Literary landscapes

This book would make an excellent guide on any journey in the Eastern Cape, as well as a good-read resource for the class or school library, with its useful information on the history and geography of the areas covered.

Author Jeanette Eve taught English literature at secondary and tertiary level before taking up a post at the National English Literary Museum in Grahamstown. Eve told me she hopes the book’s

culturally diverse content will provide ‘a way of seeing things through other people’s eyes”. I suspect it will also stimulate learners — and perhaps teachers, too — to express their own responses to places.

Eve and illustrator Basil Mills travelled more than 8 000km in search of places in the Eastern Cape that have inspired writers in a wide spectrum of genres — poetry (including some translated Xhosa praise poetry), novels, short stories, diaries, journals and children’s books. The reader will learn about places associated with a multitude of literary voices, ranging from early names such as Thomas Pringle, Olive Schreiner and Sir Percy Fitzpatrick to the more contemporary figures of Athol Fugard, Zakes Mda, JM Coetzee, Jimmy Matyu and Mxolisi Nyezwa.

Reading the writers’ biographies in the Literary Guide, I was struck by how many of them had been (or still are) involved in education. For instance, Mzi Mahola, who holds two university degrees, currently runs a spaza shop attached to his home. But at one time he was an education

officer at the Port Elizabeth Museum, often using traditional stories to teach children about the need to protect wildlife.

Dennis Brutus is another. Author of several volumes of poetry, Brutus taught in South End, Port Elizabeth, and at Paterson High in Gelvandale for almost a decade. Exiled in 1965 for his political activism, he now lives in the United States.

One of Brutus’s pupils at Paterson High also became both a poet and a teacher. Arthur Nortje was born in Oudtshoorn in 1942 and became a brilliant student and an excellent sportsman. He studied at the University College of the Western Cape and at Oxford in the United Kingdom, on scholarships; and he taught in Port Elizabeth and Canada before returning to Oxford for further study.

Sadly, this ‘deeply introspective” and ‘tortured” young man died alone is his room in Oxford a few days before his 28th birthday. Brutus has done much to promote the writings of his former pupil, whose collected poems were published as Anatomy of Dark in 2000.

The first poem in Eve’s book is by CJ (Jonty) Driver — author of several volumes of poetry, as well as novels and a biography. He may be best remembered in this country for his political stance as president of the National Union of South African Students during his years at the University of Cape Town. Later, while studying at Oxford University, he was banned from returning to South Africa.

He then taught at schools in the UK and Hong Kong, and recently retired from the position of master of Wellington College in Berkshire. Driver’s poems are often ‘tinged with the poignancy” of exile.

Other featured writers with teaching associations include Michael King of Bishops; Farida Karodia, who is now based in Canada; and James Jolobe, who taught for 20 years at Lovedale. Award-winning poet Don Maclennan taught in the US for some years before taking up a lectureship in English literature at Rhodes University.

And then, of course, there’s Marguerite Poland, who grew up in the Eastern Cape. Many of her children’s stories and adult novels are praise songs to that province, which seems to dominate her literary imagination, although she has spent much of her adult life in KwaZulu-Natal. She is at present teaching English literature in the Eastern Cape while researching and writing a new book.

Of the many places explored in the Literary Guide, I most enjoyed the section on Hogsback. Eve points out that the popular myth that Hogsback is the setting for JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit is but a fiction; but she interestingly points out that John Dover Wilson, ‘one of the best-known Shakespearean scholars of the 20th century”, worked there on his edition of the Bard’s sonnets in 1962. In the 1966 preface he writes of Hogsback: ‘I began this edition of the finest love poetry in the world in what I think must be the loveliest garden on earth. It lies in a level upland glade shut in by dark forests stretching up to jagged mountains … cooled by running streams and deep dark pools…”

Teachers should find this publication, which took more than a decade to research and write, a multifaceted gem.

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Denise Rack Louw
Guest Author

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