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  • Sound Effects:Synaesthesia as Purposeful Distortion in Keorapetse Kgositsile's Poetry
  • Tsitsi Jaji (bio)

There is a long history of cultural affinities between African Americans with their roots in slavery and Jim Crow and South African peoples who suffered from apartheid and its precursors. While the differences between their respective situations were never obscured, the sense of a shared political project was perhaps most marked during the 1960s and 70s when numerous South African exiles in the United States encountered the civil rights movement and cultural nationalism which followed in its wake, most notably in the Black Arts Movement. The question arises, to what extent did the interest in African-American culture and politics translate into distinct aesthetic strategies on the part of South African writers? One answer emerges from an analysis of the poetry of Keorapetse Kgositsile, currently poet laureate of South Africa, and in particular the synaesthesisa that marks his blend of poetry and the African-American musical styles of jazz and soul. As a South African writer who published the bulk of his work in the United States during and after his exile in the United States as an African National Congress (ANC) activist, Kgositsile was closely involved with the Black Arts Movement, and shared its commitment to music as a generative source of politicized aesthetics. Through citations of specific musicians, compositions and performance venues, and transcriptions of rhythmic and improvisatory performance practices, Kgositsile allows the aural sensory mode of listening to music to structure visual, haptic, and other metaphors as part of a generalized strategy of synaesthesia in his poetry. Just as synaesthesia relies on producing identification between different sensory modes—to see a sound, or hear a haptic touch—so it can be extended as a metaphor for solidarity [End Page 287] alongside difference, and in Kgositsile's writing it is used to figure solidarity between African-American and South African liberation struggles.

Between 1968 and 1972 a number of collections of Black Arts Movement writing appeared, the best known of which include Black Fire, edited by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal, Black Poets edited by Dudley Randall, Understanding the New Black Poetry edited by Stephen Henderson, Black arts edited by Ahmed Akinwole Alhamisi and Harun KofiWangara, and The Black Aesthetic edited by Addison Gayle.1 The tables of contents list many African-American artists who had chosen African names as an expression of a renewed interest in and identification with the continent. It would be easy to mistake the name Keorapetse "Willie" Kgositsile for one of these. As a South African ANC activist in exile in the United States, Kgositsile was consistently the only African-born author in these anthologies. Kgositsile's work has the potential to enrich our understandings of the relationship between diaspora, exile, and solidarity. It has long been a truism in African-American letters that vernacular music has crucially informed writerly traditions; however, this study demonstrates that what Houston Baker calls the "blues matrix" of African-American literature has an international scope, making possible the ethical black literary transnationalism in which Kgositsile participated.

Opening his poetics to the aesthetic values of diaspora music, particularly jazz and soul, allows Kgositsile to articulate a solidarity between the South African anti-apartheid and American Black Freedom struggles. However, his work resists a logic of essentialism that would foreclose the adaptable improvisatory dynamics of what Édouard Glissant has called Relation. Glissant, grounding his discussion in the Caribbean, glosses Relation by example rather than definition: "Ce qui c'est passé dans la Caraïbe, et que nous pourrions résumer dans le mot de créolisation, nous en donne l'idée le plus approchée possible [. . . .] La créolisation diffracte, quand certains modes du métissage peuvent concentrer une fois encore" ["What took place in the Caribbean, which could be summed up in the word creolization, approximates the idea of Relation for us as nearly as possible . . . . Creolization diffracts, whereas certain forms of métissage can concentrate one more time"].2 Relation thus allows for a consensual rather than forced sharing, and maintains a place for continued practice and production of heterogeneity within this sharing. It is striking that Glissant sees the Creole language...