Writing in prison: Ampie Coetzee responds to Helize van Vuuren

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In her September 26 LitNet review of The Cambridge History of South African Literature (David Attwell and Derek Attridge eds) Helize van Vuuren refers to Daniel Roux's chapter “Writing the Prison”. Roux states, in a reference to the prison writing of Breyten Breytenbach: “Breyten Breytenbach … wrote a series of poetry anthologies in Afrikaans after his release from prison …” Van Vuuren denies this.

She is correct. These are the facts: Breytenbach wrote five books of poetry in prison. While he was in detention, Voetskrif (1976) was published by Perskor. Everything else written in prison was taken from him by the prison authorities and only on his release were they returned. They are Eclipse, (“YK”), Buffalo Bill and Lewendood.

John Miles, Ernst Lindenberg and I had started a “publishing initiative” called Taurus in 1975 as a protest against state censorship. We published several books which were in danger of being banned. But that is beside the point.

Breyten sent us the manuscripts of the four books after he had returned to Paris, and we published them, clandestinely, from 1983 to 1986. These were subsequently anthologised by Human & Rousseau in 2005 under the title Die ongedanste dans (a phrase written by Breyten as a motto to the four poetry books). In the anthology it is stated that these were the “Gevangenisgedigte” written between 1975 and 1983 while he was in prison. Two more texts were written at that time: Die glimlag and Boek, included in this anthology.

Roux also writes about the “paucity of prison writing in languages other than English”.

Breyten's prison writing – Afrikaans poetry, of which little has been translated into English – comprises an anthology of 448 pages! The quality of these verses has been maintained in the more or less 20 books written since then.

Read reviews of The Cambridge History of South African Literature by Helize van Vuuren, Andries Oliphant and Linda Kwatsha.

Read a response from Hennie van Coller regarding Helize van Vuuren’s review.

Read the response of Waldemar Gouws on Helize van Vuuren’s review.

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