Exploring our land, step by step

Launch of This Is My Land, 11 May 2012, Franschhoek Literary Festival, Franschhoek.


It’s half past two on the first afternoon of the Franschhoek literary festival. The Church Hall is almost full, and I’m deeply gratified to see such a large audience of primarily high school learners at a “paper poetry” event. No poetic anemia here, thank you very much. The event is the launch of the multilingual anthology This Is My Land, a collection of creative writing from the University of the Western Cape’s creative writing programme, UWC CREATES.

Duncan Brown, Dean of the Arts faculty at UWC welcomes the audience, describing This Is My Land as an “important anthology, made up of many voices and styles”. Brown introduces Meg Vandermerwe, the coordinator of UWC CREATES and a lecturer at the Department of English at UWC. Also on the panel is Sindiwe Magona, renowned author and writing fellow at UWC. The fellowship is designed to give the UWC CREATES students access to “the best local and international writers working multi-lingually or engaging in multi-cultural issues”. Antjie Krog who is the coordinator of the Afrikaans workshops, unfortunately cannot be at the launch, she is running poetry workshops at UWC as part of their open day.

Brown hands over to Vandermerwe, who extends a welcome to the learners, expressing her hope they will one day also be “up here with us”. Magona reads a poem, “The Leader”, by Asiphe Ludada, a former student whose work features in the anthology. The poem celebrates the leadership of Nelson Mandela, and Magona first reads the English translation, which she follows up with the original poem in isiXhosa. This is the only Xhosa poem read at the launch, although the anthology contains works in Xhosa (and their English translations) by Wanga Gambushe and Bulelani Peteni.

Vandermerwe then invites Shirmoney Rhode, a winner in the UWC poetry competition last year, to read the work of the Afrikaans poets featured in the anthology, who cannot be here today: Vernie Plaatjies, Ronelda Kamfer, Nathan Trantraal (a cartoonist who also designed the cover of the anthology), and Nunke Khadimo (a Khwedam speaker).

In a measured, melancholic tone, Rhode reads the poems, first in Afrikaans, then in the English translation. The audience follows closely on the photocopied extracts handed out at the door. Plaatjies’s “Gedig na wandeling deur ’n scheme” traces, through the image of a drawing pencil, the lonely wanderings of a man observing a township in the early evening, “die angs / wat hier / in ’n mens loop / diep in die skemer van die tyd”. Kamfer’s “Shaun 2”, which concludes with the speaker stating “ek glo nie meer wat mense sê nie”, is a poignant eulogy for Shaun, “fokken slim vir iemand wat net / vyf jaar skool gegaan het”, who recites poetry: “like the park birds he came early / like the water he sat down”, but who ultimately ends up “opgesluit vir een of anner / drugrelated charge”. Before Rhode reads Trantraal’s “Psychometric”, Vandermerwe notes that, although the poem contains strong language, the language is part of the character of the speaker. She points out that these voices also deserve a space. The poem, written in Kaapse Afrikaans, elicits a lively response from the audience, who laugh at the speaker’s description of his divorced uncle and aunt who have divided the Wendy in the backyard “kak normal ampe soes djy ’n brood in die helfte sal maak”, and whose “niggie Moena met die skruwwe hakke” still watches “Dragon Ball Z met die klein laities”. When Rhode reads Khadimo’s poem, “Gesprek” / “Conversation” in Afrikaans, Vandermerwe joins her in English, and the simultaneous overlap of “sit. sit. klap. click. toemaak. close. twee two / ek kan net sê ek wil iets anders wees, eland. I can only say that I want to be something else, eland. ek wil iets anders wees I want to be something else”, is particularly haunting.

Next up, Tembi Charles reads her poem, “This is our land 2”, a poem that interrogates a patriarchal claim to the land in the face of the woman left behind, who must feed “his father, his mother, his children” from this land, and ultimately poses the question: “What tales of Land, has he to tell?”

Tembi’s reading is followed by readings of prose extracts by Odwa Mendile, Jolyn Phillips, Nqabakazi Ntoni and Bronwyn Douman. Mendile reflects on the young protagonist’s experience of the tension betweem the traditional and the modern. Phillips’ idiomatic language charms the audience in her story of Fraans, whose relationship with the sea becomes an analogy for his relationship with his wife. Ntoni’s story describes the protagonist’s desire to get to know a woman shunned by the rest of her community against the backdrop of a terrible drought. Douman’s extract recounts the experience of a woman who is molested and robbed while riding third-class on a train while her partner, who “wanted to pretend to be white”, rides first-class.

The stories and poems are vivid and varied. At the end of the session, I turn to the learners sitting next to me for their opinion of the launch. The guys shyly indicate that although they don’t write, they find it interesting in relation to their schoolwork. A confident young woman sitting in front of me turns and says that she finds it very inspiring and that she “hopes to be up there” someday.

The teachers are also excited: “It’s so great to see them pushing work in translation”, says one, “it’s a slow process, but step-by-step we’re getting there”. As I leave the venue, I also feel excited. Transformation is a slow process indeed, but we’ll do it with small steps.