Breytenbach reads at Kelly Writers House

'Writers Without Borders' speaker discusses division between art and reality

The Daily Pennsylvanian
December 5th, 2008

Media Credit: Boyang Tang
South African writer Breyten Breytenbach speaks at the Kelly Writers House on Thursday night and reads selections from his books.

South African Breyten Breytenbach grasped the edges of the podium with a stack of his books before him. "We poets are lucky, we don't carry too much luggage. We can carry our tortuous lives in 500 pages."

Breytenbach delivered a reading of his printed "luggage" at the Kelly Writers House Arts Cafe last night as part of KWH's new "Writers without Borders" series. The program is sponsored by Provost Ron Daniels and aims to bring international authors with unique voices to the Penn community.

From a short story of a lost love to poems about his time in one of the worst prisons in his country, Breytenbach's work touched upon a variety emotional and cultural topics. The common denominator was an inseparable and tragic influence of historical injustice.

Breytenbach read an excerpt from his novel, A Veil of Footsteps, which explores what it means to be "looking for the road" as a perpetually displaced traveler. The work relates to his own exile from his homeland, South Africa, for marrying a woman of a different race.

"Nothing belongs to me, and yet I am the proprietor of a slew of stars," he read.

Breytenbach's work blurs the lines between his identity as a writer and activist. It is impossible for him to separate his writing from the land of his childhood and his mother tongue.

"The art of creativity cannot be divided from political and social realities," he said.

Breytenbach captivated his audience with poetry heavy with words like "shackles," "bones," "darkness" and "ash" and spoke about the crucial factor that binds all African writers - not being heard by their own people.

"It's a problematic activity," he said. "There are no publishing facilities in their [native] language[s]."

Third-year medical student Elise Carpenter said she attended the reading because of her medical research in South Africa.

"For someone who works in the environment of medicine where people are constantly just doing, emotional reflection is really refreshing and potentially transformative," she said.

Joe Napolitano, a New York University graduate student of South African literature who studies English and Zulu texts, said he enjoyed listening to Breytenbach talk about issues of translation.

"The Penn community has to be exposed to writing from the rest of the globe," said Audrey Mbeje, professor of Zulu and director of the African language program at the African studies program. "For me as a native of South Africa, it was wonderful to relive the experiences of my home country here at Penn."