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Rustum Kozain in Conversation with Breyten Breytenbach

Rustum Kozain and Breyten Breytenbach

Rustum Kozain and Breyten BreytenbachNotes from the Middle WorldWednesday’s evening’s Book Lounge launch of Breyten Breytenbach’s Notes from the Middle World, a collection of controversial essays, was a riveting affair.

The conversation with poet Rustum Kozain – who was lauded as the leading cultural commentator following his recent deconstruction of Richard Poplak’s take on Die Antwoord – covered a broad reach of supremely pertinent topics, framed by trenchant and far-reaching questions.

In a fitting opening the author issued a generous acknowledgement that resonated through the substantial crowd: “This kind of bookstore is so precious and so wonderful. There are so few of them left in the world.”

Kozain, who has been reading Breytenbach’s books since he was a 14-year-old, claimed some anxiety about interviewing the author that so many South Africans love to hate. Breytenbach conceded a measure of nervousness of his own, but having noticed in the audience the advocate who’d saved him from many more years in jail back in the days, he was not concerned that anything too dire was imminent.

Kozain’s response to the essays and his questions reflected a deeply considered and empathic reading of the collection. He noted that this work could be viewed as the literature of witness, representing “multiple cries of despair and rage against the panoply of cultural stupidities, locally and internationally”. He asked, “What is the force that drives you to bear witness when you are exhausted by the overwhelming stupidities that confound you? Is it intellectual honesty or a personal drive to self-confession about the nature of bearing witness?”

Breytenbach noted that this book was not only about what is happening in South Africa, although many sense it as such. “I’m wanting to not write about South Africa now; I sensed I’ve reached a point of satiation where I’m just picking at a scab. In my case, I’m not sure I have much to contribute any more.”

He talked about his sense of being a writer in the contemporary world. “I grew up in a time where I was heavily influenced by those who were engaged in the what was happening in the world: Paris in the ’60s was hugely wonderful. Things were still alive, there was international solidarity and intelligent discourse. I had a long list of literary ancestors I hoped to live up to: Fanon, Camus. But I walked into many stupid situations, got involved with politics, and that’s never really gone away.”

He observed that the country is “nowhere close to what we could be and that rankles the most”. He urged writers to keep reinventing themselves, to keep exploring the interface between belonging and not belonging, to continue to reassert the “moral imagination” as they explore the ideological blindness that refuses to incorporate poor people under the current dispensation.

“Writers need to continue exploring the fine line between ethics and morals. We must establish the difference between politically correct and sloganised writing so that the words we write possess soul. We have to write with emotional gravity; with moral and ethical responsibility. What’s the use of the mind – that immensely powerful entity – if you can’t even change it?”

Watch four video clips from the occasion:

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Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    March 12th, 2010 @17:18 #

    Riveting viewing. I would have liked to see more of Rustum's questions, which seem to have been highly nuanced and interesting. The bits about Breytenbach's Romanticism and Rustum's proposal of a new culture of love (or compassion?) are particularly intriguing. I wish I could have been there, but this was the next best thing. Thanks Liesl & Ben.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    March 12th, 2010 @17:21 #

    The event of the year so far I'm sorriest to have missed. Don't you just love Rustum's handsome new facial hair?

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Sally</a>
    March 13th, 2010 @16:44 #

    @Fiona, You're right about the videos being the next best thing to being there. Am kicking myself for missing it, but the content is super fascinating. And @Helen, yes the new look is uber cool.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    March 16th, 2010 @11:42 #

    Here are the questions. Unfortunately, I didn't get round to bringing in Antjie Krog's Begging to be Black. Also, I had forgotten the last page of my questions and had to ask a shortened version of question 5:

    1. Welcome Breyten Breytenbach, to Fuckland, and to Cape Town. I’ve been wondering, is there any particular South African food that you have to have whenever you are here? Do you have a sweet tooth that craves waatlemoen konfyt or suurvygie konfyt, for instance.

    2. On some level, I read the essays in the book as multiple cries of despair and cries of rage against a host of global iniquities and cultural stupidities. I also read it as literature of witness, driven by some force to bear witness. I’m interested in what that force is.

    Because, the world around us can cause intellectual paralysis; despite people’s commitments, many are exhausted, or the stupidities so overwhelming that you don’t know where to start. So, how do you keep on going? Or, what makes you keep on raging? What makes you keep on bearing witness? Is it, on the one hand, a logical position based on a sense of intellectual honesty: i.e. you see a stupidity and you respond because it would be intellectually honest to respond? Or, is there something personal or emotional mixed in there?

    ---- E.g. In “The Afrikaner as African” you respond angrily to several issues surrounding suggestions at a conference that Afrikaners pay reparations to Africa in order to be accepted as Africans, and then you end the essay in an attempt almost to erase the preceding body: “I read the above now… and I realise that it doesn’t mean anything to me anymore”. It comes across almost as a self-conscious admission that if you do bear witness, there’s a slight recognition that it may be to no avail. At least it introduces self-doubt, yet you continue to rage. So, then, what drives you? Do you ever feel paralysed by the world’s stupidities?

    3. Not only in the title essay, but throughout most of the book you are concerned with a position best described as in-between, a position that defies stasis. In the title essay you describe this Middle World position as ‘belonging and not belonging’, in “Making being” you talk about movement – i.e. not stasis – as enabling thought, heterodox thought specifically (whereas thought from a position of stasis leads to dogma), in “The Afrikaner as African” you return again to bastard identities, and so on. And you are highly critical of any fixity or attempts to fix identities: nationalism is one such fixation, so to speak; multiculturalism, which also fixes identity especially as commodity, another; and so too the drive of the anti-hegemonic to itself become hegemonic. On some level it may even be an evolutionary legacy if we think of generational conflict where parents who once were rebellious may restrict similar rebellion in their children.

    Your own position as itinerant and your self-identification as ‘bastard’ celebrate this sense of both “belonging and not belonging” as an enabling space. But when one looks at SA, there’s a sense that people are withdrawing and hardening into their ethnic and racial identities, despite what may obtain in the workplace or in select middle-class social groupings. How do you propose the average South African overcomes anxieties about this fluidity and uncertainty? How do people de-racinate voluntarily?

    (Connect with Antjie Krog, Begging to be Black)

    4. In reviews of Veil of Footsteps, and in one I’ve seen of the new book, your prose has been criticised for being fragmented or lacking cohesion. While I think an objective case can be made for such criticism, (although one has to except an essay like Mandela’s Smile) I read the essays through different frames. One, I read it through a poetical frame and consider some of the essays as fragmentary in a modernist sense, a kind of “Waste Land” in prose. Second, I read them as essays by a man who has reached the age where he doesn’t care – not as a disrespectful gesture towards readers, but in the sense that he trusts his mind where it goes, and speaks it. Or, reading it as Romantic: the writer as mystic, griot, seer. I mean, we’ve reduced our writers to fragmented commodities, everyone answering a niche as only part of a postmodern publishing machine, so I am happy to take on board such lack of cohesion as part or element of a certain kind of testimony.

    I’m not suggesting that your work is above criticism; but I just wonder what your own attitude is to the fragmentary nature of some of your prose…

    5. I’d like to focus for a bit now on “Mandela’s Smile”, your searing critique of present-day SA, which not surprisingly caused some controversy in local newspapers last year, and with which I believe most people here are familiar, if not having read it. But I first want to do some groundwork in framing the essay by considering how people may respond to your piece.
    a) right-wing doom prophets may retort and say “We told you so”
    b) left-wing commentators may say something similar: The ANC was a populist organisation that focused on apartheid at the cost of understanding South Africa as capitalist first and foremost; simply aiming at apartheid was going to be inadequate in any case. Which is what some people were saying back in the 1980s. So no surprise that an organisation with no clear-cut economic analysis is floundering.

    But I’m not interested in these particular responses because, in my reading, the essay speaks to, and speaks even for, those of us who, not members of the ANC per se, but who supported and believed in the broad aims of the anti-apartheid struggle, now feel that those aims have been largely betrayed. And I want to frame it in terms of its emotional register because, to many people, SA politics is a disease of the blood. We feel our politics. And beyond the betrayals that lie in policy and statistics, it is the betrayal of the faithful, it is the betrayal of that thing that courses in our vein that is the worst, most hurtful betrayal.

    And I think the essay is important because it opens up that vein of emotion as a shibboleth by which to approach present-day SA. We may be passionate and emotional when we talk politics, but we seldom talk about those emotions as emotions. So I read “Mandela’s Smile” as a love letter from the angrily broken-hearted and I wonder about ways to address a deteriorating conversation in terms of that broken-heartedness, i.e. through the metaphor of “Love”. The oppression of black people through colonialism and apartheid as a rejection – how do we address that lingering broken-heartedness? The betrayal of the broad ideals of an anti-apartheid struggle – how do we address that broken-heartedness (for intellectuals as much as for poor black people). And, more and more, an increasing white lower middle class and working class broken-heartedness through a sense of disempowerment. How do all these broken-hearted people address each other’s broken-heartedness?

    Could you comment on the emotional wellspring on Mandela’s Smile?

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    March 16th, 2010 @12:01 #

    Now why does that first question not surprise me in the least?


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