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Blowing in from the north

Four centuries ago intrepid Dutch traders in small wooden ships harnessed the trade winds around the globe to establish their trading stations. Although that colonial empire no longer exists, there are still strong cultural and linguistic links between The Netherlands and her former colonies. Blowing into Cape Town next week are writers from Suriname, Curacao, Indonesia and The Netherlands for the Trade Winds mini literary festival.

One of the visiting guest writers is Henk van Woerden from the Netherlands, author of A Mouthful of Glass, a semi-fictional biography of Demetrios Tsafendas, which recently won him an Alan Paton Award. Although he is still based in Holland, Van Woerden says he has spent so much time in South Africa since 1989 that he is considering ways to acquire a pied-á-terre here.

He was born in Leiden in 1947, but spent his teens and student years in Cape Town. Educated at Westerford and Michaelis, he was around when Verwoerd was assassinated by Tsafendas in 1966. Although he was not actively involved politically — he says he was ”not that sort of person”, naive and ”too neurotic”, and wary of incarceration — he found himself at odds with most of the whites he knew. He also didn’t feel at home with the possible left liberal ”kindred spirits” at the University of Cape Town because he was ”from the wrong side of the tracks”, living in a mixed area prior to forced removals. His stepmother also had the wrong racial classification on her ID card.

When he left for Europe he intended to put South Africa behind him. But this proved impossible to do and despite his success as a painter his work reflected a sense of exile and longing for an African landscape.

His first novel, a semi-autobiographical account of a Dutch family emigrating to South Africa, established the trend for all his books to be set in South Africa. He brought to his book on Tsafendas a sympathetic understanding of the pain of exile and rootlessness and of the additional trauma of mixed origins in a society where racial purity was (then) at a premium. He admits that when he is in South Africa, he feels ”totally” South African and now has to decide whether he would fit in better with the Afrikaans or English side of the community.

At the Alan Paton Award ceremony the judges were careful to point out that, although they were giving a prize for English non-fiction, they felt compelled to read both the English and Afrikaans translations of A Mouthful of Glass, done by Dan Jacobson and Antjie Krog respectively, as Jacobson had shortened some of the section on Van Woerden’s South African childhood.

Van Woerden says he is happy with both translations; whereas Krog’s translation is ”integral” and complete, Jacobson’s is excellent in style and tone, and also has more detail on Tsafendas’ time in England — written for the English translation by Van Woerden.

In the book he makes frequent disparaging references to the white community, from which he clearly distances himself. Asked what he thought of the TRC proceedings he said, after some surprise at the question, that he felt there should have been some broader gesture of apology from whites in general. But he concedes that he too feels personal guilt for ”not having done anything (to resist apartheid), for having left the country, for having left people in the lurch”.

His attraction to Tsafendas’ story resulted from seeing the assassination as a watershed in South African history, perpetrated by a man in deep conflict, abandoned and rejected, with whom Van Woerden felt considerable empathy.

Other visiting writers include Indonesian author Seno Gumira Adjidarma, Frank Martinus Arion from Curacao (formerly in the Dutch West Indies) and South American author Cynthia Mc Cleod.

Adjidarma turned to fiction as a medium less likely to provoke silencing under difficult political circumstances in Indonesia. In his work he combines fact and fiction to reveal the truth.

Arion works for the Taalbureau in Curacao to promote the local language, Papiomento. He believes that the role of literature is ”to give the reader a critical knowledge of reality”. His most recent novel is De Laaste Vrijheid.

Mc Cleod’s novels are hugely popular in her home country as well as in Holland where there is a large Surinamese population. Included on her list of historical novels set in Suriname is one on Elisabeth Samson, the first black woman to marry a white man in 1767. Her best-seller, Hoe Duur was de Suiker, deals with Jewish emigrants to Suriname in the 18th century.

Local contributions to the festival come from Keorapetse Kgositsile, EKN Dido, Achmat Dangor and André P Brink. The rhythms of both Setswana and jazz permeate the unique poetry in Kgositsile’s new book of poems, If I Could Sing, while Dido, a former nurse and lecturer in nursing, deals with identity and prejudice in Xhosa and Coloured communities — a truly original voice in South African literature. Her most recent book, ‘n Stringetjie Blou Krale, is going into its second printing.

Dangor’s novel, Kafka’s Curse, won the Herman Charles Bosman Award and is available in seven foreign editions. His most recent novel, Bitter Fruit, shows an intimate knowledge of South African society and especially issues of Coloured identity.

Brink needs no introduction. Prolific and popular, he has always addressed history and issues of identity in his novels.

The festival, which forms part of the Cape Town Festival, has been billed as a ”sumptuous feast with spoken word, video and music” and runs for two nights only.

Trade Winds will be held at the Centre for the Book, Queen Victoria Road in Cape Town on March 18 and 19. Proceedings start at 8pm, admission is R35 at the door.

March 18: Rewriting History (Andre Brink and Henk van Woerden) and Breaking Down Stereotypes (EKN Dido and Cynthia Mc Cleod). Henk van Woerden will introduce the video for the evening — A Question of Madness on Tsafendas by Lisa Key (to be screened twice).

March 19: Creolization-Hybridity (Achmat Dangor and Frank Martins Arion) and Jazz and Struggle (Keorapetse Kgositsile and Seno Gumira Adjidarma, moderated by Vincent Colbe). The video for the evening will be Korreltjie Niks is my dood on Ingrid Jonker (English subtitles). Running concurrently will be a variety show compered by Marc Lottering, which includes readings by Keorapetse Kgositsile, Rustum Cozain, Jeremy Cronin, Gert Vlok Nel and Dianne Ferrus, with music by DJ Mtone Edjale, Loit Sols, Jethro, DJ Jools and the Surinamese jazz singer, Denise Jannah whose new songs are in Afrikaans, Surinamese and Papiomento.

English translations from Dutch will be projected on screen. For details call 082 282 5080 or visit

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Jane Rosenthal
Guest Author

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