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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- Notes from the Middle World by Breyten Breytenbach
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