africa how particular writers have come to the fore only through the slow painstaking work of academic studies (as one of Chaudhuri’s examples [Zoë Wicomb] shows), how the work of generations of students studying a great poet finally engages a wider public. Even new fashionable themes like identity, or the animal, send scholars back to both older and new work. This activity and knowledge has always spilled over into more accessible spaces like book reviews, book discussions, newspapers, and electronic media.

But academia seems in trouble as Chaudhuri correctly suggests. For me the problem arose the moment scholars pulled themselves back into small subthemes, picking a seed here and one there (either because they felt overwhelmed by the sheer forceful volume of publications in English, or because they had been terrified by cause-fighters into submission to minor themes), without keeping abreast of the values and issues of contemporary literature. It becomes very difficult to determine where and how ‘new’ ground is being broken in terms of say, the novel… Who is changing the format into something new? What are the main themes and who and how are they transgressing?

In South Africa things have become even more dire: the ‘made’ or ‘imagined’ gulf between black and white or feminist writing is causing the death of much literary activism. Some academics now prefer to stick to ‘their’ field, others sow destruction in every text they touch, others are so busy championing that there is hardly time for in-depth analysis. The moment somebody touches an overview on South African literature the critics mercilessly slaughter the person – and often rightly so because so little is known about the literature being written in nine of South Africa’s official languages. Scholars also seem reluctant to write book reviews for a more popular audience.

The mainstays of Afrikaans writing are leeskringe/reading circles. Spread across the country these groups decide on their reading list for the year and often get a scholar to discuss the book with them. Afrikaans newspapers still offer some solid space for book reviews. Then there are various awards where academics often serve as judges—reading circles then often select the books of prize-winners to discuss. So the potential for a rewarding integration of literary activism is (still?) there in the Afrikaans literary world.

But I think it is different for English literature in South Africa. To me it seems that because nobody wants to be caught ‘on the wrong side’, the newspapers have effectively stopped reviewing literature. Extracts are published by publishers, but no solid reviewing. English writers have mentioned to me that their works sink like stones in South Africa, that they could just as well have published only the blurbs as nobody seemed to have read more than that.

Some of the literary prizes for poetry and fiction have quietly fallen away, perhaps because the tensions between white and black judges, white and black publishers, the issue of white editors, Western standards etc. became too explosive to touch. Our two most important prizes, the Alan Paton and Barry Ronge prizes, were simply stopped for a year or two and really, it seemed nobody cared. When the prizes were initiated, the winners were front page news, books displayed in shopfronts. Lately, the event and writers hardly get a small news article on the arts page.

Literary activism is a response to the distortion of market activism and should work in conjunction with and in addition to the market.    

So great changes lie ahead. 

PMcD: At the same time, you say ‘I firmly believe that the context in which the poetry that I write makes any sense is disappearing like a sheet in the dark.’ This makes ‘literary activism’ in Chaudhuri’s sense look like a lost cause in your eyes. Is there a genuine discrepancy here? I suppose I am, in part, asking if your comment about vanishing contexts applies solely to innovative poetry in Afrikaans or to inventive poetry in general.

AK: Let me stick to Afrikaans, but I have to say it seems also present in South African English poetry and Dutch. A poet finds and forges her voice among the voices that came before her—in my case Afrikaans poets writing in an Afrikaans with its tight grid of Dutch and German intact. Until about ten years ago, almost all the Afrikaans poets were schooled in a literature that was mainly Western and white. In the meantime the majority of speakers in Afrikaans are no longer white, but of colour and still suffering the total destruction of apartheid. This means that poets from this group are writing about their surroundings, their anger, the consequences of the devastation, breaking new ground writing about poverty in a literature that existed on middle class longings, sense of beauty, notions around poetry, and a solid sense of how ‘style’ in poetry has developed from naive rhymes to complicated layered structures to the avant garde (e.g. I love simile, the swiftness and surprise of it, but find very few young poets using simile. I can write endlessly about landscape, but realise now that nature is a pure middle-class and ownership passion).   

The coloured poets have their own version of Afrikaans: they create their own vocabulary and style, quote their own heroes (Tupac Shakur and no longer Paul Celan), make a whole set of new audiences and bring in innovative themes of injustice and suffering which make the middle-class poetry look like indulgent candyfloss. They are therefore contributing very effectively in an ‘ideal direction’.  

But there is also the younger internet generation of poets – who thrive on publishing on the internet with immediate gratification of making an impact. They don’t work with poetry volumes with titles feeding and broadening the themes, or the coherent gathering, shaping and cutting of something that cannot be said. With videos and other electronic material they have vast influences on their audiences. It is within these kinds of contexts that my poems, despite dealing with injustice and humaneness, would make less and less sense. I do not begrudge anybody for it. It is, for me at least, the biggest challenge for literary activism – how do these contribute to a more progressive and just society?       

PMcD: Art as action, in other words, not simply art and action. This is perhaps a good note on which to conclude, though I hope you’ll indulge me if I do so in a speculative way. On the central issue of art as action, I have long felt we live in the shadow of a misconception about language that has its origins in the colonial era and in a series of mistranslations. I am thinking of the German philosophical tradition exemplified by the early nineteenth-century Prussian linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt. On this view—I’m abridging the caricature—languages determine thought and express the linguistic community’s self-enclosed ‘worldview’; and poets speak for ‘the people’ (von Humboldt used the phrase das Volk). This misreading, which fed the ever-tenacious ‘linguistic relativity thesis’, affected most European and many other languages too, given the deforming effects of colonial linguistics and language policies. It also played an influential role in the history of Afrikaans. It is, however, a crude caricature of von Humboldt’s thinking which ignores his championship of multilingualism, his interest in non-European languages, and his belief in the transformative potential of translation and poetry. ‘The mind, seeing language to be actually engaged in endless creation, no longer regards it as closed,’ he argues, ‘but strives unceasingly to import new matter, so as to have this, once patched into the language, react upon itself.’ Or, again, humanity ‘has intimations of a region that transcends language, and is actually constricted by language; but that language in turn is the only means of exploring and fertilizing this region.’ To my mind, these observations, which bear on the linguistic and on the ethical aspects of poetic creativity, have a particular pertinence to your work as a poet and translator—and to other contemporary Afrikaans poets: Jolyn Phillips and Nathan Trantraal, among the younger generation for example, or Breyten Breytenbach, to name only three. (In my view, they are no less pertinent to the work of the great South African linguist Neville Alexander.) Given von Humboldt’s commitment to transformation, the future, and the ideal, they also seem to prefigure the kind of literary activism you envisage, one dedicated to creating ‘a more progressive and just society.’ Idle speculations on my part?

AK: Our conversation has been stretching over so many months, covid-isolation months, that one’s own views have shifted into forms of despair – especially as South Africa has so frighteningly and nonchalantly let this unique moment to radically change the country’s social and economic structures, slip through our fingers. The epidemic has harshened, broadened and intensified the existing unjust structures here and sent us over the cliff. Instead of hearing wind as one falls, one sees the encroaching desperation of hungry, angry, betrayed masses of people. The rich are lifting themselves silently in droves to wherever they have already stashed their riches, while the rest of us are a bit like Mrs Curren [in J. M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron (1990)] – giving and sharing ‘with a despairing heart’.

In a melodramatic mood this morning, I feel like saying: the writings of J.M. Coetzee and Njabulo Ndebele have saved my life in this country – the translated works from indigenous languages as well. The African writings gave me access to a world-conception that I have lived with all my life, but was not really aware of (its radical profoundness, depth and beauty), while Coetzee gave me the tools to do meaningful dissections from it. So I guess that is art in action.

Translation of literary works is also art as action as you suggest, so allow me an example or two. Scholars have always pointed to the metaphorical quality of indigenous languages. Words have a literal and a figurative meaning, as in these Sesotho words, for example:

ndiyazidla—I eat myself (literal); I am proud (figurative)

ukutshona—to set (sun); to drown/go down (literal); to die (figurative)

letlokoa—straw (literal); vanity (figurative)

pelu ea ithatha—my heart loves itself (literal); I am happy (figurative)

The task of the translator of indigenous languages is therefore to capture the figurative meaning without losing the poetry of the literal. How wonderful the material then becomes in indicating a much broader view of the world, can be seen below through only one single poem, moving from isiXhosa to two versions in English:

IiMbongi zakwaNtu (by Bulelani Zantsi, leading isiXhosa praise poet)

Awu! Ndiqale ngaliphi na, makwedini?
Ndithi makhe ndiyiloze ndibhexesh’ amaxethuka
ndixongx’ iilwimi ngoba ndixelel’ abaxongxi besiXhosa,
ndaxel’ inxanxad’ intak’ eneengxak’ ezingxakangxaka
suka ndaxananaza ndaxel’ amaphiko exhalanga. etc

The imbongi of the House of Ntu (translation by poet himself focusing on the meaning)

I ask you to be quiet,
for the imbongi from Xhalanga to speak.
Let the weak ones be quiet
I am speaking of important matters.
I shall show the lies in good Xhosa
The liars will be shaking,
I will talk clearly in opposition.
Iimbongi, lend me two opportunities
I will use them both.
Young men lend me two opportunities
I will use them inside as well as outside.
Young men, lend me two opportunities
I will use them to look after the aged.
You who are men, lend me two opportunities.
I will use them both to protect us.
Young men, lend me two opportunities.
I will respect the elders and be brave.

Praise-singers of the House of Humans (A final version in English by Koos Oosthuyzen):

Silence please, for the imbongi of Vulture hill is bellowing.
Those who trudge along like wasted livestock
will be speechless for a change
because I am going to say things that weigh heavily
I am going to say them in deep Xhosa from Xhosaland
My words will let some people fall about frightened like liars,
They will jump around like rattling rhebuck in a rapid wind.
I will sing clear and solid like a songbird on a stony mountain.
Iimbongi, lend me two bush tiger capes
With one I shall gird myself and with the other sweep the way clear.
Boys, lend me two fighting sticks.
The one I will take to meetings and with the other one hack away weed.
Initiates, lend me two curved hilt knives.
With the one I will slaughter for the ancestors
and with the other cut strips to eat for the grey headed.
Men, lend me two wild olive tree staffs.
With one I will tame animals and with the other chase the thunder away.
Young men, lend me two dancing canes.
One I will give to the cranefeather heads
and with the other loudly beat my shield.

A thesis can be written about the texts, but what I want to point out is the total integration of people and nature in caring and nurturing their interconnectedness.

Let me give an example of an effort to ‘import’ new matter and have language ‘react upon itself’, as von Humboldt put it. The Truth Commission lifted scales from my eyes revealing the continuous presence of an interconnected-awareness among the majority of South Africans: I suddenly came across it absolutely everywhere in writing, gestures, events, unfathomable rulings – often regarded as Christianity, primitive behaviour or simply as meaningless cliché. I wanted to find a language in Afrikaans to express that, but whatever I tried either sounded like a platitude, or some aerie-faerie new age jargon. After attending some lectures in Berlin on Paul Celan I realised: but I should MAKE that language of caring. One could bore open the clogged syllables of apartheid Afrikaans, recalibrate the burnt out diphthong , saw off consonants, have a continuous chiselling of the plaque on vowels so that merciless petrified words become challenged – so that air can rush in to form a new language that will say apartheid is dead among the anger and hatred.  

The first challenge was of course the pronouns – to break the construct of ‘I’ and ‘you’. But how do you say ‘ek/I’ but understand ‘ons/us’ meaning you as interconnected plural and all those that have come before the ‘I’? So I contracted the Afrikaans expression ‘my pa-hulle’ (my father-and-them) or ‘my tannie-hulle’ (my aunt-and-them) into ‘jou’le’ (you and them), ‘ek’le’ (I-and-them) and that enabled me to forge an expression of interconnectedness that I could live with:  

hoor jou’le my?
jy wat ons’le is

as weg geskrote sompige lewers leef ons
wreedmoedige afstompings: laat sein oor die spleet
alle jou’le ons’le alle aard’le arm’le honger’le
asmekaar waks ons’le almals voete voer meekaars monde
vervullings van meesalwing
voort in erbarmde armadaskes sterre

dit wat anders ek’le gryp die ons’le
in ’n nuwe woordeskot van etaak
ons knal gans die aar-eerde tot kielblou-klank

(hoor jy die nuwe-newe die safte hoe verlosbluffend
spoel die swoegtels van apoorte aardes los?)


do your’nthem hear me’nthem?
you who are our’nthem?

as scrap(p)ed away swampy livers we live
cruel-tempered stumps: signal through the synaptic cleft
all yours ours all earth’s-us poor’s-us hunger’s-us
asone(ach)other wash everyo(ur)ne’s feet feed eachwithother’s mouths
fulfilments of eachsalvingother
henceforward in compassioned star armadasques

that which differently mine grasps the ours
in a new overflowording of ethi(n)ck
we detonate the whole earlierth to keelblue clamour

(do you hear the newnearbeneath the softed how startlingly freely
the toils of apartgated earths float loose?)

Nowadays Afrikaans is anyway flooded with the new language of young poets of colour doing in the most natural way what an old apartheid-born poet had dreamt of!  

Antjie Krog and Bonke Xakata perform ‘Ukufa’ by L.M.S Ngcwabe as part of the Oxford Africa Pulse series.

PMcD: In the spirit of art as action in this sense, do you have a poem (or selection of poems) we could add as a coda to this exchange?

A Mass for our Fragile Earth

extracts from O Brose Aarde, trans. Antjie Krog

text: how can we care for the planet if we do not care for one another / how can we care for one another if we do not care for the planet?


I greet you in the name of the Earth,
The love of the Sun,
And the communion of Holy Oxygen

Come, let us confess our sins against the planet and our neighbour:

We confess our sins in penitence and faith.
We sin daily inordinately in what we irreparably harm,
in what we irreparably destroy of the earth and one another,
through what we do and through what we refrain from doing.

We wounded your abundance.
We marred your equilibrium.
We are ashamed and filled with remorse.

Guilt, we carry great guilt.
Have mercy upon us.
Oh human-encompassing Earth – have mercy upon us poor idiots.


Holy, holy, holy.
Hosannah to the Trees.

SANCTUS umBaba – holy Chestnuttree
SANCTUS umGuza – holy Cycad
SANCTUS isiKhoba – holy Yellowwoodforest
SANCTUS umKhangele – holy Teak tree

Oh Wilderness-cradle
Oh Forests with the most epidermal Change-of-Breaths
beyond myrtle, beyond fernGreened glowed-through Green
Hail the soughs of Stomata first light and furthest Algae

SANCTUS umSintsi – holy Coral tree
SANCTUS umNga – holy Thorntree
SANCTUS umNgcunube – holy Willow
SANCTUS umNimbithi – holy Stinkwoodtree

Hosannah to the Trees interpreting all Breath
Hosannah to their great loose wrists of twine
Their lightloaded shoulder blades of branches

SANCTUS umNquma – holy Wild Olive
SANCTUS isiQwane – holy Beech
SANCTUS umQaqoba – holy Pendoringtree
SANCTUS umQokolo – holy Kei apple tree

Honour the green bubblehedged sound of finchfleeces
Honour the oxygen iambs lured free and coreGreen
Oh, hosanna, see how the Invisible peals upright

SANCTUS umSenge – holy Cabbage tree
SANCTUS umThombe – holy Wild Fig
SANCTUS umVumvu – holy White Stinkwood tree
SANCTUS umThombothi – holy Tamboti


Dies iræ, dies illa,
dies tribulationis et angustiæ,
dies calamitatis et miseriæ,
dies tenebrarum et caliginis,
dies nebulæ et turbinis …

This is the day of revenge

the day of retribution and fear
the day of disaster and wretchedness
the day of darkness and vengeance
the day of earthquakes and hurricanes
the day of virus and alarm

This is the day of revenge.


in times of disintegration

trans. Antjie Krog

beloved of the clear slope and blue words
I pull you closer through malignant scrubs

in the lightheadedness of poemmaking
you have the fragrance of brookewater and willowwood

we feel how bushvirus and humanhate
scorch the hair on our arms

at this moment you are so near
I feel your shirtpocket against my cheek
and how calamities tilt over against our artery walls

as I turn away from you
you change into the champion of our daily bread

on old age you turn your back
against revolution and climate-fear you countervail
you outfox feelings of guilt
you brush prospective exploiters from the table
and bulwark our chances on survival

your eyes have become formidable of it
your teeth melted together in fiercesomeness
your hands purified from bolting

you will bruise us into each other
for the right to an ending that has been made by us

(the city drifts around me in virus and splendour
before I turn the front door key
I hear you somewhere, like a sack of broken glass, coughing)


overcome is the depth of my oesophagus
when so much turmoil
in virulent sparks gasp up at us

I love you with knowledge

with lifelong charting we measure our bodies
the ageing of our bodies
the sustaining of our bodies
the remembering somewhere of how “there” how “aware”
we once were

stars stare now the prompt-nesses blind
where we desperately lovingly try to sustain ourselves


I invent what you once have been
so more than clauses, oh
adorer of my countenance

how had the earth’s laws left
us suddenly so lonely, so bare blundering
come, glide into me from your abdomen

how is it possible that our bodies

– as it was so irreplaceably compiled –
only live once and are now decomposing in heaps?

this body is our Solely, our soft-Inherited, our Uppest Moment
our inimitable Sob of Oxygen and Tremor

moaning I shuffle close against my threadbare self –
my irreplaceable Oneling, my lovely-Acquiescence

oh, become again the coldblooded brute
among all the slayers and countless internet-entangleds


I mine the luminosity of your eyes
oh my openfaced Beloved
my mouth is killed in action by yours, my Sole-Tenderling
the pomegranates shiver around us incestuously
let your vertebra shimmer
smack your heels
the vulva is like beer laughs Baubo
she lifts her dress: come plough me
reap the arrogant barley fields
the axemark you see is freethinking and of fame
see: all that has been left is our resistant screaming with laughter

the winds glower the mountains move on
the clouds bleach the rain is in flood
but the vagina on which life can trust
is the vagina of the Dangeress
the Genial Holderess – she is independently creative

– this vagina of the iambs

this is why this opening should become a line of verse
says Baubo to death with the rod of a raven
our bodies lay our foundation
we stare from our breasts
we scream from our cunts
cursed is the Beelzebub who so praises his own Stem

wildness wildness o god
my heart is like a wolf
our ruin crumbles like shells under my paws
I slurp his brains
grind his hinges
gobble him with a hairy ditch
open his eyes in a pattering resort of urine
a mouth of stool
until we break out new from our sweaty quarantine
and raise again, Baubo calls rightly
raise again and not like wild mane
ass stallions boer- or coggoats
but let us overstep ourselves on the glimmering bodywheel
so that every bone of ours break into life
and we explode inward like stars without bethinking


the sound of a shovel over stony ground
a dove’s hum tenderly situated in blue
motionless the autumn edges her oakleaves
with a bundle of radishes in your hand you look through the window
our house a lyric in the morning sun
the mouth smoulders against the nonspeakable death
the tongue searches for a thoroughfare in language lying on its deathbed
with the threenoteyearning of the bushshrike

– all to get to see you for ever

in this way our sharding bodies sharpen our still-lungfull song

in these empty strange days
one learns to count the love that is left

in the midst of languages delirious in isolation and fire
my eyes try to attach to this autumn filament
as the house is filled with gall your duggedout
anger hangs around like a raw wound

like fighting falcons we lift our wings
now and then our blood falls still
we buy bread our breaths avoid each other
we are being kept going in reproach
the mutilation of your brave body is I
the narrowing of my steps is you
bitterness grits under your eyelids
despair spins down my spine
not the safety of mountains
nor the tender patience of a bittern
will ever change anything about this

in the mornings when you step out of the shower
light falls shivering around your ankles
if everything is well we grow into each other’s figments
are we with our descendants whom we love
we are resigned the whole day – living in measured time

now is not the time for revenge
everything is dying polluted from itself

oh, is it the grave of the poor earth that is crying so?


more and more poisonous different endings swab
along the sides of our fears
my throat sinews pull the strop tighter
my eyes melt in the buttonholes of skin

my forehead drowse in stains
my elbows suck warts
smell escape from my lifesack

please tell me then, my Unescapeable
unfamous, allconfused
who was this body once
with life as its beloved?

give me your mild mouth, oh Bodybeloved
how graceful I once could walk on bare feet
how stridently stretched you brave neck

around us the end hops with her deadly pliers
I fight I fight I am scared and I fight I fight
for our one joint body

surrounded by the bacterial spray of mortals
we keep on seeing it:

oh death with the long ropes

PEN and World Literature

Literature, national though it be in origin, knows no frontiers, and should remain common currency between nations in spite of political or international upheavals.

1. This is the first article of the original statement of aims that PEN, the world’s largest and oldest association of writers, formally agreed in Brussels at its 5th international Congress in 1927. PEN was founded in London in 1921 and held its first official Congress there in 1923. Haunted by the horrors of the First World War, the statement is universalist in aspiration and anti-nationalist in spirit, though it presupposes the primacy of the nation at every point — not just in the sub-clause ‘national though it be in origin’ but in the phrase ‘between nations’. As this wording was preserved when the three-part statement became the four-part PEN Charter in 1948, it effectively stood as an emblem of PEN’s internationalist vision for just over seventy-five years.

1.1 The statement also reflected the ‘new idealism’ of PEN’s founding President, the British novelist John Galsworthy. ‘All works of the imagination’, Galsworthy wrote in an article on ‘International Thought’ for the London Times on 30 October 1923, ‘are the property of mankind at large’ and ‘any real work of art, however individual and racial in root and fibre, is impersonal and universal in its appeal.’  As I argue in the book, this kind of thinking, which combined the national and the universal, also underpinned the development of English as an academic subject in late-Victorian Oxford where Galsworthy studied law, graduating in 1889. Yet this was not simply a matter of literary aesthetics for Galsworthy. It concerned the writer’s special calling. At a time when governments, journalists, scientists and financiers continued to see themselves as ‘trustees for competitive sections of mankind’—again he had in mind the malign nationalism that led to the First World War—he argued writers had a ‘plain duty’ to be the heralds of a co-operative, law-based international order and the champions of ‘a new idealism.’ At the same time, Galsworthy always insisted on PEN being an association not an amalgamation of national centres.

John Galsworthy                                             PEN President, 1921-32

2. Such at least was the vision. Not everyone agreed, even in the 1920s. Some doubted PEN could ever stand above, or even outside, politics and others worried that Galsworthy made it look too much like a literary rival to the League of Nations. And then reality got in the way. Since some languages do not have a localized territory or the backing of a state, alternative, culture-based centres were formed almost immediately, beginning in 1922 with the Catalans in Barcelona, followed a year later by the Spanish in Madrid. Scottish PEN was founded in 1927. Then there was the question of exiles (Russian and German in the first instance) and the tensions between the Flemish and the French in Belgium. The greatest challenge in the interwar years, however, came from Yiddish writers who found themselves adrift after the Polish centre in Warsaw turned down their request for co-membership. After much debate, the solution, formally accepted in 1927, was to establish a Yiddish centre in the contested city of Vilna (now Vilnius, capital of Lithuania) with further branches in New York and Warsaw. Two years later, at the 1929 Congress in Vienna, it was then agreed that ‘the method of dividing the P.E.N into sections and the right of voting at congresses should be based on literary and cultural’, rather than national grounds. Despite this, the first article of the Charter remained unchanged until 2003.

3. At the 67th international Congress, held in London in November 2001, the Canadian and German PEN centres initiated a discussion to revise the original wording. Reflecting some of the interwar concerns, the President of PEN Canada, the exiled Iranian writer Reza Baraheni, was among the leading proponents for change. They set out four main reasons for doing so.

a. [The original wording] had never been historically correct, and intrinsically excludes all literature written before the development of nation states.

b. erroneously accepts without question the late 18th-century proposition that literatures are “national”, a concept promoted by developing nation states in order to foster the citizens’ identification with the nation, and opposed even then by Goethe and others who believed in “world literature” and held that in an age of unlimited intellectual exchange literature belongs to the whole world.

c. totally neglects the post-colonial development in Africa and the Arab states, where literature is predominantly seen in a pan-African or pan-Arab context, and in the case of Africa is written in a wide variety of cross-border indigenous and colonial languages.

d. culturally marginalizes literature written by exiled, emigrated or migrant writers.

4. Following their interventions, the Canadian and German centres proposed a new formulation at the next Congress, held in Ohrid, Macedonia in September 2002:

Literature of whatever provenance or language is a world cultural heritage and must be protected and upheld at all times as the free and common currency of all people, particularly in periods of political or international upheaval.

This effectively removed the contentious phrasing about the ‘national’, though the sentence read like something composed by committee via email over some months, which is, in fact, how it emerged. Again, not everyone was happy. Writers from the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc spoke against the change, describing what the almost talismanic 1948 Charter, which champions free expression, meant to them throughout the dark years of the Cold War. They also worried about the loss of the word ‘national’, which had acquired a new significance for them since 1989 and for everyone in the era of globalization. By contrast, African writers spoke for the proposal because they liked the word ‘protected’, which addressed concerns they had about marginalized languages and literatures.

5. For the English writer Victoria Glendinning and literary agent Susanna Nicklin, the problems were stylistic. Feeling that the new version was not ‘in keeping with the spare, clear wording of the Charter,’ they proposed an alternative, which involved subtracting rather than re-writing. This broke with protocol — according to PEN’s rules, you cannot amend an amendment in the course of discussion — but, characteristically, an unfussy solution was found: the English and Canadian delegates were sent away to re-draft the amendment, a task that took four hours. Why so long? Again characteristically, the debates reflected everything for which PEN stands—‘communication, tolerance, impassioned discussion, literary quotation, story-telling, poetic digressions, tales of wrongful imprisonment, life-stories’ and more, as Glendinning and Nicklin reported.

6. What resulted was a small but significant reformulation, which re-founded PEN as a truly supranational, non-statist world association, equal to the broader vision of ‘language communities’ articulated in the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (1996), a document PEN did much to shape (see the ‘Linguistic Rights’ post):

Literature knows no frontiers, and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.

The change in modal verb — ‘should’ to ‘must’ — also strengthened the organization’s commitment to its denationalized founding pledge, making the moral recommendation of the 1920s a mandatory obligation for the new millennium. The familiar but questionable metaphor ‘common currency’, which makes literature something like a cultural Euro or Eastern Caribbean dollar, remained unchanged. After two years of intense debate, the final wording was formally incorporated into the Charter when the amendment was ratified a year later at the 69th Congress in Mexico City, a meeting otherwise dominated by reports on the growing number of attacks on writers and journalists around the world—775 in 2003 alone.

2003 Charter change
Credit: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

See also ‘Shadows & Ghosts: The Evolution of the PEN Charter,’ Los Angeles Review of Books, 4 October 2021.

For more details on the 2002 PEN Congress in Macedonia, see Joanne Leedom-Ackerman’s blog post ‘PEN Journey 26: Macedonia—Old and New Millennium‘, 24 April 2020; and Victoria Glendinning and Susanna Nicklin, Boating for Beginners: 68th PEN International Congress, Ohrid, 17-24 September, 2002 (October 2002).

Artefacts of Brexit

Brexit means Brexit.

 1. Theresa May initially made the claim ‘Brexit means Brexit’ twice in quick succession: first on 11 July 2016, following her selection as leader of the British Conservative Party, and then again two days later in her inaugural speech as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It has haunted the public debate about the UK’s decision to leave the European Union ever since. For the BBC journalist Mark Mardell, it brought to mind a Zen koan; others have treated it as an object lesson in the linguistic distinction between semantics and pragmatics. From a semantic point of view, it is an empty tautology; understood pragmatically, however, its use for May at that particular moment was fairly clear. It enabled her to appear unequivocal in her support for the majority decision to leave without committing herself to any specifics. This mattered in part because May had herself voted remain in the June 2016 referendum.

2. The semantic vacuum did not stay void for long. Among the many meanings that have filled the space since 2016, two stand out in part because they were added within days of each other in the immediate run up to the UK’s formal departure from the EU on 31 January 2020. Radically different in style, substance, and purpose, to say nothing of context and legality, each in its own way reflects some of the anxieties about language, culture, community, and the state — or, rather, particular conceptions of all four and their interrelations — that fuelled Brexit.

3. The first began its public life in the early afternoon of 29 January 2020 as a debut parliamentary speech by the newly-elected Conservative MP for Devizes, Danny Kruger (and, yes, his surname indicates a complex family history). After giving a lyrical description of his Wiltshire constituency, which he called ‘the ancient heart of England’, Kruger turned to his central theme: the meaning of Brexit. It was, he said, reading from a prepared script, ‘a response to the call of home.’ 

It reflects people’s attachment to the places that are theirs. Patriotism is rooted in places. Our love of our country begins with love of our neighbourhoods. Our first loyalties are to the people we live among, and we have a preference to be governed by people we know. That impulse is not wrong; it is right.

He offered this analysis in part as a challenge to ‘some of the traditional views of both left and right’, construing the latter as a version of (Thatcherite?) liberalism, the former as some kind of statist (Corbynite?) socialism. Or, as he put it, the ‘main actor in our story is not the solitary individual seeking to maximise personal advantage, nor is it the central state enforcing uniformity from a Department in Whitehall; the main actor in our story is the local community.’

3.1 Under all this, Kruger noted, shifting into a more ‘abstract’ mode for his conclusion, lay ‘the issue of identity.’ 

We traditionally had a sense of this: we are children of God, fallen but redeemed. Capable of great wrong but capable of great virtue. Even for those who did not believe in God, there was a sense that our country is rooted in Christianity and that our liberties derive from the Christian idea of absolute human dignity.

‘Today those ideas are losing their purchase,’ he claimed, largely, it seems, under pressure from some kind of multiculturalism: ‘we are trying to find a new set of values to guide us, a new language of rights and wrongs, and a new idea of identity based not on our universal inner value or on our membership of a common culture but on our particular differences.’ How to redirect this misguided search for the new? Not by appealing to an idealized, supposedly monocultural era long gone — he acknowledges that ‘Christianity and the western past are badly stained by violence and injustice’ — but equally not by any wholesale rejection of ‘the inheritance of our culture’:

As we advance at speed into a bewildering world in which we are forced to ask the most profound questions about the limits of autonomy and what it means to be human, we may have reason to look about for the old ways and to seek wisdom in the old ideas that are, in my view, entirely timeless.

3.1.1 Kruger did not sketch the background to his ideas or reference the thinkers he admires — the English philosopher Roger Scruton is one, and he wrote his Oxford History doctorate on Edmund Burke and the constitutional crisis, 1778-1784 (2000). Picking up on the latter, Nick Timothy, former Conservative adviser and current London Daily Telegraph columnist, commented a few days later that Kruger evidently owes much to ‘the great conservative thinker, Edmund Burke.’ By way of illustration, Timothy cited the following from Reflections on the French Revolution (1790):

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.

Timothy could equally well have looked to another neo-Burkean, T.S. Eliot, who shared Kruger’s distaste for individualist liberalism and his wariness of the state as well as his commitment to localism and the Christian tradition. Yet, unlike Kruger, Eliot combined all this with a passionate, if often deeply questionable, belief in what he called ‘The Unity of European Culture‘. Eliot also had a more nuanced and challenging conception of ‘the old ideas’ and the ‘timeless’ .

Kruger speech on twitter
Kruger’s speech re-circulated via his Twitter account the day after it was delivered. This extract shows his concluding remarks.

4. A further, almost simultaneous intervention in the debates about the meaning of Brexit emerged on the morning of Friday, 31 January 2020 as an anonymous, cheaply produced A4 poster entitled ‘Happy Brexit Day’. Copies were displayed on all 15 floors of Winchester Tower, a block of council flats in Norwich, England. Once photographed, it rapidly found its way on to social then traditional media provoking widespread protest. Local police also opened an investigation into it as a racially motivated public order incident.

Happy Brexit Day sign
Poster displayed on all 15 floors of Winchester Tower, Norwich, 31 January 2020.

4.1 Designed primarily to threaten and alienate local residents, the document also captured some of the undercurrents of pro-Brexit feeling: an absolutist belief in state sovereignty (and in the EU as a colonizing force); patriotism mixed with, even defined by, hostility to immigrants; an idea of lost greatness, etc. At the same time, it recycled the most invidious of old anti-immigrant metaphors — foreigners as infection — and Trump-inspired political slogans (‘British first’ and, by implication, making the UK great again). Nothing particularly new in the emphasis it put on ‘the Queens English’ either. This too is a staple of inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric, which has a history long preceding Brexit. What the focus on language reveals, however, is the author’s (tellingly lazy? calculated?) conflation of the multinational UK state with an insular, monolingual English culture. Evidently the ‘once great island’ the author has in mind does not include Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, nor is it a place where Welsh is upheld by law, where Sinn Féin is campaigning for equal rights for the Irish language, or where around 30% of Scottish residents speak Scots.

5. Danny Kruger rightly recognizes that ‘we are trying to find a new set of values to guide us, a new language of rights and wrongs, and a new idea of identity.’ He is also surely right to anticipate a future, even ‘a bewildering world’, where ‘we’ (who exactly?) will be ‘forced to ask the most profound questions about the limits of autonomy and what it means to be human.’ A no less profound question: will ‘the inheritance of our culture’, to say nothing of Kruger’s ‘timeless’, ‘old ideas’ — think only of Burke’s militaristic metaphor of ‘the little platoon’ — be equal not only to the challenges of that future but to the energies at work in the present, which the ‘Happy Brexit Day’ poster displays in all their menacing clarity? Or will we all be wiser to look elsewhere and to other cultures for inspiration too?

The garden of the manor, the forested orchard, lay partly on the site of one vanished hamlet. Such building-over would have occurred many times before. The duplicate name of the hamlet or village, Waldenshaw — the same word (for forest or wood) in two tribal languages, both long since absorbed into other languages — the very name spoke of invaders from across the sea and of ancient wars and dispossessions here, along the picturesque river and the wet meadow.

V.S. Naipaul describing the Wiltshire landscape in The Enigma of Arrival (1987)

For more on the UK and multilingualism, see Britain must address its linguaphobia now to survive post-Brexit, How a brilliant 18th century linguist linked the Celtic languages, and Wales wants to make the Welsh language part of every lesson under new curriculum.


Language Loss: Breytenbach & Ngũgĩ

What is lost when one’s language is lost? Let others speak.

1. These words introduce §87 of the South African Constitutional Court’s 2019 ruling (Case CCT 311/17) on Stellenbosh University’s latest language policy. Once predominantly Afrikaans, the university became dual medium (Afrikaans/English) in 2014. Two years later, it committed itself to offering all its courses in English, while continuing to support Afrikaans at the undergraduate level. Writing in Afrikaans, Justice Johan Froneman concurred with the court’s ruling in favour of the new policy, but because he felt its broader consequences had to be faced squarely, he added a separate statement posing this question. In his concluding remarks, he imagines an alternative future in which the university might change its mind again, promoting ‘the progressive institutionalisation of isiXhosa, Afrikaans or English as their choice of medium of instruction on an equal basis’ (§96).

2. The first of the others Froneman lets speak is the renowned Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Using Wikipedia’s mangled rendering – corrected here – he cites a key statement from the opening of Decolonising the Mind (1986): 

Language as communication and as culture are then products of each other. Communication creates culture: culture is a means of communication. Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world. How people perceive themselves affects how they look at their culture, at their politics and at the social production of wealth, at their entire relationship to nature and to other beings. Language is thus inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with a specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the world. (p. 15-16)


3. The second is the equally renowned South African writer Breyten Breytenbach. Here Froneman quotes from the expert affidavit Breytenbach submitted in support of the plaintiffs who were contesting the university’s change in policy. Again, the original is in Afrikaans, but I use the court’s own translation with some alternative suggestions.

Language is humanity and humanity is language. Afrikaans is the living and changing and change-making [andersmakende; other-making] outcome of diverging and at times conflicting [botsende; colliding] histories. These diverse origins characterised by adaptation, conquest, subjugation, oppression, survival, resistance, transformation – descended from European dialects, Malay, Portuguese, seafarer language, Khoi languages, Arabic Afrikaans, the Qur’an and the Bible, the courts and churches and kitchens and hospitals and vineyards and factories of our country – have made Afrikaans a unique hybridisation that finds unity as a Creole language which is the verbalisation [verwoording; coming-into-words] of the complex world in which we move.


4. Underlining his central concerns, Froneman then comments: ‘Without your own language, culture is lost, a sense of self is lost. And once that happens, diversity is lost. We will lose the belief set out in the Preamble of the Constitution “that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity”’ (§88). By implication, for Froneman, Ngũgĩ and Breytenbach offer comparable and equally compelling support for his central contention: language loss not only threatens to destroy a linguistic community’s shared culture or an individual’s sense of self but to undermine the ideal of diversity as such.

5. Yet what stands out most in these two quotations, particularly when read alongside each other in this context, is the difference in the way Ngũgĩ and Breytenbach conceptualize language. For Ngũgĩ, the underlying metaphor is vehicular – ‘language carries culture’ – and the key issue is specificity – what it carries is the community’s ‘specific form and character’, its ‘specific history’, its ‘specific relationship to the world.’ Breytenbach, by contrast, highlights movement: language is ‘the living and changing and other-making’ outcome of a complex, often fraught history and of the equally ‘complex world in which we move.’ Saving a language from extinction is therefore primarily an act of conservation for Ngũgĩ: it is about preserving a relatively static ‘body of values’, perhaps even a ‘worldview’ (see the Humboldt post). Whereas, for Breytenbach, it is about keeping a particular, open-ended experiment in self-, community- and world-making alive.

6. These differences no doubt reflect the contrasting circumstances out of which their thinking emerged. For Ngũgĩ, the challenge was to reinvigorate Gĩkũyũ (currently around 7 million speakers) and other African languages, pushing back against the imposition of English in colonial Kenya and its subsequent entrenchment by state educational authorities in the post-colonial era. For Breytenbach, the task was to wrest Afrikaans (also around 7 million speakers) from the apartheid-era language planners and educationalists who wanted to shore up the supremacy of the volk – white Afrikaans-speakers as a racialised ethnolinguistic people – by championing a purist version of what they called the taaleie – the idealized, essentially metaphysical ‘genius’ or ‘spirit’ (eie) of the language (taal).

6.1 This is why Breytenbach has in the past often played on the punning and homophonic Afrikaans words ‘eie‘ (genius), ‘eier‘ (egg) and ‘eie‘ (own). In a testy exchange with his fellow mainly white Afrikaans writers in 1968, he asked: ‘Do you think that work done in the Afrikaans language can offer something to the world? That it should be sensitive and open to questions and problems which are clearly all the more international and intercultural? Or rather, that you must deliver something which is ‘own’ [eie]? (And do you believe as well that that own egg [eier] must necessarily be separate and different from any other bloke’s own?)’ – see The Literature Police (2009), p. 261.

6.1.1 Though reclaiming Gĩkũyũ and other African languages was essential to Ngũgĩ’s project of decolonisation, he too argued against ‘isolationism’, insisting on the need to maintain an openness to the wider world. ‘A study of African literature, culture and history, starting from a national base,’ he wrote at the end of Decolonising the Mind, ‘would therefore be linked with progressive and democratic trends in world literature, culture and history.’ (103) He reaffirmed and developed this commitment in Globalectics: Theory and Politics of Knowing (2012, see especially p. 42-43).

7. In his understanding of language, then, Breytenbach is more like Joyce and Tagore (see Third and Fourth Proposition), than Ngũgĩ. He is also closer to the leading South African linguist and activist Neville Alexander – a former political prisoner too, like Breytenbach and Ngũgĩ. ‘It is essential that we conceptualise the existing and evolving language communities as tributaries of a Gariep nation,’ Alexander wrote in 2001, ‘constituted by many other tributaries that originate in linguistic, religious and other cultural and regional catchment areas’ (see Artefacts of Writing (2017), p. 218). By invoking the Khoekhoe or Nama name for South Africa’s longest river – the Gariep (or !Garib) was renamed the Orange in the colonial era – Alexander was challenging the popular, but chromatically dubious, post-apartheid idea of the ‘rainbow nation’. Current estimates put the number of Khoekhoe/Nama speakers today at around 200,000.


For further developments in this debate, see the South African Government’s LANGUAGE POLICY FRAMEWORK FOR PUBLIC HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS (2020), due to come into effect in January 2022; and Unisa vs AfriForum – The ConCourt judgment, September 2021.

Slavs & Tatars Collective

Credit: Slavs and Tatars, Dig The Booty, 2009, vacuum-formed plastic, acrylic paint, 64 × 91 cm.

Booty text

For anyone interested in thinking interculturally via language, writing and translation, the Slavs and Tatars collective site is a treasure trove. It also re-imagines the relationship between the creative and the critical, the academic and the activist in inventive ways. 

Start wherever you like, but don’t miss Language Arts, the lecture-performance Transliterative Tease, the ‘Alphabet in the Boiling Pot of Politics’ chapter in Kidnapping Mountains, and the publication Wripped Scripped. Their curation of the exuberantly satirical magazine Molla Nasreddin (1906-1931) is also eye-opening.

Credit: Slavs and Tatars, Odbyt, 2015, vacuum-formed plastic, acrylic paint, 64 × 91 cm.

Odbyt text

Footnote to ‘Odbyt’: In a sequence about the vicissitudes of the Latin script in Finnegans Wake, you find these scatologically Joycean observations on the letter ‘w’, which are a little clearer in this context:

those throne open doubleyous (of an early muddy terranean origin whether man chooses to damn them agglutinatively loo too blue face ache or illvoodawpeehole or, kants koorts, topplefouls) seated with such floprightdown determination and reminding uus ineluctably of nature at her naturalest (FW, 120)


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