As I open the book, a letter falls out. Clearly, little is more nostalgic than a handwritten, airmailed letter from a friend, brimming with news and affection. The date is relatively recent, less than a year old, but already the envelope has developed that intoxicating perfume of decaying paper (insert library lover/secondhand book shopper). The letter is from a childhood friend who now lives in Spain, addressed to me during my annual two-month return to Cape Town, South Africa. Spanish postage emphasizes the remove from my permanent Montreal address, but we correspond in Afrikaans, our mutual mother tongue.
Suitably, the book I’m alluding to is an epistolary volume, the compilation of love letters, recently released, of two South African writers, poet Ingrid Jonker and novelist André P. Brink, spanning their affair from 1963-65. Vlam in die Sneeu (or Flame in the Snow) is a substantial volume, 500 large-format pages of literary craftsmanship, missives of love and desire, but also rigorous reflections on their respective writing projects, in-jokes, and wordplay; eros sublimated through literature. During an extremely happy period of travel, solitude, and intensive writing on my part, I let myself be subsumed in their world of letters, spending mornings writing, afternoons on the beach, and evenings and moments in-between reading. It was the first time in years that I really read a book in Afrikaans—slim volumes of poetry perhaps—but this extreme glut of text that kept me in suspense for what would happen next, the sense of more, more, more … this was new to my language and I felt enamored.
Ingrid Jonker is the Afrikaans iteration of icons such as Sylvia Plath and Ingeborg Bachmann. Laden verse: “Ontvlugting” (or “Flight”), a poem she wrote as a teen, predicts her suicide more than a decade later, describing her body entangled in seaweed and washed out on the shore. These are women with short but promising literary careers represented by two strong volumes of poetry, a third released posthumously (or, “What would have happened had she written more?”). They are women with a certain “instability,” which is probably code for forcing their narratives to absorb responsibility for compromised circumstances, provincial norms, unsupportive partners, children, abortions, double-standards, misogynous expectations of undue femininity, and more. Rook en Oker (or Smoke and Ochre) is the collection imminently due for release during the high tide of their association and André seems equally in love with poet and poetry. Throughout his letters he alludes to this collection repeatedly. André lauds Ingrid’s poetry and suggests that it is a complete formal renewal in the Afrikaans tradition. He plans to assign her book to the contemporary poetry class he’s teaching at the University of Stellenbosch at the time. He gives copies to friends and reviewers and reports back that everyone loves it. In turn, Ingrid reads and critiques his work. When he starts writing Orgie (or Orgy), a narrative based distinctly on their affair, she tells him to darken the plot, to characterize her with more agency.
At the risk of sounding condescending—in my defense, I developed a very real crush, reading my way toward some knowledge of his person, intelligence, and sensitivity—André is in sync with the literary bro mode with his steady, upwardly-mobile career of ultra-productivity. During the two years of his relationship with Ingrid, he released, was in the process of publishing, or had started to research, write, or edit seven different books by my count. These span works of fiction, travel writing, published journals, and even plays. This literary output stands apart from his translations, reviews, and university lectureship, as well as apart from his position as cultural spokesperson, political commentator, and the time he wasted in censorship trials. It also stands apart from his wife and infant son and apart from his illicit relationship with Ingrid, the letter writing, cassette recordings, the phone calls, the emotional labour expended on desire in absentia, and love narrated in the negative spaces of existence.
Afrikaans is a language I covet and one that I lack, a negative space, and a phantom limb language which is simultaneously omnipresent and missing.
On the verge of mailing another letter, Ingrid finds that her little girl has systematically licked and sealed every new envelope shut, stacked them in a neat heap, locked, closed, dysfunctional, and keeping empty secrets. There is a metaphor hidden somewhere in this stack of sealed empty envelopes. Correspondence is inherently an absence. A letter is only a substitute for contact. Artist Moyra Davey literally mails real-life moments in an attempt to get experientially closer: photographs in large-scale print, folded, stamped, and burdened with process before they are received. Ingrid, instead of sitting down for a shared drink among bodies baking together in the sun on the coastal beaches, counting the moles of André’s post-coital body, writes a letter. He tears open the envelope to find a beautifully written, but ultimately reductive summary of happenings, thoughts, and feelings that cannot nearly offer a complete catalogue of a life lived in closer proximity to one another. A.J. Mitchell writes: “If I receive something from someone, then it is precisely this ‘from someone’ that separates me from the object received.” If Ingrid wrote this letter, she has a fuller comprehension of its contents than André. Although she has offered these words to him, they still belong, partially, to her. Or, they now no longer belong to her at all but rather to him, so that the disconnect between her intended words and his perception of them is so vast that communication has become something new altogether. Alternatively, sender and recipient have nothing to do with the letter and it is just a freestanding agent; an absence. It is an elaborated void between communication decked with ornamental slants of handwriting, hands reaching out but not touching, not even scratching. Of course, this is all an abstract extrapolation, but I do want to acknowledge this absence with reference to my relationship to Afrikaans.
Afrikaans is a language I covet and one that I lack, a negative space, and a phantom limb language which is simultaneously omnipresent and missing. There is a glitch in my verbal hierarchy. If Afrikaans is my so-called “first language,” why do I seldom have the chance to speak it? Why is it a language reserved for telephone calls and FaceTime sessions with my parents who live at a two continent remove? Why is it a language in which I write to that one friend left from the 13 years I spent growing up in a partly Afrikaans-speaking community? If I have become so disconnected from Afrikaans, why is it that I still, after a decade living in Montreal, think in Afrikaans, remember dreams in Afrikaans, and feel emotional at the thought of raising a hypothetical child in Afrikaans with an anglophone partner who doesn’t understand the language? Language can become a long-distance relationship, an interaction that feels so good in correspondence developing an awkward edge. (Painful memories of an ex, who I hadn’t seen for months, telling me not to embrace him, that he needs to accustom himself to my physical presence first.)
Pinpoint the exact location of lack. Lack is a language I love but rarely use; speak, write, and read fluently, yet interact with only at intervals. Lack is the distance between my residence in Montreal and South Africa where Afrikaans is in circulation. Lack is the space between Afrikaans and English where my mind lingers, where I use not one or the other, but both, simultaneously un/mixed. Lack is the integration of Afrikaans words into my primarily English poetry and the need I feel to allow myself the freedom of that verbal interplay or the inability to phrase poetic meaning otherwise. Lack is my anger when people suggest I publish solely in South Africa because that is where my poems belong and will be semantically understood. Lack is not necessarily a deficiency. Lack is not necessarily empty.
In contrast to Ingrid’s empty envelopes, I now turn to Jacques Derrida’s The Postcard. With a propulsion to fill up, it models as a 200-page series of imagined letters, inscribed one after the other on the exact same postcard. It is a heap of identical postcards, mass-produced, and sent repeatedly to the same recipient. It becomes a code, a secret insignia, and a mode of communication that isolates the correspondents from the rest of the world. Reproduction of the postcard doubles as the reproductive subtext of the sexual act. The uniformity and predictability of the same postcard postures as a private rite of desire. Correspondence can mean similarity. Writing to someone in the hope of translating a life into the relatable vision of another’s. But lack is eternally imperfectly intersecting sets. Lack is an attempt to narrow the in-between. Lack is coexisting in the in-between. Lack is a blank page, a black box, and a creative space where unpredictable things take place. Lack is a correspondence, a dialogue constantly moving back and forth, indeterminate, but in flux. Lack is an enriched linguistic identity based on the instability of meaning (when die means death, but die is just the definite article “the,” when “gun” implies violence, but gun grants space, opportunity, and agency to live).
Lack is the space between Afrikaans and English where my mind lingers, where I use not one or the other, but both, simultaneously un/mixed.
I have a tendency to romanticize literary coteries. These are idealistic groups with shared aesthetic values and hopes for creative challenge and renewal, but also interpersonal connections, feuds, affairs, and photos of beautiful persons lounging about, smoking, and looking ultimately cool and confident in what they do. I guess naively, I had never anticipated this genre of passionate literary subculture in South Africa. My Afrikaans reading had been too limited or it was in a context too close to home to notice. While reading about Ingrid and André, I happily recognized exactly this kind of circle within the purview of Afrikaans. A photo spread shows Ingrid in white, angel of the group, surrounded by Etienne Leroux, Jan Rabie, and Marjorie Wallace, writers and painters of the day. There’s a pen and paper on the table as well as a radio. There’s creativity in the angle of a hand on an armrest and the thoughts behind their eyes. There is a gentleness that could get fiery. This is the ’60s so they called themselves the Sestigers (or Sixty-ers), founded a journal for their alternative literary pursuits, and scripted a manifesto about freedom, responsibility, honesty, unbinding repressions, and breaking down taboos. In the November 1968 issue of the magazine Kol (or Dot), André wrote: “If I speak of my people then I mean: every person black, coloured, or white, who shares my country and my loyalty towards my country. This is the essence of my argument that our whole country must be written open.” It is an inclusionary form of nationalism. At the high-tide of Apartheid politics, the Sestigers were openly anti-Apartheid, writing directly about race-relations and imposing sexually explicit narratives onto a puritanical audience. They aimed to renew and reclaim Afrikaans literature and, in the process, to aid in the fight for political change.
My newfound fascination with the South African ’60s is not with the era per se, but with this alternative to it. This is a group of writers and intelligent, critical thinkers. They stand as a linguistic hook I care to be pulled in by. I am curious about an Afrikaans literary tradition I can associate with ideologically, as well as with the words on the page. Ingrid Jonker’s poem “Die Kind” (or “The Child”) records the shooting of a child by soldiers at Nyanga. Nelson Mandela read this poem at the opening of the first democratic parliament in 1994. “Die kind is nie dood nie” (or “the child is not dead” and again, die is not death) becomes a reawakening, a physical improbability, and a poetic immateriality, which pulses language to a yes, yes, yes moment, that corresponds with me.
Klara du Plessis is a poet and critic residing alternately in Montreal and Cape Town. Her chapbook, Wax Lyrical, was released from Anstruther Press, 2015, and a full-length collection of multilingual poems is forthcoming from Palimpsest Press. She curates the monthly, Montreal-based Resonance Reading Series, writes reviews for Broken Pencil Magazine, The Montreal Review of Books and The Rusty Toque, and is currently employed at Vallum: Contemporary Poetry magazine. Follow her on Twitter @ToMakePoesis