Meeting Tatamkhulu Afrika
by Isobel Dixon
A thousand words is not enough to trace a life so long, so rich and complex. MR CHAMELEON, he named his recently-completed memoir manuscript - and how does one capture the chameleon? Elsewhere, others have reported the facts - all the names and places he had been. Here, what I have to offer are no explanations, simply impressions, memorable moments of meeting with Tata.
Christmas Eve: I hear Gus Ferguson's voice on my cellphone and know it must be bad news about Tata. I sit down on the stairs to hear it. Too soon: eighty-two and two weeks, almost blind, but - until he was hit by a car, days after the South African launch of his novel BITTER EDEN - still active. Filled with creative energy, alert to impressions and lively with emotion: delight, chagrin, anxiety, glee, all echoing across the long-distance line the last time we spoke. Gone too soon, and me cursing myself for being too late with a snippet of good news: two days before Tata's death Mark Simpson of the Independent picked BITTER EDEN as one of his two best books of the year. I never got the chance to tell him. One of those small, sharp regrets, the peg you hang a much greater sense of loss upon.
It was the eve of another celebration, the last time I spoke to him. A Friday night, just before his birthday and Eid, the end of the Ramadan fast. We talked about his launch, his revision of an unpublished novel, the recent rejection letter from a US editor about BITTER EDEN, filled with personal passion, but professionally cautious: an eloquent letter which pleased him enormously. Tata, always fiercely protective of his writing, a complicated mixture of literary certainty and vulnerability. A man not easily paraphrased. It seemed appropriate that Gus's email with the news reported that he had 'died of complications', the layers of meaning certainly not lost on those who love words, and knew the man.
Strange, with his words 'Good night, my dearest love' ringing in my ears, to trace back to how this professional relationship began. Early in 2000, among the manuscripts that arrive at my office each week (a pile hip-height) was a name I recognise, deciphered at the end of pages of spindly handwriting. A name not easy to overlook: Tatamkhulu Afrika. I have been familiar with it for years, but know next to nothing about the man. 'I am 79 years old,' it begins, 'and began writing creatively and in earnest in 1987 when I was released from imprisonment for my active (and violent) resistance opposition to the apartheid regime'. Not having read his earlier books (TIGHTROPE or THE INNOCENTS) I wonder whether this celebrated poet is a good prose writer, whether his novel based on WWII POW experiences might be self-indulgent. I am intrigued, with reservations, put it aside to read when I have time.
I have a very clear memory of finishing the final line on my morning train: sitting looking out at the gentle green fields of England, thinking of loneliness and our desire to love and be loved. Things Keith Gottschalk so clearly picked out in a speech at one of Tata's poetry launches.
There was, of course, a truer first meeting with Tatamkhulu Afrika's writing, for in 1991 I read NINE LIVES, his first poetry collection, intrigued by the poet's name and the grainy, shadowy image of the long-faced bearded man on the cover. I had never heard of him, but the lines had a haunting quality, like his image. Re-reading it recently I am struck by a poem about hunting a kudu, his identification with the animal, how apt the image seemed for this tall, grey man, the dignity of him.
It is this tall figure I remember first seeing in the flesh, in Cape Town, at the foot of the stairway at the launch for Gus Ferguson's STRESSED-UNSTRESSED, away from the hubbub upstairs. In that frayed jersey, the colour of faded moss or green olives, the way I always picture him. The voice I had come to know on the phone now given flesh. He greeted me warmly, then leaned towards me confidentially: he had a secret, he told me with glee. He had won the Sanlam Prize for poetry, for the second time, they were flying him up to Grahamstown for the award. He wasn't supposed to tell anyone, but as I was his agent... What I didn’t tell him then, with my own gleeful secret, was that I had won a prize too. I think he would have thought I was joking. When I left he said he hoped we'd meet again soon...
We did, of course, in Grahamstown. I went up to him at the canape table after the speeches and, after his initial surprise, he said 'Funny thing, you know at first I thought they said you'd won a prize too, and the girl who went up did seem a bit like you.' He chuckled and chuckled when it was all explained, apologising for his poor eyesight, exclaiming at the coincidence, one of those precious, pleasing twists life offers us.
Back in Britain there was the auction for BITTER EDEN, two independent publishers battling for rights. I think of Tata's late blossoming as a writer - after the initial burst of a novel written at 17 and published in England, but destroyed in the Blitz - and of his poem in the DARK RIDER collection, his prayer of thanks for this late-life bloom: '...a winter flower / and winter flowers are the salt and frost of beauty.' Beauty recognised in last year's flurry of British reviews praising his novel’s quality, how he trod difficult terrain - and painful terrain for him personally - with such honesty.
The last time I saw him, with customary stubborn generosity, despite my protests, he insisted on taking me to lunch. We met upstairs at Marco's African Cafe, with, Gus, once again – poet and supporter of poets extraordinaire, who over the last few years has patiently read scores of emails with snippets of news to Tata, one of his many supportive friends. We talked about Tata's activist days, his detention and torture at the hands of Spyker van Wyck. In my mind I can hear lines from his chilling poem about his interrogator, and also the words of 'Hit Squad', a public statement of where he drew the line in his violent protest...
We'll cross the street
in bright light
to set the place
not flesh, alight.
We’re after all,
the burst window's
yawn of pain.
A man of strong feelings and of strong principle, thinking deeply about actions. Generous to a fault, often prickly, deeply honest. We were very different, in our age and our faith, but my admiration for his writing, his search to explore and explain the complexities of our existence, of his particular experience, is as great as ever. As a way of mourning, so far away, and unable to attend the funeral or memorial readings, I have read and re-read parts of his published and unpublished work in these last weeks. There is a lot still to read, even more to try to understand.
Strangely enough, it was in France that another of my clients Denis Hirson, who edited the anthology of South African poetry, THE LAVA OF THIS LAND, made space for a moment of commemoration. At a university on the outskirts of Paris, he read poems from the anthology in translation. I followed the French sporadically, but at the end, there was no mistaking that he was talking of Tata's extraordinary life, and when he read a poem I knew, Nightrider, about Tata cycling, I sat there and wept uncontrollably for this much-loved old man who I can no longer phone with good news.
Denis read the poem again in English, a sharing of memory between the two of us who knew him - a private moment in a public hall, surrounded by students from the Ivory Coast and Cameroon, and two officials from the South African Embassy. An African moment of remembrance for Tata, in a foreign country, in two languages. I like to think this would have pleased him.
This article was published in Afrikaans in Insig (South Africa) and in PN Review (UK).
Reproduced by kind permission of the author.