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The Dennis Brutus Tapes

The Dennis Brutus Tapes: Essays at autobiography

Edited by Bernth Lindfors
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The Dennis Brutus Tapes
    Book Description:

    Dennis Brutus (1924-2009) is known internationally as a South African poet, anti-apartheid activist and campaigner for human rights and the release of political prisoners. His literary works include ‘Sirens Knuckles Boots’ (1963), ‘Letters to Martha, and Other Poems from a South African Prison’ (1968), ‘A Simple Lust’ (1973), and ‘Stubborn Hope’ (1978). When Dennis Brutus was a Visiting Professor at The University of Texas at Austin in 1974-75, he recorded on tape a series of reflections on his life and career. In addition, he frequently responded to questions about his poetry and political activities put to him by students and faculty in formal and informal interviews that were also captured on tape. Transcripts of a selection of these tapes, as well as reprints of two interviews recorded earlier, are reproduced here in order to put on record fragments of the autobiography of a remarkable man who lived in extraordinary times and managed to leave his mark on the land and literature of South Africa. Brutus was an effective anti-apartheid campaigner who succeeded in getting South Africa excluded from the Olympics. His opposition to racial discrimination in sports led to his arrest, banning, and imprisonment on Robben Island. Upon release, he left South Africa and lived most of the rest of his life in exile, where he continued his political work and simultaneously earned an international reputation as a poet who often sang of his love for his country. The tapes are edited by Bernth Lindfors who has added an Introduction and a transcript of a 1970 interview as well as other transcripts of lectures and discussions. Bernth Lindfors is Professor Emeritus of English and African Literatures, The University of Texas at Austin, and founding editor of ‘Research in African Literatures’.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-954-1
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)
    Bernth Lindfors

    I first met Dennis Brutus in Los Angeles in March of 1967. I was a doctoral student at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) then, and Dennis was on his first major speaking tour in the United States, having made his way into exile in England after gaining release from prison and house arrest in South Africa just a year earlier. In Britain he had become active in a number of London-based anti-apartheid organizations, and if I remember correctly, it was his involvement in the campaign to exclude South Africa from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City that...

  5. LIFE

    • Recollections
      (pp. 15-31)

      1924. November 28. Born, Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia. Parents: Francis Henry Brutus and Margaret Winifred Brutus née Bloemetjie, both South Africans at that time teaching in Rhodesia (since Jan. 1920? Married early October – holiday, 1st Monday, 1919 – probably in Port Elizabeth.)

      1926. Returned to South Africa to Port Elizabeth. My father returned to Salisbury to continue teaching and only came down to settle in Port Elizabeth in 1929 (?) (Dolly born, Hankey? 1926, Feb.)

      1929. Father returned from Rhodesia. (Jan.?)

      1933. query. Attended school in a Coloured township called Dowerville. Name of the school: Henry Kaiser Memorial School.

      1935. (October) Registered...

    • Family Background
      (pp. 32-46)

      Children suffer from a lack of knowledge of the background of their parents. Certainly I do in relation to my own parents, so I thought I would do a tape which, among other things, would fill in for [my children] Jacinta and Marc, Julian and Tony, Tina, Cordelia, Greg, and Paula my own background, and perhaps begin with something of my own parents.

      I find that I am at a disadvantage in trying to reconstruct the lives of my own parents. I have to rely sometimes on information given to me by others and particularly by my brother Wilfred, who...

    • Attempt to Escape
      (pp. 47-91)

      This is a tape about escapes, so one might call it the escape tape. I propose to talk about my escape from South Africa, the situation surrounding that, and then my sort-of escape [from Swaziland] which got me across the Mozambique border and into the arms of the Portuguese secret police, and then my attempted escape in Johannesburg. I will start with setting the context of the first one. My general purpose is to work up to recounting the experiences as far as I can, and I find it convenient to do that in the month of September, which is...

    • Robben Island
      (pp. 92-109)

      At the Cape Town docks the area was cordoned off and heavily guarded. There were two tugboats at the wharf, or jetty, the first one a kind of decoy, so that you passed from the one boat through it to the second one where men stood armed, with their guns at the ready. We were herded aboard the second boat, which was the ferry to Robben Island and which was named Issie after the wife of the former Prime Minister, Jan Smuts,¹ but first there was a rather nasty experience to be undergone, because the first boat, while it was...

    • Interlude
      (pp. 110-117)

      Fell Street on a Sunday evening somewhere towards the end of 1965. It is Sunday evening. I sit in the kitchen at my home in [Port Elizabeth]. I am recently out of prison. The house still seems strange to me: the kitchen crowded and uncomfortable with nothing visually pleasing, much of it grimy. The furniture too large and projecting awkward corners and edges that make me uncomfortable. Down the passage in the front room the radio is playing. I sit gloomily at a table, my mind taut and prickly with a sense of confinement. A long weekend of house arrest,...

    • Notes on my Activities
      (pp. 118-126)

      I have been asked to come and talk about my poetry at Stirling University [in Scotland], but I probably will not be able to go. I have also been invited to York University in Canada where an organization is being formed of South African expatriates. It might be useful at this point to say something about why I will not be able to go to Canada or to Scotland, or for that matter to Kinshasa where I had hoped to be at the Muhammad Ali – Foreman fight to which I have been invited by the promoter, Don King, for whom...

    • Notes on my Life
      (pp. 127-140)

      I probably attended school for the first time round about 1931 since that’s the admission age, when you are seven or turning seven, [but] I found a pretext for not going to school. I might as well get into this. I apparently had a fall and injured my nose, and it used to bleed profusely. It was thought I had a broken bridge, and I may well have had it, I don’t know. But it was useful because every time I looked at books or bent over a slate my nose would bleed. This was a good excuse for not...


    • ‘Somehow Tenderness Survives’
      (pp. 143-156)

      I think the earliest literary influence on me was my mother, who not only recited nursery rhymes to me as a child, but had herself a love for poetry. She was a schoolteacher who had taught, as teachers do in South Africa, the whole range of the junior curriculum, and had been educated by English missionaries who created a taste for her in literature. I suspect their own education was not terribly good in terms of literature – the things they encouraged her to like were things which I grew out of in time. As a student teacher she learnt and...

    • Talking with Students
      (pp. 157-168)

      I’m glad to be here, and it seems to me the most useful thing I can do is to spend most of the time answering questions on the things that interest you. I ought to warn you that I don’t know all the answers, and when it comes to poetry, even my own, I don’t always give the same answer to the same question. This may sound odd, but I believe one tends to look at the same thing at different times in different ways. I think only dead people don’t change, and even they putrefy so that there is...

    • Reviewing a Review
      (pp. 169-179)

      I have seen so many unfavorable reviews of my poetry that I begin to wonder whether there are not fundamental defects in the work, but I balance this against a number of favorable reviews which seem to say the reverse. It is, I guess, not often done and perhaps not quite the done thing for poets to reply to reviews of their work, though I have never regarded myself as a conventional poet, so I do not mind commenting on this particular review, especially since this comment is intended for information but not for formal publication.

      There seemed to me...

    • On Literature & Commitment
      (pp. 180-186)

      I want to examine the essence of commitment and, continuing in the vein of Willy Kgositsile, reiterate one of the points he made. Before doing that, however, I propose to make some prefatory comments, look at certain aspects of commitment as expressed in the writing of blacks in South Africa, examine the relation between those writers who are involved in protest and the others who are part of the system, and conclude with some general observations which I think have useful lessons for our audience and particularly for critics in the field of African literature. (I do not propose to...

    • On my Poetry
      (pp. 187-196)

      Because I am often not able to accept invitations to talk about my poetry, I thought it would be a good idea to put some thoughts on tape, fairly rambling thoughts, which could be played on occasions when people were interested in either hearing the poetry or hearing me talk about it. I have of course commented at various times and in various places on my poetry, and there are many things that I will try not to repeat since they can be found elsewhere. What I will try to do is take a general look at the last collection,...

    • Further Notes on Poetry
      (pp. 197-208)

      I turn fifty next month, and in terms of my life span, what I have written is really very little because it tends to be very fragmentary. There is no major statement. Most of my work has been so fragmentary, the statements are so staccato, that one cannot look for a sustained statement except by putting the bits together. Now that to me is not a serious writer. If I was serious, I would have constructed a sustained statement. I may yet. Every now and then I toy with a novel. I have written a play and thrown it away...

  7. Index
    (pp. 209-216)
  8. Back Matter
    (pp. 217-217)