- Antjie Krog: an ethics of body and otherness ed. by Judith Lütge Coullie and Andries Visagie
Long recognised as a major writer in Afrikaans, Antjie Krog is now receiving sustained attention in English-language literary criticism in South Africa and the present volume of excellent essays indicates the level of engagement with her work. Antjie Krog: an ethics of body and otherness began as a guest-edited issue of Current Writing in 2007 and now appears in expanded and more focussed form, again edited by Judith Coullie and Andries Visagie. Six of the original essays have been included and, as Visagie explains in the Introduction, the other seven essays were specially commissioned for this volume. The result is coverage of the range of Krog’s writing from 1998 onwards with only Begging to be Black (2009) not drawing an essay of its own. The volume Skinned: a selection of translated poetry (2013) is also not studied because it appeared just as this volume was going to press.
As the sub-title An ethics of body and otherness suggests, the primary collective concern is a moral one which focusses particularly on Krog’s representation of her own physical body and her powerful personal presence in exploring major events and issues in South Africa’s distant and more recent past. ‘How do these events and conditions matter to me?’ seems the most ethical, because the most engaged, approach for her to take. What is also deeply at issue in these essays, and which might not be immediately evident from the title (if it were used, say, for a keyword search), is the question of translation. Exactly what Krog has tried to achieve in undertaking so much translation, and more particularly, why she has felt it so important to endeavour to move between the country’s languages, is the subject of [End Page 112] several essays. Broadly the reason lies in what the sub-title does denominate–‘otherness’–our history of racial domination, of enforced divisions arising from perceived differences between peoples, and the current need to develop elements of an ethical outlook which might counter the inequalities and distrust consequent on endless divisiveness: tolerance, respect, openness, mutual understanding.
While ethical principles may be general and constant, ethical action needs to be context-specific and, as many of the essay show, Krog’s approach to issues through autobiographical narrative and poetry has enabled her to bring this truth to life with great vividness. Louise Viljoen, a distinguished Krog scholar who publishes in Afrikaans as well as English and writes on her prose as well as her poetry, has two essays in this collection. In ‘“I have body, therefore I am”: grotesque, monstrous and abject bodies in Antjie Krog’s poetry’ (Coullie and Visagie 2014:98-132) she establishes a point about Krog’s ethics which surfaces in many of the essays: they are usually oppositional and often combative. As Viljoen’s epithets suggest, when Krog’s topics are at their most transgressive her moral concerns are usually at their most challenging. For example, in discussing a poem which presents a ‘breathtaking crudeness of […] action’ (117) in its last line, Viljoen claims that the poetry both recognises that an ‘aging and menopausal body is indeed an affront to the existing social order’ but that it is also ‘trying to confront society’s negation of the menopausal woman by making this body visible in all its abject specificity’ (120). In her second essay, Viljoen takes up a related line of discussion that is also important throughout the volume: autobiographical writing and the ethics of representation. ‘The mother as pre-text: autobiographical writing in Antjie Krog’s A Change of Tongue’ (133-56) looks at Krog’s representations of her relationship to her mother, the Afrikaans writer Dot Serfontein, as a person and as a writer. As it becomes clear that Krog will not replicate her mother’s choice to ‘rate political loyalty to her Afrikaner heritage higher than loyalty to her writing’ (105), but...