“We listen to one another’s stories so that we share carrying the truth. But we also listen to stories in order to become, for one brief moment, somebody else, to be somewhere we’ve not been before. We listen to stories in order to be changed. At the end of the story we do not want to be the same person as the one who started listening.”
This is a favourite quote of Marisa Botha, postdoctoral fellow at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in Port Elizabeth who is conducting a study on the autobiographical code in Antjie Krog’s prose works. The quote is taken from the book There Was This Goat – Investigating the Truth Commission Testimony of Notrose Nobomvu Konile (2009) which was written by Antjie Krog, Nosisi Mpolweni and Kopano Ratele after Krog was struck by the seeming incongruity of Notrose’s testimony.
Notrose was the mother of Zabonke Konile, a young man killed with six of his friends in what has become known as the Gugulethu Seven incident. Her story was lost through inept translation from her mother tongue to a language the world would understand.
“In Antie Krog’s role as translator she has made recent strides in her quest for reconciliation and unity. In her vocabulary, “translate” does not merely refer to linguistic translation of languages, but to translation of cultures in order to bring about greater understanding and mutual respect, thus a unifying strategy,” said Marisa.
Marisa, herself a translator of sorts having studied five languages at university level, is known internationally for her PhD thesis study of the poetry of the self-same Antjie, especially the autobiographical element of her work.
In the opinion of Prof Helize van Vuuren, Distinguished Professor of Afrikaans and Dutch Literature at NMMU, similarities between these two women drew Marisa to the work of Antjie Krog.
“I taught Marisa from her first year at university through to supervising her PhD, so I got to know her well and I got to know Antjie through Marisa’s dissertation and it became quite apparent to me that both these women were people who were not bound by prescribed gender roles, that they were courageous people walking where angels feared to tread,” Helize said.
To illustrate her point, she recalled a conversation she had with Marisa shortly after completing her PhD. Marisa mentioned that she wanted to go to the United States of America as a postdoctoral Fellow and Helize replied that she only knew one person in the US, a certain Professor Rita Barnard, former editor of Safundi, the Journal of South African and American Studies.
“I mentioned Rita to her and the next thing I heard, Marisa was on her way to the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in Philadelphia,” Helize laughed, explaining that most people would never have had the guts to follow up on a lead like that, but Marisa had and it paid off.
Apparently there was no postdoctoral position available, but for some reason Marisa received an invitation as a Visiting Scholar from the chair of the Department of English, Prof Nancy Bentley.
It was there, at the Department of English of UPenn and at the Alice Paul Centre for Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, at the same university where she was invited to be a Visiting Scholar, that she grew as a research academic, delivering numerous papers, including a paper titled: Shivering in the Colour of Human; The Variety of Voices in Antjie Krog’s Oeuvre.
“When I started with my PhD, I thought I would embody all of Antjie’s work in my research, but I realised almost too late that that was too much so I had to scale down and focus only on her poetry,” Marisa said, adding that she wrote almost half of her thesis in just two months – with the help of a lot of chocolate.
Marisa chose Antjie as a subject because she wanted to study a South African author, and also as she thought her to be a very interesting person.
Marisa tells the story of Antjie beginning her literary career in 1970 as a 17-year old girl and then going on to contribute a large body of work to African literature, including poetry, poetry for children, prose novels, drama and translations, not to mention her work as a journalist and radio journalist.
According to Marisa, it was an anti-establishment poem Antjie penned for her school magazine that brought her into the national spotlight in the ultra-conservative Kroonstad, a smalll town in the Free State. In the poem she wrote: Give me a land where black and white hand in hand, Can bring peace and love to my beautiful land.
Marisa lived that line. While she did go to a school attended by different cultures, she cut through more cultural clutter just by attending a karate club in the coloured neighbourhood where she and her older brother were the only two white kids.
After matriculating as the Dux Scholar at Alexandria High School in the small Eastern Cape town of Alexandria, Marisa decided to take a gap year, landing up on the east coast of America where she worked for several families as an au pair. It was while working at her last family that she learnt a lesson that she will never forget.
“The family I worked for co-owned a restaurant with Aerosmith and one night I was in the restaurant when Steven Tyler came in with his son,” Marisa recalled, “they were two metres away from me and I was too insecure at that moment to introduce myself. I learnt that if an opportunity arises you should take it and not wait for another time when you think you might be better prepared because sometimes those opportunities do not come around again, as was the case in this instance.
During the six months Marisa spent as a Visiting Scholar at UPenn, she delivered a paper that had a big impact on her at the American Comparative Literature Association Conference held at Brown University.
“By writing this paper, Giving a Voice to the Victim: Translation as Unifying Strategy, I realised the importance of cultural diversity and how the understanding of language and culture can lead to a nation’s unity,” Marisa said. “This knowledge has strengthened my belief that reading is a basic right of every individual and has reinforced my desire to be a part of an adult and/or child “Learning to Read” initiative.”
According to Marisa, her memory studies in the US focused on the Holocaust and in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission testimonies are well documented, which led her to focus on a lesser known genre in which she explores the relation between memory, trauma, culture, as well as gender, with a focus on South African women who have been in prison and or exile.
Marisa explained that a major reason for this is that in traditional African cultures women are still repressed with their social roles prescribed. Giving a voice to these woman will lead to a greater understanding of our culturally diverse society.
“This is one of the reasons I find my work enthralling, the fact that it could possibly make a difference to the lives of people one day,” Marisa said.