Saturday, September 27, 2008

Breytenbach and Iweala event

Uzodinma Iweala, at Princeton University, Sept. 24, 2008. Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

This past Wednesday, I attended a rare event here at Princeton; one of those days that, if you kept a diary, you begin by marking the date with an asterisk: a joint reading session by two remarkable writers, Breyten Breytenbach and Uzodinma Iweala.

Uzodinma Iweala reading, Sept. 24, 2008 at Princeton University. Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

Uzodinma Iweala, the 23-year old Nigerian author of the brow-raising first novel, Beasts of No Nation, and currently a medical student at Columbia University, invented a writing style that is as poetic--particularly when you listened to him read from the novel, the cadence modulated by the inventive remaking of verbs and nouns into present participles--as the narrative is horrific. He read the passage in which the boy soldier experienced his first killing orgy. The beauty of fiction, in the hands of Iweala, is that it could present this story of sickeningly degraded childhood in a way that still made the boy soldier a sympathetic figure.

Of course during the Q/A, someone wanted to know more about the language of the novel. Did he invent it? Was he reflecting the way of speaking of this fictional West African boy? By way of response he stated that his was a conscious refracting of pidgin english to satisfy his own literary aesthetic, but also to come close to the inventiveness of the pidgin language spoken in West Africa, emphasizing that his effort follows on the tradition mined by writers such as Amos Tutuola, Ken Saro-Wiwa (who wrote in naturalistic pidgin), and others.

Breyten Breytenbach, Sept. 24, 2008 at Princeton University. Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

The day before this event, I had been watching the 1978 documentary film "Afrikaner Experience: Politics of Exclusion, (in prep for my course on Art, Apartheid and South Africa) and therein was a discussion of Breyten Breytenbach as the foremost Afrikaner Poet, tried and jailed for 7 years after he "betrayed" his Afrikaner identity by marrying a Vietnamese wife (a crime under the law) and committed high treason by campaigning against the Apartheid regime while in exile. It makes you wonder why some South African artists never got the memo, considering that his older compatriot, Ernest Mancoba married the Dutch artist Sonja Ferlov and wanted to return to South African with her. Apparently in a more generous mood in its early years, the Apartheid regime persuaded the Mancobas to not come to South Africa. And they never did.

Breyten Breytenbach reading, Sept. 24, 2008 at Princeton University. Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

Anyways, having watched the Afrikaner Experience the previous day, seeing the now 69-year old Breytenbach, gentle with a killing smile perpetually flickering across his face, you realize that such men as he have an incredible reserve of humanity that differentiates them from the crowd. For how else to understand the quiet decorous presence he shares with another former "terrorist" and compatriot Nelson Mandela? He read from his Windcatcher and the brand new All One Horse, which is illustrated with his own watercolors. I tried to count how many times the word "love" occurred in the poems; I could not, lost in the aura of a remarkable man, artist, and writer.

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