Poets on pilgrimage


THE WITNESS ( A South African newspaper)

Poets on pilgrimage
09 Oct 2009

Stephen Coan

POET, playwright, novelist, academic and diplomat Malawian David Rubadiri, a grand old man of African letters, spoke of being “on pilgrimage” in South Africa when giving the keynote address on the opening night of Poetry Africa earlier this week.

Rubadiri’s pilgrimage had led him to the Centre for African Literary Studies (Cals) on the university’s Pietermaritzburg campus where he has spent several weeks reading and researching. “I am enriching myself … and something might come out of that,” he said when we chatted there last week.

As a boy, Rubadiri attended King’s College in Budo, Uganda, a school initially founded in 1906 to educate the sons of chiefs but later it was opened to all. There Rubadiri began “fumbling around with short stories” that were duly published in the school magazine. Rubadiri went on to study in England, including a stint at Cambridge where his English tutor was E. M. Forster. “He was a very loveable kind of person. His work had a great influence on me, not just his novels but the essays collected in Two Cheers for Democracy.”

Rubadiri subsequently became Malawi’s first ambassador to the United States and to the United Nations following Malawian independence in 1964. In 1965, he fell foul of President Hastings Banda and went into exile. His 1971 novel No Bride Price was critical of the Banda regime. “One felt angry — Dr Banda turned like a chameleon into a different kind of person.”

Rubadiri was reappointed Malawi’s Permanent Representative at the UN after Banda’s death and subsequently became vice chancellor at the University of Malawi, retiring in 2004, leaving him free to go on pilgrimage.

Turkish poet Ilyas Tunç had also made something of a pilgrimage to Poetry Africa, from the village of Sinop on the Black Sea coast of Turkey where he is enjoying a prolific retirement after many years as an English teacher. “Poetry can bridge countries, differences, cultures and traditions,” he says. Tunç built many of those bridges himself, translating South African poets into Turkish — an anthology featuring 40 South African poets is about to go to press. They can also be read in a literary supplement published weekly in a Turkish national newspaper with a circulation of 80.000 which means more people are reading South African poets in Turkey than here. 

Tunç first made contact with South African poets via the Internet: “I found a poem by Karen Press on the Internet. I managed to find her e-mail address and contacted her and she linked me to other poets.”

Another poet at home on the Internet is Liesl Jobson, who works as a journalist for the South African literary website Book SA. She’s also published 100 Papers, a collection of prose, poems and flash fiction — “as haiku is to poetry, so flash fiction is to the short story: condensed, tight, tiny” — and a poetry collection, View From an Escalator.

“Wheels within wheels” is how Jobson sees the relationship of her Internet journalism to her other writing. “When one cares about the literature of a country there is a desire to get involved. Working on the website allows me to engage with people, to talk about poetry and literature — it feeds one’s own artistic endeavours.”

Jobson is also a musician. She has a B.Mus degree and plays the bassoon, occasionally in the concert hall. “I’m on the B-lis­t, they use me when no one on the A- list is available”

Jobson says her musical training benefits her writing. “It gives you the capacity to listen to rythms, to think structurally about your writing, to hold multiple voices and themes together. And there is also the discipline of daily practice,” something she has transferred to her writing and a discipline she thinks everyone would find useful. “If I was president I would make everyone write a poem once a week.”

Sindiwe Magona has been writing poems since school days in the Transkei where she was born. “But I kept them to myself,” she told me.

Magona is an award-winning author of plays and novels. “Feisty” is how the Washington Post described her autobiography To My Children’s Children. The adjective is one she herself lives up to. Magona obtained her matric by correspondence while she was a single mother of three, of no fixed abode, and while working as a domestic servant.

She subsequently obtained a BA from the University of South Africa, as well as a M.Sc in organisational social work from Columbia University. In 1993, Hartwick College (U.S.) awarded her an honorary doctorate in humane letters and in 1997, she was a fellow of the New York Foundation of the Arts in the nonfiction category. She worked as a translator at the UN in New York for 20 years. Her first collection of poetry, Please, Take Photographs, was launched at Poetry Africa.

Magona first went public as a poet after a 1994 visit to a South Africa which was gearing up for its first fully democratic elections. “I wrote a poem that I felt so strongly about that I read it in a café in New York.”

The poem was called Fear of Change. “I was on holiday and I saw such hope on people’s faces and it just frightened me. I knew those hopes were going to be dashed.”

“These people were going to vote — but what’s that going to change in your life? That is what frightened me.

“Life doesn’t change because you can vote, it changes because you do something about your life. Political change is not social transformation.”