An Interview with Breyten Bretenbach

Tips for writing in prison:
Poetry is easier than fiction
Self-criticism will fade
Mentioning food is a bad idea

An Interview with Breyten Bretenbach

Tips for writing in prison:
Poetry is easier than fiction
Self-criticism will fade
Mentioning food is a bad idea

An Interview with Breyten Bretenbach

Anne Landsman
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Breyten Breytenbach was born in Bonnievale, South Africa. Boys like Breyten—the third of four children in a staunchly Afrikaner family—were raised to become soldiers, farmers, preachers, trained from an early age to uphold the apartheid status quo. Breytenbach went his own way, registering at the English-speaking University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art, and then leaving his native land a few years later, without a word to his family, on a Portuguese steamer headed for Europe. In Paris, he became a committed anti-apartheid activist, as well as a Zen Buddhist. Breytenbach has always lived many lives—while working clandestinely with Okhela, a resistance group fighting apartheid in exile, he also painted, wrote poetry, and began to receive accolades from the Afrikaner literary establishment for his heartbreaking poems of loss and exile, evoking the unforgettable South African landscape as well as excoriating his own people for the iniquities of their political system. On a return trip to South Africa in 1975, he was captured and imprisoned under provisions of the Terrorism Act.

It’s thirty years later now, and apartheid is over. Breytenbach has been out of jail for almost twenty-four years and has continued to produce a staggering body of work—more than thirty volumes of poetry, including The Iron Cow Must Sweat, Footscript, and Lady One; several novels; a renowned four-volume memoir which includes The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, written after his release from prison; short-story compilations; essays; and plays. He’s also the executive director of the Gorée Institute, a center for democracy, development, and culture in Africa, situated on an island in the Bay of Dakar. In the fall he teaches at New York University’s creative writing program. We met in his office on Waverly Place, not far from Washington Square Park. The room was spare, and we faced each other across a bare desk, uncluttered save for the digital recording device I had just purchased. I couldn’t help recalling his layered descriptions of being interrogated by the South African security police and hoped that for him this was not a déjà vu of some kind.

—Anne Landsman


THE BELIEVER: In Confessions of an Albino Terrorist you write,“Excuse me for taking refuge in my own language. There’s always another language behind the present one. There’s always another world living in the shadow of the one we share, there is forever another room behind this one, and in this other room is another man sitting with a little tape recorder whispering in his own ears saying there’s another world parallel to this one, there’s another language on the other side of the wall being spoken by another man holding a little instrument…” I was thinking about the rooms and the tape recorders and the men, and I was wondering, with all the languages you speak, how many rooms there actually are.

BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: There are several. If you linked them to language, then there would be several. For instance, for me, languages to some extent go with places. And I know that the only way that I can more or less not lose sight of myself or the other one that I’m traveling with is by switching off totally from one to the other. There is not very much continuity. When I go to South Africa I switch off whatever life I may have here or whatever life I may have in West Africa or in Europe, and then become part of that life down there again, for whatever short sort of period maybe. Of course, that has to do with the language and that has to do with the people, your friends.

BLVR: Do you speak Afrikaans, just exclusively Afrikaans, in South Africa?

BB: No, no, obviously not, but essentially, essentially. Essentially because the people I’m with, friends, old friends, family to some extent, they are Afrikaans-speaking people. And, of course, when you go to South Africa to a small rural town like Montagu, it’s essentially Afrikaans-speaking. And that brings with it its own world of reference, its own codes, its own sense of humor, its own horizon of events, which are different, definitely different from what I experience in Dakar, and certainly different from what I experience in Paris, and certainly different from what life is like here in New York. So these are other rooms, but I have a real sense of moving from one to the other and closing the door behind me, and being in another room, and trying to live accordingly.

BLVR: When you are in a country, do you then dream in that language?

BB: I do. But I think it depends on the dream, it depends what’s going on in a dream. I actually wrote about this recently. I was in Salt Lake City two or three weeks ago and wrote about going back to Bamako, in Mali, and spending time there. There are little pieces of prose, a piece about three pages, starts off as a dream. I dreamt I wanted to go back to Bamako, and then I go into what I remember of Bamako and dreaming while I was in Bamako. I woke up while I was down there, with a phrase, the last phrase, just before waking up, which had three languages in it.“Hier en daar is still the best endroit to be.” I think that was the phrase. But that in itself is problematical. “Here and there is still the best place to be.” Here—and there.

BLVR: And that was the phrase that you woke up with?

BB: That was the phrase. It carried three different language words in that one short sentence. I remember other occurrences like that where I would wake up and remember perhaps something that I just dreamt about in terms of words and it would be in several languages. And the grammatical demands of the words or the language didn’t seem to matter… And I thought that was very odd. It seemed to suggest to me that at least in certain states the mind, although it is reacting verbally, is using words perhaps in a slightly different way from what one would do if you do it subconsciously when you’re awake.


BLVR: I’m very interested in the way you fit into that whole world of Afrikaans literature. In 1973 when you addressed the Cape Town summer school, you spoke about the trap of Apartaans and how Afrikaans needed to be rethought at that time and made into something else. You said,“Ours has become a fecal language,” and I assume you used the word kak for that. In another place you mention Afrikaans as being at the core of your problem, your sense of complicity, and when you were being interrogated how it was this notion of being connected and separated at the same time.

BB: Ja, sure, sure.

BLVR: And those two, again those two—this intimacy, this intensity of feeling and passion and connection, and then complete alienation in the same moment, and the complicity, too. The other language that brings this to mind is German, but Afrikaans is a very special case.

BB: Ours is a very special case, although I think German has interesting comparative characteristics, at least the way people felt about it. I often think about the poems of somebody like Paul Celan… He grows up in Germany but he’s not German, he’s Romanian from somewhere in a distant province of Romania. His parents get killed in the Holocaust. I’m not sure whether he was actually taken to a camp or not, but in any case he survives. He’s about the only one of his family who does. He goes to live in Paris, he never really lives in Germany, but he writes, keeps writing in German. And the question is then, “How do I continue writing in the German that killed my mother?” And he does fascinating things linguistically with the language, manages to undo it and to put it together again in different ways that make it far more knotty, far more visceral in a sense, but it’s still German. One could say perhaps he did that partly because he was not living in Germany. Could he have done it differently, had he wanted to? Or is this another project of coming to some kind of comfort with the fact that this is the language in which he’s going to live? In that first reference you made—summer school ’73 that would be—I said Afrikaans was a bastard language, Afrikaners were a bastard people using a bastard language. And that was the reference that people resented immensely. I remember viciously angry editorials in Die Burger and in other newspapers, a strong reaction, including from the academic community, because until that time the dominant perception was that Afrikaans was the youngest of the Germanic languages, the prince of the Germanic languages… One can see in retrospect why it was done, why this perception was created, fabricated. Afrikaans came about obviously with a particular history. It has a close relationship with a number of seventeenth century Dutch dialects, but it was profoundly modified by Malay Portuguese, by Khoi languages in the country. It is really a Creole language. It came about in the mouths of people who were not European descendants who worked for white masters. Some of them came from Indonesia, some of them came from Madagascar, some of them were from inside the country. None of them had Dutch, and they had to learn the Dutch, they had to communicate with one another and communicate with the master in this approximation of Dutch, and I think that’s how Afrikaans came about—intimacy and alienation at the same time, inside and outside at the same time. I’m in a very alienated frame of mind when it comes to identity, because I know that I could pass for Afrikaans, I could pass for Afrikaner. I’m not sure what I mean when I say that, because there’s nothing outside that that would be a fixed point that I would then return to, if I’m not passing for Afrikaner, and that would also be passing for something else. I said in poem once somewhere, I’m a French… just one of those French with a slight speech impediment. The other day when I was in Salt Lake City somebody was remarking upon the fact that—I think it’s mistaken—when I speak English there’s a slight French accent there. When I speak Dutch, people pick up something. When I speak French, people say, “Oh, there’s a bit of Spanish accent in there.” And, of course, when I speak German, people say, “Ah, yes, I can hear that you’re from Holland, it’s a Dutch accent.” So it’s a kind of a movable accent. Maybe that’s all I can finally reduce myself to, an accent without a language.


BLVR: Well, we can talk about literature and about language, but in the middle of the whole story are all those years in jail. What do those seven years do in the middle of your life? What does that feel like now, from the perspective of many years later? You’ve been out for—

BB: A long time.

BLVR: A long time. So now where do those seven years fit into your life as a whole when you look back?

BB: I wonder. I wonder. Let’s put it this way: You live to the age of, say, twenty-five or twenty-six, never knowing that you’ve got blue eyes, because it’s not really important; you never look at yourself. You know, you’re not aware of it. And then something happens, maybe because you’re at the point of losing sight or some operation has to be carried out, and all of a sudden you become intensely aware of the fact of having blue eyes. And then you go beyond that experience, you still see things the same way, except now you know you’ve got blue eyes and you haven’t got whatever you thought before, the absence of color. In other words, I’m aware obviously in one way that those seven years have profoundly colored whatever way I look at the world now and the way in which I live it now. I can’t say that it’s a trauma or it’s something I often think about. I’m not even sure whether I still can measure the extent to which it changed me, modified the way I live or go among people. I’m aware of it to some extent but it comes back in flashes. For instance, I know that I’m nearly instinctively attracted or alerted by anything to do with prisons. When I read about that or when I hear about it—like these things coming up over the last days, these secret prisons of the Americans that they have in various parts of the world—that sets off immediately a resonance, probably different I would imagine than it would be for people who hadn’t been in prison. Similarly, obviously I think even now still, I probably instinctively recognize other people who have been in prison, not even necessarily South Africans but in other parts of the world. There’s something I’ve written about it. It’s not yet been published. I think I told you a few years ago, I was asked to go and give a talk to a convention of screws, of warders in Holland, it was something like… [Laughs] It was the weirdest damn experience.

BLVR: [Laughs] I would have remembered that.

BB: The Dutch Ministry of Justice had this incongruous idea of inculcating a sense of humanitarian values in warders, and there’s apparently an international association of warders. So there were guys from Azerbaijan to Chile to Italy… It was the weirdest damn experience. And they invited me. I didn’t know what I was being invited for, except I got there and found myself the only Christian among the lions or the only lion among the Christians. And it was in an isolated place, if you can imagine in Holland one can still find this. And it was supposed to be a three-day conference, and the second day I was supposed to give my keynote speech over a dinner. It was the weirdest damn thing, because, of course, to listen to the way they talk to one another, they compare, they talk about what they do. And when they try to be “modern,” talking of prisoners as economic units, or this is a profitable way of running a prison or not a profitable way, including the way prisons are constructed. In other words, how can you construct it so you have a minimum of actual personnel looking after the inmates, after the economic units, so it’s circular as opposed to not, and in-cell observation and expenses… So there was that on the one hand, and on the other hand they were getting drunk and they were smoking and, of course, the drunker they got, the more they wanted to talk to me, because [laughs] the more they wanted to know what it looks like from the other side. And I was getting absolutely paranoid, absolutely paranoid. I remember it was in a big kind of hotel complex. I remember trying to double lock the door and putting a chair against it. [Laughs] But in any case, in the speech I made, which is the one I’m going to publish, I try to explain what it is that one recognizes another person by, and there are a number of things, depending on the country I think. For instance, say at one abstract level prisoners are far more tolerant than non-prisoners are. The one thing that struck me from being in a South African prison— or prisons—is that you would identify and sympathize with people who were at the exact opposite end of the scale politically. There were people in prison, even political prisoners from the far right during those years. One tends to forget it now. If we meet now, we’ve far more in common than ever separated us. And yet one went to prison for your political actions. They would also be far more tolerant of whether one had withstood the ordeal with dignity, whether you broke down, whether you had collaborated, whether you became a snitch, whether you were brave or not brave and all that. I mean, they know from the inside what can be and what cannot be. And there’s a tremendous acceptance and a tremendous kind of camaraderie. It’s very, very natural, it’s like having grown up together. We know each other in that kind of an instinctive way. The other way, the physical way would be in the case of South Africa very often the way people dress, very often the way they move and quite often the way they look and where they position themselves in a group of people. You can sense that with prisoners quite easily. There’s a slight aura of being terminally cut off from other people. If you look at Mandela’s mouth and eyes in repose… It’s quite different, it’s quite different. It’s not bitter but there’s a kind of a withdrawal. There’s a distance, there’s a resignation. I think the one thing that prison does do is that it pushes you in a mode of being much more aware of the way you interact with people than you were before. That’s perhaps also another doubling effect. And, in fact, when you come out it’s a very tiring thing, because now you have to act normal and it’s very tiring because you’re still acting. And exactly the same way as in prison you are on your guard all the time, but it became second nature, interpreting instinctively whatever you heard and whatever you saw and acting accordingly outside and not trusting anybody, never ever, never ever totally so. Making room for the fact that you can’t trust a person, knowing that he’s going to betray you for a cigarette or something like that, because that’s just the way it is, those are the conditions. And then you carry that with you outside. I think for a long time at least you never really trust, you pretend that you do but perhaps you don’t. But it’s not a bad thing.


BLVR: I was thinking about the writing in prison and having to give what you wrote to the warders and what that did to memory, because I think writers are so concerned with memory, so concerned with note-taking. You had to surrender your pens, pencils, and notebooks every day, give them to the warders. What did that feel like? Did you have a way of tracking things in your mind, connecting things day by day?

BB: Yes, I think so, yes. I think so. Particularly I remember working on, say, longer texts, prose texts, and having to hand it in and not getting it back and then writing— continuing to write the next day without being able to read what you’ve written before. For me, writing in prison was a way of going into a space, which was partly memory and obviously partly one of the other rooms, a room of imagination. There’s a book—I don’t think you’ve read it but if you can get hold of it sometime—it’s perhaps the only one that really can explain what I’m trying to say, it’s called Mouroir.… Now this is actually the result of prison writing.… Mouroir is actually the text that I managed to come out with or smuggle out. And there I think you should be able to see the thing I’m trying to talk about. What happened to me was that I felt that as I wrote I was entering a world that started unfolding as you entered it. You didn’t know where you were going to go when you entered it. It took you—it took you to places which may have existed there before in your mind somewhere, in your memory, but that you could not be sure about. For me it was often linked to memory. Consciously or at one level of my consciousness I was trying to tie this writing to particular places or particular events or people, but in effect the sense I had was that the writing was a kind of a thread into a maze that revealed itself to me as I entered it with the line of writing. Interestingly enough, also the characters nearly immediately became splintered. There was nearly a continuous kind of a doubling of self or multiplication of selves and these talked to one another. There was a kind of a racket—like being in a bar of different manifestations of self and getting progressively drunker and more aggressive toward the other selves in there, wanting to fight all of them and perhaps finding out that one is a minority. You’re going to get beaten up very badly. [Laughs]

BLVR: Was there sort of a strange liberation of not being able to see what you’d written the day before? I know sometimes I go back to what I’ve written the day before and I kind of get lost in that, for better or for worse. Did you yearn for what you had just written?

BB: No, I didn’t. Well, it’s probably nice, because then you could imagine that whatever you wrote before was so fantastically good. [Laughs]

BLVR: [Laughs] There was a liberation there.

BB: It does wonders for the sense of criticism. No,no,it makes for a peculiar kind of writing.I think that if one wanted to do a novel it would be impossible. Although—although who says a novel has to start with John and end with John or start with Mary and Mary at the end would still be Mary; why couldn’t she be Anne?

BLVR: That’s true, we are stuck on a particular way of telling a story—

BB: There’s an inevitability of discontinuity in this kind of writing. What is it then that links it, what is it then that carries it forward? It’s more often mood, it’s more often color, if you can call it that. And, of course, probably also a sense of inevitability or fate. The people that did surface in these narratives were quite impotent before fate. They were not taking their lives in hand—it was being done to them, it was happening to them. That may just be a reflection of the larger situation of being in prison. One is less of an engineer obviously, and that’s not a bad place to be chased away from.

BLVR: Do you think poems in that environment were easier?

BB: It’s easier, of course, because they’re shorter. They tend to be bunched-together moments of emotion or intent, in that one is running after a particular rhyme or a particular texture of sounds. Also poems under those circumstances are more naturally descriptive for where you find yourself, whereas the prose pieces didn’t do that. Maybe because I knew I couldn’t write about prison I wasn’t even going to try and do that. That’s the one thing I knew instinctively they would not allow me to do. Even if you used the word “prison” on the page— It was actually quite an interesting area of censorship. You could do the most subversive stuff, you could rewrite Marx’s Das Kapital on condition that you don’t use the word “prison,” or you don’t refer to prison food… [Laughs] So you don’t call it Pollsmoor, things like that. There were a number of code words. I’m not sure whether they were told to look out for that or whether they were just bred that way.

BLVR: Did you find this out because you tried it and they—

BB: Ja, of course, yes, because then they immediately would get very angry if there was anything like that. The interesting thing, too, is they would try in a very awkward and a very crude way to keep up a facade or a pretense of where they thought they worked and how it should be presented to the outside world. If one wrote in a letter to somebody, to a family member, and you used the word tronk, which is the common Afrikaans word for “caboose” or for “jail,” they would get very upset and they’d make you change it to gevangenis which is the polite way of saying “jail.” Tronk they thought was common language and would sort of degrade the dignity, as it were, of the place. It had to be gevangenis. [Laughs]

BLVR: But maybe that was also a way to elevate themselves—to sort of give themselves a sense of dignity.

BB: Of course, that’s what I mean.


BLVR: It occurs to me that you must have spoken about this experience so many times. Do you feel after a while that there’s nothing more to say about it or do you feel as the years go on there’s a different way of looking at it or it reveals itself to you in a different way?

BB: Well, one feeling is that by now, long since, whatever I have to say about it has replaced it as it was, that’s for sure, that’s for sure. The moment you start talking about something you confiscate and you eviscerate that thing. But that’s not only true when you’re a prisoner, it’s true of writing about a love story or writing about yourself for that matter. You take possession, you arrogate yourself and you probably gut yourself, and then if you go back to it you will never be able to find that self that was there before you started writing about it. We tend to forget that writing has this dual effect both of creating and of undoing that which it writes about or coming to stand in the place of, and it’s like the story of the apple. You can’t unbite the apple once it’s been bitten. Do I have a particular point of view or do I know more than others would? Certainly I have a particular interest, but do I really, can I really contribute to a common knowledge about it? I’m not so sure. Although I know from the way other people react that the experience of being in prison is like having a death in the family or having had an accident and ending up in the hospital. People want to know what it’s like, because they are very powerfully attracted to wanting to project what it must be like and what they would do if they were under those circumstances. But there’s something there that cannot perhaps be communicated.There’s perhaps some truth in that you can really only talk to others who have been there similarly, and then perhaps you talk about it differently. There’s a sad admission in that perhaps every or any really strong emotional experience, particularly if it is of a certain length of time, cannot really be communicated to people who haven’t been in a similar position. One crafts something from that which obviously has a peculiar link to what was there before, but one mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that that is it.

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