The story of an alliance between two poets — one Cuban, one South African



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Keorapetse Kgositsile.
Oupa Nkosi/Mail & Guardian

Cynthia Gabbay, Freie Universität Berlin and Karin Berkman, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

It’s a little more than a year since the death of Keorapetse Kgositsile, South Africa’s first post-apartheid poet laureate. Kgositsile, born in Johannesburg in 1938, became a prominent and vocal activist for the African National Congress (ANC). In 1961, at the behest of the ANC, he went into exile, initially to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and subsequently to the US where he became involved in the Black Arts Movement.

In 1990 he returned to South Africa and in 2006 was appointed Poet Laureate. In the many volumes published during his exile and after his return, Kgositsile repeatedly and fearlessly addressed the crimes both of apartheid and of global racism, advocating a revolutionary politics of resistance.

Kgositsile’s death in January 2018 was mourned across South Africa and indeed across the globe.




Read more:
A tribute to Keorapetse Kgositsile, South Africa’s poet laureate


In a moving tribute in the introduction to Kgositsile’s final volume Homesoil in My Blood the poet, novelist and activist, renowned South African writer Mandla Langa draws attention to Kgositsile’s poetic skill and to his unwavering conviction,

“that art to mean anything must be involved in social activism.”

In a short aside Langa notes Kgositsile’s fertile association with prominent activists and writers across the globe like Pablo Neruda from Chile, and Cubans Nicolás Guillén and Nancy Morejón. The brief mention of Morejón belies the importance of the relationship between two activist poets, one which has rarely been addressed.

A consideration of Morejón’s engagement with Kgositsile as a fellow poet – and her visit to South Africa – shed new light on her poetic practice. It allows too, a reaffirmation of Kgositsile’s uniquely South African voice and to highlight the reach and impact of his transnational status.

Revolutionary writers

Nancy Morejón.
Potosino/WikiMedia

Morejón, born in 1944, is, with Guillén, among Cuba’s most important revolutionary writers: internationally renowned for her work as a poet, critic and essayist, she has been widely translated. In 2001, Morejón was awarded Cuba’s National Prize in literature. Issues of race and gender are central to her oeuvre. Through her poetry she acknowledges the centrality and complexity of her Afro-Cuban identity from both pan-Caribbean and pan-African perspectives.

Morejón addresses the origins of her relationship with Kgositsile in a telling anecdote in her essay, “Viaje a Suráfrica” (Voyage to South Africa). In 1987 she attended the International Conference of Writers held in Congo, together with the Cuban poet and translator of African poetry, Rogelio Martínez Furé. She wrote:

We went to drink coffee with one of the writers who had intervened very boldly. He was a small, petite man, with broad and thick lips, with a physical fragility that contrasted with the strength of his word and his overwhelming sympathy.

Furé … decided to ply this new friend with questions. The last question was filled with anguish since we both expected a tragic response: ‘Do you know the whereabouts of the poet Keorapetse Kgositsile from Johannesburg? The only thing we know is that he is one of the poets who has been the longest time in exile and we have not heard from him for so long … Many fear for his life…’

With a smile full of mischief, our interlocutor, impassively, replied: ‘Keorapetse Kgositsile… that is me.’ At that moment my personal history with South Africa was born.

(Translation: Cynthia Gabbay)

The anecdote conveys Kgositsile’s frequently noted playfulness and the affection he commanded. It equally suggests the high regard in which he was held amongst the global community of writer–activists.

The importance of Africa, and of South Africa in particular, as a focus of Morejón’s poetics of resistance, and the extent of her identification with the struggle is evident in her 1989 volume, Baladas para un sueño (Ballads for a dream). In the poem “Silent Lullaby for South African Children” , Morejón addresses the iniquities of South Africa’s pass laws:

Mommy had no pass

and there was no bread.

Daddy had no pass

and he was punished.

Mommy had no pass

and there was no bread.

Daddy had no pass

and he died, slaughtered.

Mommy had no pass

and there was no bread.

(Translation: Cynthia Gabbay and Karin Berkman)

The poem makes clear the impossibility of any peaceful sleep for the child who voices the lament. Its evocation of the simple vocabulary of a child and its spare, plaintive refrains serve to accentuate its concern with the poverty and violence that are the legacies of apartheid.

Travelling across South Africa

In June 1992, in the dying throes of the apartheid regime, Morejón was invited to deliver the keynote address at the annual conference of the Congress of South African Writers. After the conference she travelled across South Africa, giving workshops and lectures. She was accompanied throughout by Kgositsile, whom she terms her “cicerone” (guide).

In her essay on this journey, Morejón expresses her wonder at the beauty of the South African landscape, and her pleasure at the fraternity she develops with the poet and with her new South African friends. At the same time, her confrontation with the terrifying realities of apartheid induce in her a profound, almost unbearable sense of estrangement. With Kgositsile as her guide, she visited Crossroads, the shantytown near Cape Town.

She describes an intense loss of bearings, a “sensation of living in Hitler’s dream”: the public toilets at the edge of the camp are indefinable, part sarcophagi, part public amenities. The location loses its specificity, at once a dumping ground and a cemetery, the evidence of apartheid as “a diabolical aberration”.

Morejón closes her essay with a tribute to the people she encounters:

South Africa pulses in my memory for the same story that runs through my own veins, for its art and literature, for the friends of the Congress of South African Writers, for the travelling musicians, the muleteers, the stevedores, the sangomas, the maids who told me their griefs experienced under apartheid, their hopes of making it disappear even after its theoretical death.

(Translation: Cynthia Gabbay)The Conversation

Cynthia Gabbay, Alexander von Humboldt Fellow and former Research Associate at ERC Project “Apartheid Stops” (at Hebrew University), Freie Universität Berlin and Karin Berkman, Post-doctoral researcher, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Hidden women of history: Enheduanna, princess, priestess and the world’s first known author



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Standard of Ur mosaic, 26th century BC.
Wikimedia Commons

Louise Pryke, Macquarie University

In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.

The world’s first known author is widely considered to be Enheduanna, a woman who lived in the 23rd century BCE in ancient Mesopotamia (approximately 2285 – 2250 BCE). Enheduanna is a remarkable figure: an ancient “triple threat”, she was a princess and a priestess as well as a writer and poet.

The third millennium BCE was a time of upheaval in Mesopotamia. The conquest of Sargon the Great saw the development of the world’s first great empire. The city of Akkad become one of the largest in the world, and northern and southern Mesopotamia were united for the first time in history.

In this extraordinary historical setting, we find the fascinating character of Enheduanna, Sargon’s daughter. She worked as the high priestess of the moon deity Nanna-Suen at his temple in Ur (in modern-day Southern Iraq). The celestial nature of her occupation is reflected in her name, meaning “Ornament of Heaven”.

Enheduanna composed several works of literature, including two hymns to the Mesopotamian love goddess Inanna (Semitic Ishtar). She wrote the myth of Inanna and Ebih, and a collection of 42 temple hymns. Scribal traditions in the ancient world are often considered an area of male authority, but Enheduanna’s works form an important part of Mesopotamia’s rich literary history.

Ancient Akkadian cylindrical seal depicting Mesopotamian love goddess Inanna.
Wikimedia Commons



Read more:
Friday essay: the legend of Ishtar, first goddess of love and war


Enheduanna’s status as a named poet is significant given the anonymity surrounding works of even earlier authors. Yet she is almost entirely unknown in the modern day, and her achievements have been largely overlooked (a notable exception is the work of Jungian analyst Betty De Shong Meador).
Her written works are deeply personal in subject, containing numerous biographical features.

Enheduanna’s cycle of temple hymns concludes with an assertion of the work’s originality and its authorship:

The compiler of the tablets was En-hedu-ana. My king, something has been created that no one has created before.

While clearly asserting ownership over the creative property of her work, Enheduanna also comments on the difficulties of the creative process — apparently, writer’s block was a problem even in ancient Mesopotamia.

Long hours labouring by night

In her hymns, Enheduanna comments on the challenge of encapsulating divine wonders through the written word. She describes spending long hours labouring over her compositions by night, for them then to be performed in the day. The fruits of her work are dedicated to the goddess of love.

Enheduanna’s poetry has a reflective quality that emphasises the superlative qualities of its divine muse, while also highlighting the artistic skill required for written compositions.

Her written praise of celestial deities has been recognised in the field of modern astronomy. Her descriptions of stellar measurements and movements have been described as possible early scientific observations. Indeed, a crater on Mercury was named in her honour in 2015.

Enheduanna’s works were written in cuneiform, an ancient form of writing using clay tablets but have only survived in the form of much later copies from around 1800 BCE, from the Old Babylonian period and later. The lack of earlier sources has raised doubts for some over Enheduanna’s identification as the author of myths and hymns and her status as a religious official of high rank. However, the historical record clearly identifies Enheduanna as the composer of ancient literary works, and this is undoubtedly an important aspect of the traditions surrounding her.




Read more:
Friday essay: the recovery of cuneiform, the world’s oldest known writing


Aside from poetry, other sources for Enheduanna’s life have been discovered by archaeologists. These include cylinder seals belonging to her servants, and an alabaster relief inscribed with her dedication. The Disk of Enheduanna was discovered by British archaeologist Sir Charles Leonard Woolley and his team of excavators in 1927.

The Disk of Enheduanna.
Zunkir/Mefman00/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

The Disk was discarded and apparently defaced in antiquity, but the pieces were recovered through excavations and the scene featuring the writer successfully restored. The scene depicts the priestess at work: along with three male attendants, she observes a libation offering being poured from a jug.

Enheduanna is situated in the centre of the image, with her gaze focused on the religious offering, and her hand raised in a gesture of piety. The image on the Disk emphasises the religious and social status of the priestess, who is wearing a cap and flounced garment.

Art imitates life

Enheduanna’s poetry contains what are thought to be autobiographical elements, such as descriptions of her struggle against a usurper, Lugalanne. In her composition The Exaltation of Inanna, Enheduanna describes Lugalanne’s attempts to force her from her role at the temple.

Inanna temple relief.
Wikimedia Commons

Enheduanna’s pleas to the moon god were apparently met with silence. She then turned to Inanna, who is praised for restoring her to office.

The challenge to Enheduanna’s authority, and her praise of her divine helper, are echoed in her other work, such as in the myth known as Inanna and Ebih.

In this narrative, the goddess Inanna comes into conflict with a haughty mountain, Ebih. The mountain offends the deity by standing tall and refusing to bow low to her. Inanna seeks help from her father, the deity Anu. He (understandably) advises her against going to war with the fearsome mountain range.

Inanna, in typically bold form, ignores this instruction and annihilates the mountain, before praising the god Enlil for his assistance. The myth contains intriguing parallels with the conflict described in Enheduanna’s poetry.

In the figure of Enheduanna, we see a powerful figure of great creativity, whose passionate praise of the goddess of love continues to echo through time, 4000 years after first being carved into a clay tablet.

Note: Translations of the Temple Hymns are taken from Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Fluckiger-Hawker, E, Robson, E., and Zólyomi, G., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Oxford 1998.The Conversation

Louise Pryke, Lecturer, Languages and Literature of Ancient Israel, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.