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Antjie Krog and the ‘magical power of literature’ 0

South African poet and writer Antjie Krog recently gave a talk at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, republished in The (UK) Guardian this week. Krog spoke alongside Njabulo Ndebele, who is seminal to discussions on South African literature not only because of his call to include, in new South African narratives, the lives of women who quietly soldiered on, but also because of his beautifully crafted criticism reflecting on the need for his fellow writers to turn towards ‘ordinary’ subjects, after traumatic years of writing about the extraordinarily violent lives they led under apartheid.

His piece was not published by The Guardian. (You can read it here.)

We are unsure about the politics of inclusion and exclusion here; perhaps it was just a case where one writer agreed to publish in one newspaper, and the other in another. However, having both writer-critics’ talks published together would surely permit readers to think in clearer and broader critical terms about what’s at stake for literature, especially during shaky political periods.

Basically, in her talk, Krog is saying that the political has always been intertwined with the poetic in South Africa. Afrikaner and African alike, South Africans made poetic language the vehicle through which they expressed their desires for inclusion into/what it meant to experience rejection from the centres of power’s embrace. In this essay, she is able to poetically (and magically) evoke such disparate threads and braid vastly different leaders (Verwoerd and Mbeki among others) into a rope that does not — though it seems she should — hang them.

Krog is able to revisit the reviled Verwoerd with complicated adoration (although I have a hard time agreeing with her argument here — that Verwoerd did not censor the playwright NP van Wyk Louw, but ‘engaged’ him by trashing his play’s tentative questioning of nation-formation and nationalism in front of “three quarters of a million people” assembled at the Voortrekker monument). So heavy was the power Verwoerd wielded that the poet was wounded beyond the flesh. Did van Wyk Louw recover? Could the public re-embrace him after such a masterful censure (though he was not directly censored)?

These spots where I find Krog romanticising with fly whisk and magic water are the most troubling in her essay.

I’m troubled by the tendency to regard literature as a ‘solution’ in times of political trouble. As if it will magic potion away the ignorant actions of the powerful people who often control our destinies. People who are well read are often immune to others’ suffering and conversely, one may easily find illiterate people who are compassionate.

Her claim that “literature inflects the anguish of reality in a way that theoretical discussions of the same issues cannot achieve, making possible a kind of understanding not accessible by other means” also has ritualistic overtones, with ‘story’, ‘narrative’ and perhaps also ‘author’ and ‘book’ as material objects aiding transfiguration.

As I read her essay, I am waking up to an ancient Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka: monks chanting ‘pirith’: sutra and incantations to form a pearl necklace of protection around the sangha (followers) and the island. My parents’ families and ancestral homes are within earshot of Kelaniya Vihara, a renowned temple here. Waking up at 5 am to hear that rhythmic incantation through the chants of tree frogs, night birds, and still-sweeping fruit bats means I cannot dismiss the mythical ability of poetic language to alert, direct, and yes, transform the subject.

It is enchanting, quite literally.

Krog is alluding to that ability of narrative to involve the emotional, and invoke the intellectual and spiritual, to have staying power in a way that journalistic reportage cannot (today’s headline is tomorrows chip roll wrap).

It is an old theme, explored as far back as 1579, by Sir Phillip Sydney in ‘The defense of Poesy’.

I can let that cliché go, given all the homeland magic I’m experiencing at dawn. And I always remember that reading Krog’s work, I learnt a lot about what it means to be part of a tradition-bound, privileged group who reinforced their powerful positions by misusing religious texts, erroneous history, military might, political rhetoric, and yes, breathtakingly beautiful poetry about our right to a magical location.

Continue Reading on Africa is a country

By Neelika Jayawardane

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