Dennis Brutus: South African literary giant who was reluctant to tell his life story

Dennis Brutus’s life is synonymous with South Africa’s freedom struggle.

Tyrone August, Stellenbosch University

This is an edited extract from a new biography about Dennis Brutus, the anti-apartheid activist, poet and author. Brutus died in 2009. The extract records Brutus’s reluctance to write about his life when he was still alive. But as Tyrone August, author of the biography, writes, it was inevitable that his life story would eventually be told: “Brutus’s life is woven far too deeply into the fabric of the recent history of South Africa.”

Dennis Brutus, the South African poet and veteran anti-apartheid activist, lived in Port Elizabeth, in the Eastern Cape, during the first half of the twentieth century. This tumultuous period saw the emergence of apartheid, a legally codified system of racial segregation and discrimination. It was followed by the development of a ruthless state apparatus designed to systematically eliminate any resistance.

It was in these grim circumstances that Brutus, who was classified as coloured – a term used to refer to people of mixed European (“white”) and African (“black”) or Asian ancestry – under the Population Registration Act of 1950, distinguished himself as a student, teacher, poet, journalist, sports administrator and anti-apartheid activist.

Yet, despite this range of achievements, there was not a single biography on him – until now. Nor did he publish any extended autobiographical work in a single volume. In a letter to the South African writer and academic Es’kia Mphahlele in November 1970, he confirmed his ambivalence about

get (ing) that mess of autobiographical material out of my system.

He expressed a similar sentiment in a tape recording in October 1974, and attributed his reluctance to embark on a full-scale autobiography to his belief that there was no coherent or unifying narrative in his life.

I fail to see in my life any kind of cohesion or pattern or unifying thread which would justify an autobiography … It seems to me that autobiographies need organisation of one’s knowledge of one’s life in such a way that a pattern emerges, some kind of intelligibility is made of the mass.

He added emphatically that he saw no such pattern in his life. And, until he could impose some such order on what had happened to him, it didn’t seem to him that he was entitled to write about it. He thought that, although some instances in his life might be exciting or flattering to him, they did not justify a book.

Aversion and ambivalence

Despite his aversion to writing an autobiography, Brutus conceded in the same tape recording that he was beginning to find the prospect “less repellant” than before. He went on to entertain the possibility of at least writing what he described as fragments of an autobiography in the form of essays.

So, by the time Hal Wylie, a University of Texas academic, approached him in 1988 about working towards an autobiography, he was more amenable to the idea. Wylie offered to assist with “spade-work and organising, etc”.

He tried to persuade Brutus that an autobiography would be preferable to an academic work on his life as it would be enriched by certain poetic and literary qualities. It could focus on existential details, memories, personal aspects that would not be appropriate for an official biography, but would be more striking, interesting, with greater human interest.

In an admittedly subjective work one would have more choice and editorial focus. It would be more direct and forceful.

In addition, Wylie submitted that Brutus’s life was closely interlinked with the rise of apartheid and, at the same time, offered “a new way of looking at the anti-apartheid struggle”. He drew particular attention to Port Elizabeth and the Eastern Cape as major sites of this struggle. In response, Brutus wrote encouragingly: “I like the project.”

Nevertheless, Brutus expressed concern about the amount of work required by an autobiography. Instead, he advised, he would still prefer a biography written by Wylie or, alternatively, a biography “as told to Hal Wylie”. Despite his reservations about writing a fully fledged autobiography, Brutus started working with Wylie on a rough draft. This effort was provisionally titled – in a handwritten addition – The Autobiography of the South African Troubadour (or, alternatively, The Story of a Troubadour/Griot).

Wylie recalled in personal correspondence how this draft was created: “It was based on tapes that Dennis recorded, which I then transcribed and typed up. It was then supplemented with additions he wrote in by hand and responses he gave me in response to my questions.”

However, this collaboration eventually collapsed. “When we got to late adolescence and adulthood he clammed up and wouldn’t respond to further questions, so it was abandoned at that point”, Wylie stated.

He then passed the project to another biographer, whose name has since escaped him, but it did not get any further. This is not surprising.

A simple lust

Although initially Brutus felt sufficiently comfortable about working with Wylie on an autobiography, he continued to harbour deep suspicions about the intrusive nature of biographical writing.

His discomfort with the possibility of potential biographers invading his private life is clearly reflected in an untitled poem published in 1973 in his collection, A Simple Lust:

Finding this rubbish,

this debris,

of mine after

I am dead,

when they come to pry

mouse-rustling in my papers,

ghoulishly-hopeful in my things,

what rubbish they will find!

Will I shrivel, inanimate, in my shame?

Will the dead flesh curl up in protest

being assessed by curious strangers’ hands?

A life woven in history

But, in the long run, renewed interest from potential biographers was probably inevitable. Brutus’s life is woven far too deeply into the fabric of the recent history of South Africa. This is true especially of the first four decades of his life, which, as the most important period in his personal, literary and political development, is the particular focus of Dennis Brutus, The South African Years, published by Best Red, an imprint of HSRC Press. Brutus died of prostate cancer at his home in Cape Town on 26 December 2009.The Conversation

Tyrone August, Research fellow, Stellenbosch University

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

Fiction, fact and Hillary Clinton: an American politics expert reads Rodham

Library of Congress

Brendon O’Connor, University of Sydney

Curtis Sittenfeld has a knack of putting her readers in uncomfortable places in her fiction. In her short story Gender Studies she puts you in the middle of a hotel tryst between a Clinton-supporting professor and a Trump-supporting shuttle bus driver. In The Nominee, a journalist vomits on Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In Rodham, Sittenfeld returns to the former First Lady, but with a twist. An imagined memoir, Rodham is propelled by a “what if” thought experiment: what if, in 1975, Hillary left Bill?

It is an alternative reality page turner, and a welcome escapist read in these difficult times.

But how does the book play with the historical record?

Year of the Woman

Sittenfeld’s first turning point in Hillary’s political career is while she watches the 1991 Clarence Thomas Senate confirmation hearings from her colleague’s office at Northwestern University.

In both the true and imagined histories — despite clear evidence Thomas had sexually harassed his former employee Anita Hill — a predominantly male Senate confirmed Thomas’s appointment.

The backlash against these widely watched hearings led to 1992 being dubbed the “Year of the Woman” when a record number of women ran and were elected to the US Congress.

The Senate Democratic women in 1993, Carol Moseley-Braun is second from right. In Rodham, Hillary takes Braun’s place.
Wikimedia Commons

In the novel, Hillary runs and defeats Carol Moseley Braun in the Democrat primary. In real life, Braun won this race to become the first ever black female Senator.

The 60 Minutes interview

It is credibly claimed Hillary’s strength in 1992’s infamous 60 Minutes interview saved Bill’s candidacy.

I have watched the real interview with Hillary many times with my students. Questioned about Bill’s alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers, the interview was a watershed moment in the changing attitude of the media towards politicians’ sex lives.

The interview is tough to first watch: why should any couple’s most private affairs be discussed on television like this? What good does it serve?

On re-watching the interview, I am struck by the effective way in which Bill and Hillary talk down the interviewer and control the narrative. Hillary particularly does this with her famous statement:

I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I’m sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honour what he’s been through and what we’ve been through together. And you know, if that’s not enough for people, then heck — don’t vote for him.

In Sittenfeld’s imagined interview, Bill’s publicity-shy wife, Sarah Grace, breaks down and cries, effectively ending Bill’s run for presidency.

Sexism in politics

Rodham does an excellent job at detailing the many forms of sexism women face in academia and politics. In the first part of the novel, Professor Rodham is a successful law academic whose male students and colleagues say things they would never say to male academics.

Such double standards are also highlighted by the fictional Hillary once she enters politics as a Senator for Illinois. She laments:

The extra time female politicians were expected to spend on our appearance, known as the pink tax, amounted to an hour a day for me, but I’d learned the hard way that this was necessary. In the past, whenever I didn’t have my hair and makeup professionally done, the media would speculate about whether I was ill or exhausted.

Hillary Clinton in 1993.
Library of Congress

In a delicious plot line, Bill and Hillary end up competing against each other in the 2016 Presidential primaries which leads Hillary to ask: “You know when true equality will be achieved? When a woman with these kinds of skeletons in her closet has the nerve to run for the office.”

Truths and half-truths

The novel draws on the rumours published in Vanity Fair and elsewhere of Bill Clinton’s affairs and involvement in sex parties, as well as discussing the long-standing allegation he raped a female campaign volunteer in the 1970s.

Read more:
Weiner’s erotic mediation: Bill Clinton’s sex vs Anthony Weiner’s sexting

In the novel Hillary’s long-time mentor Gwen Greenberger, an African American children’s right advocate, is stand-in for a few significant figures in Hillary’s actual life, including the very impressive Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund.

The novel also features James, a stand in character for Hillary Clinton’s friend and fellow partner at the Rose Law Firm in Arkansas, Vince Foster, who died by suicide leading to conspiracy theories against the Clintons.

An appeal to experience

Throughout Rodham, Sittenfeld dissects the question of Hillary’s “likeability” by the press and the American people. In a killer debate response (that I wish she had given in 2016) she says:

[I]f you want someone to look out for the interests of the American people, for your family, for you – someone who understands the economy and education and health care and foreign policy … then vote for me.

In the real election in 2016, too many Americans ignored this appeal to experience and competence and tragically they have ended up with a president that cares little about governing or even the rising death toll of his own people.

The truth has turned out to be more unbelievable than Sittenfeld’s fiction.The Conversation

Brendon O’Connor, Associate Professor in American Politics at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney

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