There are those who hope, like me, not to arrive.
Arthur Nortje, “My mother was a woman.”
The clamour began as soon as the news broke in June 2014 that Nat Nakasa’s body was to be returned to South Africa. Nakasa was exhumed from his burial place in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, just outside New York, where he lay in the company of Malcolm X and James Baldwin, auspicious company, and, if truth be told, company more suited to his intellectual disposition.
Nakasa has a special affinity with Baldwin. Like Baldwin, he was a creative mind as ill at ease in exile as he was at “home” – Paris and New York (and in Nakasa’s case, Boston) were, to varying degrees, places of rest, but they were never inhabited with ease by either of these writers. Like the zoot suited Malcolm Little (in his hustler years, Malcolm X was known as “Detroit Red”), if not the trenchant Malcolm of his Nation of Islam days, Nakasa had his xenotropic tendencies.
Under these circumstances Nakasa was buried in his homeland, amid much pomp and ceremony and, fittingly, with just enough controversy to put a crimp in the much ballyhooed “homecoming.” Durban-born, Nakasa was a journalist who relocated to Johannesburg as soon as he could to join Drum writers and become part of that school known as the Protest Writers; the Protest Writers, headed by Peter Abrahams (Tell Freedom, Mine Boy) and Ezekiel Mpaphlele (Down Second Avenue), marked the first instance of urban, disenfranchised South African writing. Todd Matshikiza, Bloke Modisane, Alex la Guma, Richard Rive and James Matthews number among its other members. Nakasa left South Africa in 1964 on an exit visa to study journalism, on a Nieman Fellowship, at Harvard University.
At the heart of the Nakasa controversy is, to borrow a term from Jacques Derrida, another African exile, the ruling party’s anamnesia. If amnesia is the inability to remember, Derrida inflects a certain determinism in his notion of anamnesia: in order to remember you must forget, which makes anamnesia an activist practice.
Nakasa is now claimed as a long-lost symbol of the ANC’s struggle against apartheid. As we well know, this constitutes a remarkable act of historical revision because Nakasa was public about his refusal to join the ANC. The ANC can claim him all it wants, and it has shamelessly done so, but every attempt at appropriation smacks of a certain desperation: in order to appropriate you must forget how you were rejected. At the very least, kept at arms length by a member of the disenfranchised’s intelligentsia. Thabo Mbeki made public his opinion that Nakasa was no activist, certainly not one the ANC was in any hurry to recruit to its ranks. (WHAT OPINION?, uncertain meaning, Mbeki wants him kept at arm’s length?)
The Nakasa saga lays bare how in post-apartheid South Africa not even the remains of the dead are safe from the act of ideological repurposing. If the politics of the dead cannot be gainsaid in the present (Who will speak in the name of the dead? How can the dead speak against the power of the living?), their political “errors” can always be posthumously corrected or rationalised. This logic, that borders perilously close to the charge of false consciousness, marked much of the homecoming discourse; it is really nothing other than the suggestion that that Nakasa really did not know any better, which is why he kept his distance from the ANC. In death Nakasa can be restored to a better ideological self, making it possible to write a place for Nat Nakasa in the struggle against apartheid even if it is not the place he sought to write for himself. The remains of the dead finds itself newly, unimaginably and yet predictably vulnerable to the crude impulses of nationalist reinscription – there is always political work for which the dead can be conscripted. The dead endure a peculiar precariousness because they are in no position to contradict the living. (As we will see momentarily, this is what Arthur Nortje’s verse such a powerful vehicle of rebuttal: the capacity of the dead to speak for themselves, to defend themselves against appropriation of one stripe or another.)
As soon as it became clear that Nakasa would be “coming home”, the verbosity of the August funeral had barely subsided before another such movement began to rise. This time the nationalist champions seek to impose a similar fate on Arthur Nortje, the poet from the old Eastern Cape. Born in Oudtshoorn, Nortje attended high school in Port Elizabeth – where the poet Dennis Brutus taught him English – after which Nortje went on to earn a degree at the then racially segregated University College of the Western Cape – before it became UWC. Shortly thereafter, he left to study at Oxford, followed by a stint (teaching) in Canada (he moved between Toronto and Hope, British Columbia). He then returned to Oxford where, it is widely assumed, he committed suicide (the coroner returned an open-ended verdict, but the findings were hardly inconclusive).
Nortje’s relationship to South Africa was, as scholars of his work are intensely aware, a difficult and profoundly troubled one. He veered between a deep desire to be loved and accepted by South Africa – awkwardly phrased as it is in Song for a passport: “Who loves me so much not to let me go,/not to let me leave a land of problems?” – and, arguably, an even greater determination to free himself entirely (an impossibility, we can agree) from this land in whose “problems” he found himself trapped. “Origins trouble the voyager,” is how he phrases it. This land to which he was, as his poetry attests with a tortured eloquence, eternally bound:
your delicate nooks and moments noble-gentle
bud-open to both blond and black
and I hybrid, after Mendel,
growing between the wire and the wall,
being dogsbody, being me, buffer you still (Dogsbody half-breed).
These lines resonate with nothing so much as pain; a pain, that is, laced with a rare depth of self-loathing at female sexual desire that is replete with misogynistic overtones; it is the woman (the black woman?) who is “bud-open to both blond and black” who produces him; it is this woman of whom he writes with such scorn.
Nortje was the son of a coloured woman, Ceclilia Potgieter, and a Jewish man. (Nortje rarely mentions his father in his poetry. But when he does, he is disparaging, as in Questions and Answers, where he describes his father as “white trash/coursing through my blood”. In Sylvia Plath I he is more direct, beginning in the poem’s opening line: “Hate for the father. A pool of malice in my blood.”) This condition of coming into being, about which there is nothing “delicate” or “noble-gentle,” finds self-lacerating voice in Dogsbody half-breed, as indicting an act of self-naming as might be conceived. “Dogsbody half-breed” is a name of which this deep-feeling poet cannot rid himself. This name he gives himself, “dogsbody half-breed”, is intolerant with the earlier scientific niceties – “and I hybrid, after Mendel” – he has just tried on for size. These are names that he finds ill-fitting for his poetic and ontological purposes. The poet Nortje finds himself not only “buffered”, caught between the white and black world of 1960s apartheid, but buffeted – psychically beaten and physiologically overwhelmed by the conditions of his own conception.
The violence done to the coloured self in Nortje’s poetry approaches a singular brutality. It is why we read him still. In this political moment when coloured identity can be mobilised, a little too easily, by those whose only goal is the ballot box, and by those from within the community who harbour a sense of historic grievance against the current regime, this is why we should read him. Nortje will not relieve us of our historic responsibilities – there is a history to being coloured, but in Nortje’s verse this history seeks to unsettle, to disturb and to provoke thought. To be coloured is, for Nortje, a problem of ontological proportions; it is that problem that arises out of the very essence of being. What problem could be more fundamental than that?
There is no externality to the history of the coloured community, in Norjte’s rendering, so no South African community can claim remove from it. The coloured subject emerged from within, because of, the eroticised violence that marked the conflict between “blond and black”. This is the psychic violence colonialism wrought, honed into law by successive white-dominated regimes – the United Party of Smuts offering one iteration (“qualified” franchise); the National Party securing its apartheid policies through total disenfranchisement. Nortje, true to himself, offers absolution to no one, himself least of all. There is nothing but the difficulty of racial confrontation in his work, the unrelenting determination to face himself as the bastard (literally) son of “Mendel”.
Nortje died, as was fashionable then, to phrase the matter in the idiom of the era, at that most in-famous age: 27. He shares this with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, James Dean, and Jim Morrison; and, some two decades later, Curt Cobain – all dead at the age of 27. It’s as if there were unspeakable magic attached to that number. In his short life, this pupil of Brutus who inherited none of his mentor’s trenchancy, dedicated himself to thinking, nowhere so incisively as the final two lines of Native’s Letter: “For some of us must storm the castles/some define the happenings.”
Nortje was searing in his ability to “define the happenings”, but he did not – contrary to the persona he presents in Native’s Letter – shy away from “storming the castles”. His oeuvre, troubled, contested, and, most importantly, overwhelmed by that tragic sense of incompleteness that attaches itself to talents who are taken away from us in their early prime, is a testament to a poetry that stormed – in its ruthless refusal of un-thinking identity politics – the castles of being. That is a singular political act and, as such, it is the salient feature of his work.
Nortje’s is the poetry of love found (in a manner of speaking; his unrequited love for Joan Cornelius, the woman, it is assumed, he relocated to Canada for), love lost (Cornelius); in short, the eminently familiar violence of love that bears traces of the young prince in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (especially, if we consider how harshly Hamlet treats Ophelia in The Mousetrap. “Get thee to a nunnery,” he says to Ophelia, as much a rude rebuke to her as an acknowledgement of his own awkward sexual awakening). Nortje demonstrates a wrenching capacity for finding the self wanting; worse, he finds the self unworthy of acceptance in his native land; there is no possibility of coming to terms with the realities of “half-breed” life. What a thing, Norjte must have decided, it is “being me”.
What a decision it was, to choose to no longer be me. To no longer be. Fatal, irrevocable, but also, an act arching toward autonomy – a grim reminder that, indeed, “Habitable planets are unknown or too/far away from us”. In the face of such psychic devastation, such destitution of the spirit, what is to be done? Un-homed in the place of his birth, unable to make a life in “northern waters” (Oxford, Canada, Oxford); peripatetic, deracinated, deciding that not even “apocryphal memories” – buoyed as they are by legendary, historic names (“Tshaka, Hendrik Witbooi, Adam Kok”) – can sustain in the moment of record. In his inability, his refusal, to be who he was and did not want to be, he made himself into a figure for difficulty: that is, he was transformed from poet into a semblance of that dramatis personae he so admired: a tragic young intellectual (Hamlet) who could no longer sustain himself in the face of (family) violence, sexual appetite (his mother Gertrude’s; his own longing for Ophelia) and political intrigue (the death of the father, the unknowing complicity of the mother, the uncle’s usurpation and promise – the kingdom is yours to inherit, Hamlet).
Long before his death, long before his exile, we know this now, Nortje already haunted us. With his angst, his obsessive determination to think his identity, his search for a being beyond, outside, in spite of his “being” (dogsbody), he wrote to haunt us by reminding us of what it meant to be coloured; what it meant to be a very particular articulation of disenfranchised South African. Possessed of a fragile sense of being, he nonetheless undertook to smash the walls of self-protection. Out of that complex admixture of a real concern and utter disregard for the self, he eviscerated any pretense of coloured certitude. To be speaks, before all else, of the problem of being. He made psychic life difficult. And for that we should thank him because he wrote the coloured self into being in its full, bitter complexity – “it is not worth/consideration even now to win back selfhood”.
Nortje wrote every line as the act of absolute risk: Arthur Norjte is, not to put too fine a point on it, at stake in every line in every one of his poems. That is a lot of risk. That requires an immense amount of courage: to die unhomed because “home” is itself, first and foremost, an inconceivability: utter, absolute alienation, infinite and perpetual remove. “Home”, homeland”, “native land”, these are all rejected, with finality and, yes, bravado (false or not, it is of no consequence), by Nortje. How can that call – to be thought, to be heard in life as in death as he struggled with himself – not be heard? It is cacophonous, rancorously, rudely, and again, yes, juvenilely, audible in his poems.
All of which leaves us in no doubt as to the extent of Nortje’s alienation from the land of his birth, most memorably chronicled in Song for a passport: “Now interviews and checks are in the offing:/ O ask me all but do not ask allegiance.” He could not be clearer in his refusal to be affiliated with South Africa.
The only proper way to think Arthur Nortje, to honour him, if such a term is insisted upon (and I have no doubt that it will be invoked), is not to demand, posthumously, “allegiance” of him. This is a moment to act with fidelity to the dead. It is only possible to be faithful to the dead by allowing Arthur Nortje the continued right to not be at peace, not to be laid to rest with any finality. The clarity of this comes to me in another language: Laat die dood rus in hulle onrus. Dit is self ’n soort rus. Die soort rus wat kom van die besluit om nie meer te lewe nie.
His entire life is an argument vir die soort on-rus: unrest was his mode. In un-rest he must be allowed, for now and for all time, to be. He decided upon un-rest. It is his fidelity to un-rest – restive, restless, exilic, expatriate, anti-patriot; “those who hope, like me, not to arrive” – that gives his poetry its life-sustaining, life-threatening force. That is no small accomplishment, to give life while simultaneously rendering that self-same life utterly vulnerable to the force of self-indictment, self-loathing, even, in its most dire iteration, self-hatred and self-obliteration. It is also a geo-political decision imbued with a powerful affective force: I have decided: I no longer want to be, here: in this place, not any other. It is here that I choose to, at once, end my un-rest and intensify it many times over. Here, not there, not in that place you claim, that I cannot. That I will not claim. He could not have been clearer or more explicit in his decision. Like Nakasa, he gives no comfort to the nationalists and he is impatient – if a tad maudlin, granted – with those who substitute nationalist sentiment for thinking the difficulty of being.
It is one thing, and a troubling thing, no less, to reclaim Nat Nakasa. No greater violence can be done to Arthur Nortje than to subject him to this appropriative, nationalist act. Laat die digter rus in sy onrus. (Let the poet rest in his unrest).
Main Pic: A photo of one of Arthur Nortje’s notebooks in the Unisa archives