Discover human dignity in words

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Antjie Krog is known all over the world for his emotional reports aimed at the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and is above all a poet. She is the author of fifteen collections of poems whose themes range from critiques of apartheid to feminism, including the aging body, the cause of the marginalized but also the landscape as a metaphor and ecology. The issue of ecology is at the heart of his collection Messe pour un planet fragile, which has just been published in French, translated from Afrikaans by Georges-Marie Lory.

The famous author, memorialist, journalist, South African Antjie Krog is a woman with many talents. But in her country she is best known as a multi-award winning poet, heir to the great literary tradition in the African language, whose emblematic figures are named André Brink or Breyten Breytenbach.

Antjie Krog was born in 1952 in the gold mining town of Kroonstadt in the Orange Free State and has been writing poetry since her early childhood to fill her loneliness, as she puts it in her memoir A Change of Tongue, published in 2003. She also writes to give voice to her poetry sensitivity to the beauty of landscapes and people.

She likes to tell how she, at the age of 7 or 8, became aware of the power of words and the privileged relationship she has with poetic speech. “I had not cried at my grandmother’s funeral,” she recalls, “but I broke down in tears as I read through what I had written in my diary on this occasion a few weeks later. I then realized that I was more sensitive to the power of words than to the naked reality. ”

“Mandela, my mother and I”

“My mother was no stranger to coming to literature,” says the author. And to add: “She was a great reader of literature from all over the world. Suddenly I grew up in the middle of libraries filled with novels written by Russian, German or Dutch writers. Literature in the African language was already in its infancy, but my mother bought whatever came. She had read Breytenbach as soon as she left her first book. She often read poems to us in African. So I can say that literature has always been a part of my life. ”

For a long time, little Antjie had fallen asleep listening to her mother recite poems in African. A guttural language, whose words click in the ear and move with their powerful sounds. But the beautiful understanding between mother and daughter is shattered when Antjie publishes a poem that celebrates friendship beyond the racial barrier in the school newspaper. “One day, she imagined, black and white, hand in hand will give love and peace to (her) beautiful country.”

The stuttering poet was only 18 years old. In the midst of segregation, his poem caused a scandal, magnified by the media. Ekona will reach Mandela’s ears and then be imprisoned for life on Robben Island. “If a young African makes such wishes, all is not lost in this country,” the future Madiba would have explained to his comrades in misfortune.

Antjie Krog defines herself as a rebellious poet, but she admits that at that time it was not so much the feeling of rebellion that had driven her to write these verses, but rather a feeling of incomprehensibility in the face of injustice. “No, it was not an uprising,” she says. Honestly, I thought then that everyone shared my opinion, but I quickly became disillusioned. The company was still conservative and did not want it to change. As for my mother, she had always been very open to my writing. But after the poetry scandal, she imagined that I had the wrong company. So I was enrolled in a conservative university hoping to see myself back on track. At that time, I also received many letters, sent by black men and women or by the Jewish faith. I told myself as I went through these letters that the dream I shared in my poem had nothing reprehensible, at least in a large part of the population of my country. “

Become a poet

Contrary to the Krog family’s expectations, conservative educational circles will not cure their daughter of her concern for the marginalized, segregated or women’s cause. After becoming a poet, Antjie Krog repeatedly returns to her favorite themes in the collections of poems she has since published. Collections with enigmatic and gloomy titles: Ni pillard, ni fuyard (Le Temps qui fait, 1984), Une stavelse de sang (Le Temps qui fait, 2013), just to name the collections translated into French.

With fifteen collections of poetry in Afrikaans to his credit, the first from 1970, Antjie Krog has established himself as the most influential voice of his generation. It is also one of his poems, “Le Chant du griot”, which was read at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration ceremony in 1994.

Paradoxically, it was his prose memoirs that made Antjie Krog famous all over the world. These memoirs, entitled The Pain of Words, consist of testimonies from the victims and fines of the apartheid era, as well as reflections on the history and future of democratic South Africa. To say the least, an atypical book, it takes up as a poet and a thinker the work of journalistic review of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work that the author had done for almost two years, between 1996 and 1998, on the radio station. South African citizens. Both a historical document and a literary text, “this book may one day give the author the Nobel Prize for Literature”, estimates its French translator Georges Lory.

Back to poetry

A new collection of poems by Antjie Krog entitled Mass for a fragile planet has just been published in French. The latest creation of the South African poet mixes the latter’s greatest concerns: the future of the planet, the coexistence of the rich and the poor, but also the African language of the future, where Antjie Krog sees the assurance of the revival of South African literature after apartheid.

“The pioneers of African literature,” she recalls, “used very formal language. Then, during the apartheid years, Afrikaans had become a harsh and standardized expression. Since 1994, this language has developed a lot, insofar as the majority of speakers now come from the black or mestizo population. Their way of speaking, their vocabulary, their accents are the dominant norm today. In addition, these new speakers come from neglected neighborhoods, who have never had a voice on the issue. Consequently, the literature on Africa has been enriched with visions that have hitherto been seen entirely in this language. ”

For the poet, this literary renewal also passes and above all through language, through the work with the materiality of language, which she explains in the introductory poem in her new collection, dedicated to “griots”. She has later done so for her models, qualified as “memory brokers”, who work “on the human dignity of the word / the nobility of the word”. Is there a better way to be a poet?

Read Antjie Krog in French:

Mass for a fragile planet and other poems, translated from Afrikaans by Georges-Marie Lory. Editions Joca Seria, 2021 (poems) Une stavelse de sang, translated from Afrikaans by Georges-Marie Lory. Éditions Le Temps qui faut, 2013 (poetry) Neither pillard nor fuyard, Éditions Le Temps qui faut, 2004 (poems) Word pain, translated from English by Georges-Marie Lory. Éditions Actes Sud, 2004 (prose).

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