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The Making of a Literary Guide To The Eastern Cape PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 05 March 2007 01:24

The Making of a Literary Guide To The Eastern Cape

 Jeanette Eve


                          My title is ‘The Making of A Literary Guide to the Eastern Cape. Sometime towards the end of last year, after I had been working for some 15 months with Russell Martin, publishing director of Double Storey Books who had taken on the Literary Guide, he wrote in an E-mail: ‘Won’t it be exciting when we start making the book?’! ‘What....’ I thought ‘does Russell think I have been doing for the last 10 plus years!’ When the making began in the publishers’ sense - the making of the artifact which is this handsome volume (thanks to Double Storey) - I realised what he meant. It is not, however, that aspect of making I want to talk about, but the process of conceiving, researching and writing the book.


                        Most of you, I’m sure, are familiar with John Keats’ sonnet, ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’.

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Keats imagines literary works as states and kingdoms, islands and realms - places to be visited and explored through the act of reading. The sonnet goes on to celebrate the poet’s discovery of a new country - Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey - through reading George Chapman’s translations. He had heard about but never himself visited this “wide expanse”. Keats feels like an astronomer – “some watcher of the skies” who has discovered a new planet, or an explorer who has made an amazing new geographical discovery “like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes / He stared at the pacific and all his men / Gazed at each other with a wild surmise / Silent upon a peak in Darien”.

Working on A Literary Guide to the Eastern Cape has been for me a similar kind of exciting travel adventure or journey of discovery. Not that I would, for a moment, put myself on the same plain as Keats, or our South African literature on the same plain as that of the ancient Greeks; while discovering the varied riches of the Eastern Cape and literature associated with it, exciting as that has been, is hardly comparable to discovering a new planet. There are, however, points of similarity. I have, for most of my life, enjoyed exploring the realms of literature but, until in 1991, I joined the staff of NELM - the National English Literary Museum in Grahamstown - my journeys as student, teacher and just plain reader, had been round what Keats calls the “western islands” - the literature of Britain and Europe - or through the American landscape, with a touchdown here and there in Australia. Nearer home I had enjoyed some of our South African imaginative literature, both prose and poetry, but had studied very little of it in any depth. A new world was, indeed, about to “swim into my ken” - not a distant planet but a world that was all around me.

I went to work at NELM a few years after being awarded a Master’s degree as a ‘mature’ student (I’m not quite sure what constitutes maturity but my grey hairs will tell you that even 15 years ago I was more than middle aged). My MA was awarded for a thesis on the uses of place in some of the novels of the 19th century English novelist, Elizabeth Gaskell. A far cry from the Eastern Cape. The connections between literature and place and the uses to which a writer can put selected elements of the outer world which she or he recreates on the page, were, therefore, close to my heart and present in my mind. When I was invited to choose a project on which to work in lieu of study time, I thought about a South African literary guide which would link place and writers, not only biographically but also in terms of what place becomes in their writings.


Along with this academic interest went a personal one. When travelling, in the literal sense, I had enjoyed visiting places associated with writers or their works: Shakespeare’s Stratford; Austen’s Hampshire; Hardy’s Wessex; Wordsworth’s Lake District, Frost’s New England, Eliot’s Little Gidding and so forth. In the UK I had found books such as Margaret Drabble’s A Writer’s Britain to guide me, whether I was able to visit the places these books mentioned in the flesh, as it were, or only in the mind. Why not do something similar, if a lot more modest, for my own country? Soon I realised that trying to do anything remotely resembling a ‘Writer’s South Africa’ would be a gargantuan task. I would have to limit the scope of my project, and I decided to focus on the Eastern Cape, at the time a small part of the Cape Province. I imagined an area more or less between Port Elizabeth and East London. I should have had the sense to limit it to Grahamstown, or even the little village of Salem, either of which could have provided enough material for a manageable project that might have taken somewhat less than a decade to complete! When the new provincial boundaries were announced I realised that I had taken on an area that stretches from the Bloukrans River - the Eastern Cape’s border with the Western Cape - to the Umtamvuna, its border with KwaZulu-Natal, from the sea to the Orange River and the southern Drakensberg. An exciting, but somewhat daunting prospect.

From the start, my idea was to produce a book that would deal with the ways in which writers responded to specific places in the Eastern Cape, how they presented the outer world to their readers and how they used the outer world or features of it for literary purposes and to express their different perspectives on the world they encountered. The idea of trying to see through the eyes of another had, for a long time, intrigued me, and with our new dispensation in South Africa, it seemed essential to try to do so. Literature is a good way of gaining insight into the experiences and viewpoints of people different from oneself. I had, therefore, to try to cover as wide a spectrum of writers as possible without artificially manipulating my material. I also wanted a book for laypersons rather than exclusively for academics. It would therefore, have to be couched in accessible, non-academic language, but should have a scholarly basis. I believe (and sales of the book have, I think proved this) that many people who have no formal training in literary studies, enjoy, or would like to enjoy, poetry and good writing but need to have it presented to them in a context. Place is a context to which all can relate. It is part of who we are. I felt, also, that whole poems or substantial excerpts, and substantial prose extracts would be necessary because our literature is not generally well known and not always available. It would be no good simply to quote a few lines here and there.

One of the purposes of the guide, as I saw it, was both to celebrate what is beautiful and good about our province as a microcosm of our country, and to confront what is or has been ugly and imperfect. What better way than viewing it through the eyes of writers or by listening to their voices. I, myself, was learning so much through the writers I was encountering, albeit superficially, through my work with press-clippings at NELM.

I also decided to look not only at Eastern Cape writers but at any writer who has responded to something in the Eastern Cape landscape (or town or city or any other kind of ‘scape) and made of it a work of literary art. Writings chosen should be of an imaginative or personal nature: poems, short stories, novels, autobiographies, diaries and journals and they could include writings for children and young people as well as for adults. The focus would be on English writings but consideration should be given also to translations from Xhosa and Afrikaans. Some consideration should be given to oral traditions.


Should the subject be tackled historically from the earliest to the most recent writings? According to authors? Or regionally? All eras, yes, but regionally was my choice for the ordering of material and I would move from west to east.

While all these ideas were taking shape I was collecting material. Lindy Stiebel suggested, at some stage of our correspondence about this colloquium, that I tell you about my methodology. I had a quiet chuckle about that. Some of my ‘methodology’ has been decidedly unmethodical. I cannot describe stages or steps along the way progressing along an orderly and well-defined path towards a clearly visualised goal. The paths have cris-crossed, sometimes run parallel, sometimes diverged, eventually converged.


I’ll try to tell you something about the material gathering paths which I see as two series of journeys: one literary, the other literal. I travelled far and wide through the realms of South African literature, starting with a few Eastern Cape writers about whom I knew a little - a very little at that stage: Olive Schreiner, Guy Butler, Athol Fugard, Francis Carey Slater, and, along the way, I met many others, contemporary writers new to me such as Alan James, Brian Walter and Cathal Lagan, 18th century travellers such as Anders Sparrman and Carl Thunberg, Xhosa literary figures such as S E K Mqhayi, A C Jordan and two new Port Elizabeth poets, Mxolisi Nyezwa and Mzi Mahola, and so on and so on - more than a hundred of them (eventually whittled down to 80), each looking at the Eastern Cape scene in his or her own way, each filtering what they saw through their particular personal, cultural or political perspectives, each describing it with a distinctive voice or using features of it as springboards for their diverse ideas.


I raided NELM’s comprehensive library and read and read and read - haphazardly but always with the same purpose in mind. Where a passage or poem struck me as relevant to my project, I copied and filed it. NELM’s librarians did endless database searches for me which threw up ideas to be pursued; personal suggestions such as Guy Butler’s that I should look at the writings of early travellers were followed - that took months! I was, at the time, compiling my own database for the press-clippings collection which included a field for ‘place’ so that was another source of information. One thing led to another. The files grew; the number of writers grew - I had files for writers and files for places and files for themes and files for ideas! I looked, not only, at the established writers, but at minor and unpublished ones. The criterion was - does this poem or this passage show an interesting, well-written response to something in the outer world of the Eastern Cape?


At the same time I was collecting information about these writers for the mini-biographies I wanted to include. I didn’t want mere Notes on Authors at the end of the guide. They must be an integral part of the text. Sometimes I relied on published interviews or biographical sketches, sometimes I approached writers directly. What interesting friends I made! Some of these writers later became guides to their parts of the province - Brian Walter, for example, to the Alice area and Mzi Mahola to New Brighton. And, of course, I had to collect material about places from guidebooks, pamphlets, travellers’ accounts, historical writings. Oh, and maps! I spent hours poring over maps! One of my few disappointments with the book is that there are not more maps - too complicated and expensive.


The project had become ‘an approved NELM project’ - approved by the Council to which regular reports on progress were made. NELM’s marvellous resources of books, journals and manuscripts, photographs and press- clippings were at my disposal, not to mention the expertise of her staff, including a marvellous editor of drafts - Elaine Pearson - who, very sadly indeed, died before the book came out. And this kind of help continued even after I retired in 1997 to give the project my full (or nearly full) attention.


And why the Eastern Cape? Obviously because that was where I was living, but also because, as a relative newcomer, I was learning more and more about its many natural attractions, its turbulent history,  its splendid variety of cultures, and that it was a neglected and often disregarded part of our country which deserved greater recognition by both South Africans and visitors from other countries. Not to mention the worldwide population of people who have spent some part of their lives there. It is also a part of South Africa in which English writing, including Black writing, has important roots.


As I have said, the Eastern Cape was a new area for me requiring exploration and journeying of a more literal kind. I am not an Eastern Caper, born and bred, although I have some ancestral roots there (and, incidentally, some in KwaZulu-Natal). I was born in Pretoria where I went to school and where I taught for a few years after a brief sortie into the Eastern Cape to study English and History at Rhodes University. In 1959 I moved with my husband to what was then Rhodesia where he took up a lecturing post in the Chemistry Department of the exciting new multiracial university in Salisbury, now Harare. We lived there for a little over 20 years, raising three children and pursuing, among other things, our rather different interests of Chemistry and of English - somewhat haphazardly in my case but, for the last eight years of our central African sojourn, I taught at a school which held literary studies in high esteem. 1980 found us back in Grahamstown, this time permanently, and it found me back among the student population at Rhodes doing English Honours and then an MA. And gradually over those years I have fallen more and more deeply in love with the Eastern Cape - a landscape very different from the old Transvaal or the old Rhodesia.


Alongside my paper journeys ‘from page to page’, I was able - again with NELM’s help - to undertake that other form of travel: ‘from place to place’. Occasional short expeditions (from one to three days at a time) were sanctioned in the NELM vehicle with the museum’s chief technician, Basil Mills, at the wheel or behind the lens of a camera. Basil is a photographer and artist and much else besides, and I was extremely fortunate to be able to work with him. He is a marvellous character who never wears a watch - a little disconcerting when on a field trip – and who always wears a cowboy hat atop long flowing hair (once we nearly lost the hat in the Gamtoos Valley, the only time I saw Basil really worried). Among other things he is a collector of snakes and very recently I learned that, on one of our expeditions, he found a berg adder on the top of Sandile’s kop near Fort Hare University and placed it in a packet (which, he says, I provided) and hid it in the car, praying all the way home that it wouldn’t escape! He is an excellent driver with whom I never felt nervous despite some of the rough or precipitous roads we traversed. He is an entertaining guide to the Eastern Cape which he knows intimately, a considerate travel companion (except, perhaps about snakes) with a well-developed spirit of adventure, not to mention a well-developed sense of humour. So together, and sometimes separately, we began to collect photographs, impressions and facts about places far and near, and to try to identify places that have become literary recreations.


We crossed the Suurberg in the footsteps of Thomas Pringle, or rather in the hoofprints of his horse, stopping to admire what Pringle describes as the “billowy chaos of naked mountains, rocks, precipices, and yawning abysses”. We visited Sir Percy FitzPatrick’s farm ‘Amanzi’ in the Sundays River Valley and admired the original drawings for Jock of the Bushveld. We visited many sites - about 20 feature in the guide - in Port Elizabeth, including the township New Brighton which Fugard put on the international literary map; the ruins of St Peter’s church in the old South End (PE’s District Six), about which I had found a very moving poem; we explored the Swartkops mudflats where Boesman and Lena dig for mudprawns and found our own prawn digger, and we linked many other sites to their literary recreations.


In the Stormberg region we found the farm where William Plomer had spent a ‘gap year’ in 1920, and which is the setting for one of his best loved short stories – “Down on the Farm”. We hoped to find the farm Grootzeekoegat near Molteno so lovingly described in Johannes Meintjes’s autobiographical writings, but learned, alas, that the farmhouse had been demolished; and, still in the Stormberg, recognised many things in and around Sterkstroom that feature in the novels of the contemporary novelist, Farida Karodia.  These experiences and the reading that went with them became a chapter called “Three Stormberg Writers”.


We went to Storms River Mouth to see where the poet, Jonty Driver, had sat all one winter’s day watching the waves breaking and had turned the experience into a philosophical meditation on his place in the universe. We (or at least Basil) climbed to the top of the lighthouse at Cape St Francis; and, in the same area, went on a wild goose or rather wild swan chase looking for the swans Alan James describes on the Kromme River - they had been removed. We found, with the assistance of the Berlin (Berlin near King William’s Town) police, the mount of glory - Ntambozuko - where S E K Mqhayi had spent the last 20 years of his life, descending from time to time to perform his praise poems for important visitors. And we explored many other places featured in the Guide, although not, alas, all of them. We learned from each other and from what we encountered or I had read, and at some places we were helped by local people.


Everywhere Basil took photographs, sometimes choosing his own subjects, sometimes following my requests with some puzzlement as I had in mind a particular literary recreation of a place or a feature of the landscape - broken shells on a beach, broken glass etc along a railway line, sheep shearing, or a lonely grave. The original idea had been to have a book lavishly illustrated with colour photographs, but when the book’s designer, Sarah Anne Raynham, suggested sepia drawings and a limited number of evocative photographs - and I’m sure you will agree that her ideas were inspired - many of those photographs became the models for Basil’s fine drawings which so aptly enhance the text of the book.


Some journeys were undertaken independently - Basil and I pooling our knowledge and the images we had formed at a later stage. My husband and I and a friend, for instance, visited Cookhouse (for Chris Mann’s “Cookhouse Station” poem), Somerset East, Pearston and Cranemere (for Eve Palmer’s Plains of Camdeboo) one day in October 2000, and were shown round Pearston by the local dominee. He pointed out some poems by Ernst van Heerden displayed in a side room of the Dutch Reformed Church. I was so taken with them that I obtained copies and had one translated for the guide.  Traveling was a two-way process. I went to a place with ideas gained from my reading. I came back with others that affected my reading and what I was writing bit by bit, not necessarily in chronological order.


So much material presented itself and demanded to be included that we (Basil, myself and NELM) thought that a series of four or five slim volumes, each dealing with a different region of the Eastern Cape would be a good idea. When, in June 2001, the draft of the first one, with an outline of the others, was presented to a publisher in Cape Town, we came down to earth with a bump. One volume for the whole of the Eastern Cape; no colour; more focus on literature and no flowery, touristy descriptions of place, and they’d be very interested! It seemed like a setback, but was really a huge leap forward. Someone was seriously interested in publishing what had sometimes seemed a crazy dream. So, we turned around. I had to rewrite, revise, prune, root out, replant, expand, edit, be edited ad infinitum. Basil had to draw, draw and draw again, sometimes through the night.


Two years later, after more exploration of pages and places, plenty of work with Basil’s pencil and my computer keyboard, and much e-mailing between Grahamstown and my editor in Cape Town (Helen Laurenson), Double Storey  launched A Literary Guide to the Eastern Cape at the 2003 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. My laat lammetjie was born in my 70th year. I hope that she will tell all those who meet her that we, in the Eastern Cape, have an interesting literature and a diverse and beautiful province, albeit with an often sad history, and that these are parts of the literature, the landscape and the history of our great country.