Breyten Breytenbach


Tips for writing in prison:
Poetry is easier than fiction
Self-criticism will fade
Mentioning food is a bad idea

Breyten Breytenbach was born in Bonnievale, South Africa. Boys like Breyten—the third of four children in a staunchly Afrikaner family—were raised to become soldiers, farmers, preachers, trained from an early age to uphold the apartheid status quo. Breytenbach went his own way, registering at the English-speaking University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art, and then leaving his native land a few years later, without a word to his family, on a Portuguese steamer headed for Europe. In Paris, he became a committed anti-apartheid activist, as well as a Zen Buddhist. Breytenbach has always lived many lives—while working clandestinely with Okhela, a resistance group fighting apartheid in exile, he also painted, wrote poetry, and began to receive accolades from the Afrikaner literary establishment for his heartbreaking poems of loss and exile, evoking the unforgettable South African landscape as well as excoriating his own people for the iniquities of their political system. On a return trip to South Africa in 1975, he was captured and imprisoned under provisions of the Terrorism Act.

It’s thirty years later now, and apartheid is over. Breytenbach has been out of jail for almost twenty-four years and has continued to produce a staggering body of work—more than thirty volumes of poetry, including The Iron Cow Must Sweat, Footscript, and Lady One; several novels; a renowned four-volume memoir which includes The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, written after his release from prison; short-story compilations; essays; and plays. He’s also the executive director of the Gorée Institute, a center for democracy, development, and culture in Africa, situated on an island in the Bay of Dakar. In the fall he teaches at New York University’s creative writing program. We met in his office on Waverly Place, not far from Washington Square Park. The room was spare, and we faced each other across a bare desk, uncluttered save for the digital recording device I had just purchased. I couldn’t help recalling his layered descriptions of being interrogated by the South African security police and hoped that for him this was not a déjà vu of some kind.

—Anne Landsman


THE BELIEVER: I was thinking about the writing in prison and having to give what you wrote to the warders and what that did to memory, because I think writers are so concerned with memory, so concerned with note-taking. You had to surrender your pens, pencils, and notebooks every day, give them to the warders. What did that feel like? Did you have a way of tracking things in your mind, connecting things day by day?

BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Yes, I think so, yes. I think so. Particularly I remember working on, say, longer texts, prose texts, and having to hand it in and not getting it back and then writing—continuing to write the next day without being able to read what you’ve written before.

For me, writing in prison was a way of going into a space, which was partly memory and obviously partly one of the other rooms, a room of imagination. There’s a book—I don’t think you’ve read it but if you can get hold of it sometime—it’s perhaps the only one that really can explain what I’m trying to say, it’s called Mouroir.… Now this is actually the result of prison writing.… Mouroir is actually the text that I managed to come out with or smuggle out. And there I think you should be able to see the thing I’m trying to talk about.

What happened to me was that I felt that as I wrote I was entering a world that started unfolding as you entered it. You didn’t know where you were going to go when you entered it. It took you—it took you to places which may have existed there before in your mind somewhere, in your memory, but that you could not be sure about.

For me it was often linked to memory. Consciously or at one level of my consciousness I was trying to tie this writing to particular places or particular events or people, but in effect the sense I had was that the writing was a kind of a thread into a maze that revealed itself to me as I entered it with the line of writing.

Interestingly enough, also the characters nearly immediately became splintered. There was nearly a continuous kind of a doubling of self or multiplication of selves and these talked to one another. There was a kind of a racket—like being in a bar of different manifestations of self and getting progressively drunker and more aggressive toward the other selves in there, wanting to fight all of them and perhaps finding out that one is a minority. You’re going to get beaten up very badly. [Laughs]

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Anne Landsman’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Bomb, and Poets and Writers. She also has an essay on marriage in the upcoming anthology The Honeymoon’s Over. Her second novel, The Rowing Lesson, will be published by Soho Press in fall/winter of 2007-2008.

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