The representation of “imagined Africas” in the poetry of Breyten Breytenbach from 1984–2014

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  1. Introduction

For the purposes of this paper, I would like to tell you about my research project for the next two years. Last year, I was fortunate to receive funding from Unisa’s VisionKeepers Programme (VKP), which involves a collaboration with an international research mentor for two years. As part of the programme, the mentor and mentee visit each other’s respective universities to participate in events and produce research outputs. My mentor is Professor Yves T’Sjoen from Ghent University in Belgium. The project is entitled “The representation of ‘imagined Africas’ in Breyten Breytenbach’s poetry from 1984 to 2014”.

  1. Background and contextualisation

In this research project, I will examine the various “imagined Africas” in the poetry of Breytenbach from 1984 to 2014. To contextualise the project, I will take as a point of departure Breytenbach’s keynote address he delivered at the University of Pretoria in October 2016, entitled “Modernities and our inner Africas” (2018:5–17). In this address, Breytenbach makes the following comment:

A trope of the past used to be: It is impossible to see South Africa whole. This is true of the entire continent. The absence of a smooth, all-encompassing, unitary vision of what it means to be African – despite attempts to root such a make-believe entity in the awareness that the concept “African” signifies being oppressed and exploited, and hence the repeated attempts to overcome these by positing a rebirth to deal with history once and for all – this “absence” of vision is experienced as an obfuscation or a lack of purpose that can be ascribed, it is now argued, to the contamination by non-Africans. But could it not also imply that to be African is to be multiple and diverse? Why should we submit to being defined negatively? Why be outlined and inked in at all? By whom? Can it not be that the texture of our specificities and the flow of our interactions, often rough, constitute our collective being? More: that we are doomed and privileged to keep on having to situate and describe ourselves? Absence brings about the movement of searching.

In this extract, I imagine Breytenbach relates the “past” to apartheid South Africa, that is, to the past as a problematic construct. Although the trope is still valid for South Africa, it is even more accurate for the rest of Africa, which, because of the juxtaposition of the expression in his speech, implies that we still do not deal with Africa’s problems in a similarly productive way. Breytenbach also asks why we should submit to being defined so negatively, suggesting that being African, which is a subjective construct anyway, instead links to what is “multiple and diverse”. This account also relates to Breytenbach’s essay, “Imagining Africa” (2009:53–69), written in 2005, in which he comments:

The “world” – significant sectors of it, at least – objected to black people in South Africa being killed and oppressed just because they were black, and we supported the struggle for justice. Could we say there was as much outrage when genocide took place in Rwanda …? Are we similarly concerned about what happened in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Somalia, about what is being done to people in Darfur and in Zimbabwe and in the Congo, or the threatened mass killings in Côte d’Ivoire – and are we as engaged in trying to prevent these conflicts? Why not? Because they are faraway places with little impact on the equilibrium of forces in the world and have scant market value? (Breytenbach, 2009:56)

  1. Research questions

In her chapter entitled “The poet in Africa: The construction of Africa in Breyten Breytenbach’s poetry”, Louise Viljoen (2014:820) makes the following conclusion: “[T]here is no poet in Afrikaans who has such an intimate relationship with and lived-in experience of Africa in his poetry as Breytenbach” (my translation – AR). He is “the Afrikaans poet who writes in the most sustained and constant way on what it means to be an African” (my translation – AR). Viljoen comes to this conclusion after providing an overview of his early work (from 1964 to 1974), his prison poems (1975–1983) and the work published after 1994.

Viljoen focuses only on Breytenbach’s poetic oeuvre and mentions that the construction of Africa has already been investigated in his prose works, public statements and paintings. She refers in detail to the research of JU Jacobs on Breytenbach’s “writing Africa” and Marilet Sienaert’s investigation into identity formation in Breytenbach’s writing and painting with specific reference to Africa. In this way, Viljoen takes a look at the most critical studies of Breytenbach and Africa. Her study provides much of the background for the project that I will be working on.

For my project, which I will conduct in 2019 and 2020, I am especially interested in Breytenbach’s idea of “imagining Africa”, which is in line with his “Imagine Africa” project at the Gorée Institute in Dakar, Senegal. My project will seek to:

  1. explore the historical component of Breytenbach’s work linked to the “Imagine Africa” project at the Gorée Institute;
  2. critically evaluate Breytenbach’s philosophical essays on what it means to be “African”, using Karl Popper’s critical rationalism;
  3. analyse and interpret Breytenbach’s poems that represent Africa in variegated ways from 1984 to 2014; and
  4. expand the investigation by making a comparison with other poets’ writings about Africa, for example, the three volumes of Imagine Africa (2014), of which Breytenbach is one of the editors.
  • The historical aspect

In her article “Africa and identity in the art and writing of Breyten Breytenbach”, Marilet Sienaert works from the idea that the autobiographical tone of Breytenbach’s writing problematises the aspect of identity and self-representation in his work. Sienaert (1999:80) asks to what extent identity links with a place, to examine the relationship between Africa and the self. It is useful to consider a brief overview of Breytenbach’s life as Sienaert outlines it in her article.

Breyten left South Africa in the early sixties, and settled with his Vietnamese wife Huang Lien (Yolande) in Paris. Although European art exerted a significant influence on his work, Sienaert notes that readers of his work remained “acutely aware” of the “umbilical cord” that linked Breytenbach to Africa. However, when he returned to his native country in 1974, he was arrested for undermining political activity and imprisoned for seven years. Sienaert (1999:81) points out that during this period, his poetry was incited by the “hardships of prison life and his resistance against the system”, and he produced some of his most extraordinary poetry.

After being released in 1982 and returning to France, he accepted French citizenship. During this period, he started a new link with North and West Africa to counteract the sense of alienation. Sienaert (1999:82) shows how Return to paradise (1993) is set mostly in Senegal, the colours and themes of which also infiltrate his poetry – compare, in this case, the three island poems in Nege landskappe van ons tye bemaak aan ’n beminde (1993) (Roux, 2015:94–113).

The most important historical aspect I would like to investigate in my project is Breytenbach’s essays about Africa and the meaning of being an African, the published texts of which were not available in 1999. Sienaert (1999:85–6) writes the following:

[Breytenbach’s] groundedness in Africa also finds persistent expression in a relatively new but more and more predominant branch of Breytenbach’s work, namely the philosophical essays, many of which are written for and in the context of the Gorée Institute’s activities. This institute was set up in the early eighties when a group of influential Afrikaners met with a delegation from the then banned African National Congress in the city of Dakar. Breytenbach was instrumental in negotiating the establishment of a Pan African Institute on nearby Gorée, the small island and last foothold of slaves exported to the New World. It is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. The Gorée Institute operates as a think tank for democracy, culture and development in Africa, and since its inception has been pivotal in forging links between West and South Africa. Breytenbach’s commitment to the mission of the institute, as well as his participation in numerous workshops there, have led to a number of essays – some yet to be published – which further reveal how this particularly African sense of self informs his thinking. (Sienaert, 1999:85–6)

The questions that arise from this are: What is the history of the Gorée Institute, and what role did Breytenbach play in this? Which texts have seen the light that Breytenbach specifically worked on? How do these texts shed light on his “Imagine Africa” project?

  • The philosophical component

The philosophical component of what it means to be African, and how to imagine Africa differently, flows directly from the historical element. As previously mentioned, for the aim of my project I am going to examine two texts: “Imagining Africa”, an essay Breytenbach wrote in Potsdam in 2005, and “Imagine Africa”, a keynote address he delivered at the ARTerial. Congress on the island of Gorée in March 2007. The question arises what Breytenbach wants to convey with the phrase “Imagine Africa”, and is summarised as follows:

  1. To see Africa for what it is – “[W]e believe it is possible and very necessary to see the continent as clearly, and therefore as imaginatively, as we can … What, if any, are the characteristics we share and collectively call ‘African’ from Cairo to the Cape, from Dakar to Mogadishu? Are we talking history? Culture? Economics? Race? Or just this sad space between potential and shattered dreams? … Is there any state on the continent, South Africa included, that can look after the legitimate expectations and needs of citizens?” (Breytenbach, 2015:117)
  2. To investigate the relationship between what is imaginary and what is real – “We know that in order to progress, we must stretch for something just out of reach – if only for a life that will be more compassionate and decent than the cruelty, paranoia, greed, narrow corporatism and narcissism we mostly indulge in and find such ample justification for. And so, we dream. There’s the personal dream to come to terms with the inevitability of being finite; there’s the communal one of justice and freedom upon which we hope to secure the survival of the group. And then, there is the dimension of moral imagination”. (Breytenbach, 2015:119)
  • To explore what expectations we set for young people – “[W]hat kind of ‘Imagine Africa’ can we hold up to the young?” (Breytenbach, 2015:121)
  • Theoretical exploration

 I will make use of Karl Popper’s critical rationalism, especially concerning his “truthfulness index” (my translation – AR), in which one can estimate different degrees of truthfulness. The summary looks like the following:

P1 à TT à EE à P2, etc

P1 = Initial problem
TT = Tentative theory
EE = Eliminate errors
P2 = Problem 2

Faure and Venter (1995:40) believe the scheme indicates the increase in knowledge, according to which “every person ... is always confronted by a problem situation, and where he formulates tentative solutions (theories) to eliminate the problem. Knowledge grows by eliminating contradictions and errors through systematic and rational criticism” (my translation – AR). According to this summary, I plan to engage with the arguments put forward by Breytenbach in his philosophical essays.

  • The poetic component

The study will focus on Breytenbach’s work from 1984 to 2014 to examine the representation of Africa in his poems, and to see how the concept of “African” figures in his work. The poetry collections include all the volumes included in his collection Die singende hand: Versamelde gedigte 1984–2014, which include Soos die so (1991), Nege landskappe van ons tye bemaak aan ’n beminde (1993), Papierblom (1998), Die windvanger (2007), Oorblyfsel/Voice over (2009), Die beginsel van stof (2011), Katalekte (2012) and Vier-en-veertig skemeraandsange (2014). I will also compare Breytenbach’s poems with those of other poets who contributed to the Imagine Africa anthologies.

  1. Conclusion

Breytenbach’s involvement with Africa and his conception of what it means to be African are what interest me, not just because of the way he portrays them philosophically in his essays and speeches, but also because of the historical activities of the founding of the Gorée Institute in Dakar, Senegal. Through the VisionKeepers research collaboration project, I hope to describe the past events leading to the founding of the Gorée Institute, critically evaluate its philosophical work on what it means to be African, analyse and interpret Breytenbach’s poetry, and compare it with other poets’ work. In doing so, I hope to uncover multiple and diverse visions of Africa and what it means to be African.

Sources consulted

Breytenbach, B. 1990. Soos die so: Toktokkie se nagregister. Emmarentia: Taurus.

____. 1993. Nege landskappe van ons tye bemaak aan ʼn beminde. Groenkloof/Somerset-Wes: Hond/Intaka.

____. 1993. Return to paradise: An African journal. Kaapstad: David Phillip.

____. 2007. Die windvanger. Kaapstad: Human & Rousseau.

____. 2008. A veil of footsteps: Memoir of a nomadic fictional character. Kaapstad: Human & Rousseau.

____. 2009. Notes from the Middle World. Chicago: Haymarket Books, pp 53–69.

____. 2009. Oorblyfsel: Op reis in gesprek met Magmoed Darwiesj [Voice over: The nomadic conversation with Mahmoud Darwish]. Kaapstad: Human & Rousseau.

____. 2011. Die beginsel van stof (laatverse, sprinkaanskaduwees, aandtekeninge). Kaapstad: Human & Rousseau.

____. 2012. Katalekte (artefakte vir die stadige gebruike van doodgaan). Kaapstad: Human & Rousseau.

____. 2014. Vyf-en-veertig skemeraandsange uit die eenbeendanser se werkruimte. Kaapstad: Human & Rousseau.

____. 2015. Parole: Versamelde toesprake / Collected speeches. Kaapstad: Penguin Books, pp 117–25.

____. 2016. Die singende hand: Versamelde gedigte 1984–2014. Kaapstad: Human & Rousseau.

____. 2018. “Modernities and our inner Africas”. Tydskrif vir letterkunde, 55(1):5–17.

Faure, M and Venter, A. 1995. “Karl Popper se kritiese rasionalisme.” In: J Snyman Wetenskapsbeelde in die geesteswetenskappe. Pretoria: RGN, pp 35–64.

Couto, M, Mukasonga, S and Chiziane, P. 2014. Imagine Africa. Gorée: Priogue.

Roux, AP. 2015. “’n Vergelykende ondersoek na landskap as woon in die latere poësie van Breyten Breytenbach en Lucebert”. Ongepubliseerde PhD-proefskrif, NWU.

Sienaert, M. 1999. “Africa and identity in the art and writing of Breyten Breytenbach”. Alternation, 6(2):80–9.

Viljoen, L. 2014. Die mond vol vuur: Beskouings oor die werk van Breyten Breytenbach. Stellenbosch: Sun Press.

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