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She is the female Pablo Neruda of Afrikaans – said South African literary scholar Joan Hambridge, years ago, about the poet and writerAntjie Krog, born in 1952. In South Africa – that mix of people which overcame the horrific apartheid under its first black president, Nelson Mandela, in 1994 – Krog’s voice had a nearly iconic character in her texts accompanying, from the start, the long and difficult path of the nation with great empathy and boldness. In her youth, born in a white African family, she had already opposed the apartheid. In 1970, when the racial politics of governing Prime Minister Johannes Vorster were more or less at their height, the 17-year-old wrote for the student newspaper a poem as elegant as penetrating, denouncing apartheid. Most astounding about this first act of political rebellion is the fact that Krog grew up in the “closed off” world of whites. Her first contact with blacks holding a university degree did not occur until the age of twenty-two. She studies Afrikaans, English studies and philosophy – and makes a name for herself, on the side, as a poet. In 1971, when Krog is no more than eighteen, her first book of poetry appears: “Dogter van Jefta” (Jefta’s Daughter). The title is direction-setting. Like with all her (to date eleven!) volumes of poems, the main focus is on female realms of experience and related themes. But Krog, who, for example, gives ongoing instruction from 1986 to 1987 at a college for black South Africans, never allows apartheid and a specific political dimension to escape her gaze. The difficult and always ambivalent determination of the identity in the interface between the private and the public, inclusion and exclusion, forms the core questions of her poetry as writer and lyricist. This is once again reflected in her newest 2006 collection of poems, “Body Bereft,” not written in Afrikaans but rather in English. In this body of work, Krog boldly explores the aging of one’s own body and, using exactly measured but nevertheless tenderly wild images, searches for a language in which to convey, for instance, the both socially and aesthetically taboo topic of female menopause. In such a country, said Krog, in Cape Town, during her opening speech at the “2012 Open Book Festival”, whose fundament is of a thoroughly political nature, the question whether literature should be political is not necessary. In such a country, every artwork per se assumes a political standpoint. From the start of her career Krog also takes up position as a journalist. In 1974 she published her first article. From 1993 to 1994 she worked as editor of a pace-setting, leftist magazine known then as “Die Suid-Afrikaan”. She changed to radio and, beginning 1996, became the significant voice to continually report on Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The poet Antije Krog turns herself into Antjie Samuel, the chronicler of an aegis of crime and inhumanity. This work makes her more famous than ever before. In order to process the vast suffering brought to light she captures the stories of victims and offenders. In 1988 she publishes “Country of My Skull”, the moving document of a nation which, for the sake of the future, focuses on the mirror of its past. According to Krog, quoted from an article, “every South African” possesses only half a memory – a white or black one. (…) For the first time, via the Truth Commission, there is a mutual, successive memory of South Africa’s past (in: Manfred Loimeier: Word Exchange. Conversations with African Writers. Horlemann Verlag, 2002, p.124.) “Country of My Skull” is a brilliant memoir, not only form-wise: Krog falls back upon stylistic features from journalism as well as from poetry. Most significantly, however, Krog shapes with this book a concept of the truth from the vantage point of a specific “African” philosophy: This truth is not founded purely on legal justice, but rather as an act of collective memory that gives everyone a voice. Not set-off or revenge, but rather to mutually grasp recognition and forgiveness. Forgiveness, justice, truth, and memory become from now on a central moment of Krog’s literary commitment for the new South Africa. In 2003, she recapitulates in “A Change of Tongue”, once again showing a formal mix from fictional, poetic, and the autobiographical to reportage elements which effortlessly blend together – how the country, after the first ten years of democratic elections, had developed and changed. In addition, “Country of My Skull” and “Change of Tongue” number since then among the ten best books of the new democracy. A third volume followed in 2009: “Begging to Be Black”. Like the previous books written in English, this, too, is a lucid inquiry of her own location as a former involuntarily privileged white meanwhile considered the minority in a country in which the blacks, although the majority, were in former times oppressed and currently form the norm and the standards. Krog asks, “As a white citizen can one ‘become black’”? – and undertakes, based on a personal experience, in 1992, a journey through time and space, back to the historic figure of the Basotho king Moshoeshoe, who, in the nineteenth century, sought to get along with the first western missionaries and settlers. More intensely than before, Krog studies the boundaries of a specific African perspective based on history and representation, on inclusion and exclusion. “Attachment”, by the way, was among the political mottos for Moshoeshoe’s social practice. Celebrated with numerous international prizes and honorary doctor titles, Krog, in her way, executes this “attachment” in her own way, not least of all as poet, by translating from other African languages. “There exists”, says Krog, in the above mentioned conversation with Manfred Loimeier, “many voices and many colors, but what matters most is the color of the heart.” One can confidently say that hers is black through and through.

Text: Claudia Kramatschek
English translation: Karl Edward Johnson


Print
Antjie Krog: “The Reason Why People Like Poetry Has To Do With What They Hear When They Read.” In: Manfred Loimeier. Word Exchange. Conversations with African Writers. Horlemann Verlag, pp.120 – 127, 2002
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