Voices in the wilderness

A Literary Guide to the Eastern Cape: Places and the Voices of Writers

Jeanette Eve

(Double Storey)

Ten years’ work and 8 000km of travel have gone into researching and writing A Literary Guide to the Eastern Cape: Places and the Voices of Writers, launched at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this week. Photographs and drawings by Basil Mills supplement the text. Mills has also been involved with the National English Literary Museum’s festival exhibition on the project.
Eve stresses that the book is not an anthology but a series of “journeys that focus on the literature of place”.She and Mills have explored the “vast” Eastern Cape extensively to locate the places which have evoked “personal or imaginative responses” from writers as diverse as Athol Fugard, Zakes Mda, Don MacLennan, Marguerite Poland, Jimmy Matyu, Yvonne Burgess, Thomas Pringle, Sir Percy FitzPatrick and JM Coetzee. The text in this fascinating book sometimes highlights not only links between writer and place but also between different writers. For example, Eve records how Cradock-born school teacher and political activist Matthew Goniwe wrote from jail to ask the illustrious Guy Butler — who had also grown up in Cradock — for help with the poetry he was writing. And so began a friendship that Butler later commemorated in his Ode to Dead Friends. He writes of Goniwe’s release from prison in 1981: “I recall/ Putting on Handel at news of your release/You blew in on the wind ... Look! I’ve arrived!”/And round my room you jived/To the Hallelujah chorus, laughing and alive!” But not for long. As Eve points out, “gruesome details of Goniwe’s assassination ... by security force agents were disclosed more than a decade later in the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission”. One of the physically challenging journeys Eve undertook was climbing Buffelskop, near Cradock, to visit Olive Schreiner’s last resting place.It was “awe-inspiring” to reach the sarcophagus at last, especially knowing “the sad and bizarre story” of the author’s reinterment there with two other coffins — those of her dead baby and a favourite dog.Eve’s sensitive responses to the “moving and intriguing” poems of New Brighton poets Mzi Mahola and Mxolisi Nyezwa have undoubtedly been enhanced by the research visit to that Port Elizabeth township, arranged for her and Mills by Mahola. There the colourful world of shebeens, spaza shops, beauty salons and informal traders exists side-by-side with “a tsotsi subculture often linked to violence and crime”. And, as Nyezwa describes, “there is evidence of a great pool of suffering”. That poet’s atmospheric description of “skies pregnant with pain or turbulent with rain” kept echoing in Eve’s mind.All the best journeys hold surprises, and the guide’s chapter on Somerset East and its environs introduces Walter Battiss. Internationally known as an artist, the unconventional Battiss also painted word-pictures. In one untitled poem he describes the Karoo: “Flat veld sandpapered to smoothness/Distant antheaps like pimples on a boy’s face/Deep dongas offering the therapy of shade/Shadows as pale as hotel soup/Birds interfering with the sky/Fish making the water drunk.” This amusing miscellany becomes a basis for Battiss’s deeper meditations on “the infinity of space” and life as “sculptured time”.Finding particular places on literary quests sometimes proved difficult. Eve recalls hunting unsuccessfully for “a hill near Berlin called Ntambozuko [Mount of Glory] where SEK Mqhayi — the great Xhosa praise poet, novelist and historian — had lived and was buried”. Eventually, with the help of an accommodating police escort, the area was located. And after passing through “a weird kind of waste-deposit place, all securely fenced off”, they found the Mount itself to be “a wonderful site with commanding views”. Eve says: “One could imagine Mqhayi in his imbongi outfit coming down the hill to perform for visitors”, including the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) during his 1925 tour of South Africa. “The Prince probably didn’t understand a word of the declamation — which may have been a good thing, since Mqhayi was sometimes not too complimentary about the British!“Eve shares a treasure trove of information in an easy, companionable and sometimes even lyrical style that should make this book a favourite with all who love literature and travel — actual or “armchair”.

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