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Marlene van Niekerk

Marlene van Niekerk

Marlene van Niekerk

(South Africa, 1954)
Marlene van Niekerk is a poet, critic, novelist, dramatist and professor of writing who grew up in the rural Overberg region of South Africa’s Western Cape. She went to primary school in the small farming village of Riviersonderend, some 160km from Cape Town. She attended high school in the politically conservative town of Stellenbosch, where, at Stellenbosch University, she read languages, literature and philosophy (1973-1978). A stint as a directing apprentice in the theatres of Mainz and Stuttgart was followed by a further five years of study in philosophy and cultural anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. She returned to South Africa to teach philosophy at the University of South Africa (UNISA) and Afrikaans and Dutch literature at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Her work includes four unpublished stage plays, two collections of poetry, two collections of short stories and three novels. Her fiction has been translated into English, Dutch, French, Italian, Danish and Swedish. Additionally she has written political satire, numerous essays appearing in the local media and academic articles

Her third collection of poems (working title Kaar) is forthcoming in September 2013, and her fourth novel is a work in progress which looks, once again, at the nervous condition that is contemporary South Africa. She teaches creative writing at the University of Stellenbosch and has been a visiting writer and lecturer to the Universities of Utrecht and Leiden in the Netherlands.

Van Niekerk’s work is distinguished by several factors, among them an almost visceral energy at the level of the individual sentence (in her fictional prose), and the poetic line (in her poetry). This is an ‘energy’ that manifests phonically – literally, in word-bending sound-effects and visually, as ‘thick’ images which are evoked in layers, at a micro- as well as a macro-level.

Writing with this kind of robust intensity, Van Niekerk succeeds in capturing an almost childlike sense of wonder at the sheer audacity of, for example, a shrike, in its will to live, despite the odds:

the shrike flits through daybreak’s crevice,
ama-a-a-a-zed at the spice of his cinnamon chest
(‘Morning of the Southern Boubou’)

However, for Van Niekerk, characterising the shrike’s ‘cocky akimbo’ and ‘quicktailin’ nature is no mere child’s reverie, but also a strongly detailed and vivified statement about the exuberance of both observation and being. In Van Niekerk’s poetry, then, the ethical challenge is to explore, much more boisterously than usual, the reaches of both language and what we perceive as reality. Her poetry forces readers to expand their categories of cognition, of seeing, and of translating such amplified observation into language which is both ample and finely grained. It’s as if the poet is saying, ‘get closer, much closer’, ‘look and listen more carefully’, and then ‘write it up in language that refuses coventional and tired or rote description’. In this way, the observation of the shrike becomes something more than a conventional ‘nature poem’:

he is the one and only goddodger
here in the tendertipped noonteasing sun
!toweak in his throttle sits his petname !toweak
like a bell in the mouth cunt, a-rou-ou-ou-sed
by the mouthsoft morn.

The ‘cocky’ bird here is a ‘goddodger’, he prefers the ‘tendertipped noonteasing sun’ to any vision of final reckoning, any ‘godly’ creed (with all its accompanying stories of the final days, death and, possibly, divine judgement). No, this creature’s godliness is located in its joyful sexuality, its Eros, its arousal by the sheer force of a nature that is irrepressibly generative rather than censorious. The shrike flouts the rules, escapes the domesticator’s ‘knuckles’, and inisists on arousal: ‘a-rou-ou-ou-sed by the mouthsoft morn’; more, the shrike’s clarion call is ‘like a bell in the mouth cunt’, nothing less than a gong for all the concentrated forces of an undiluted will to life, unsequestered by the mincing thrust of secondary interest. This is equally the case in the poem ‘winter finch’, in which the sacred is found not in adjectives of passive glorification but in verbs of agile doing:

he thrills
and puffs
his buff red bib,
flicks his tail,
turns the lanterns
on his wings, left
right, left . . .

In a recent overview of Afrikaans poetry, André Brink comments that in Van Niekerk’s work the ‘sacramental is intimately linked to the mundane’, and that the ‘psalmodic carries overtones of honkytonk’ (clearly evident in the shrike poem, and of course in the poem ‘night psalm’, to which Brink is specifically referring). For Brink, these tendencies invest Van Niekerk’s work with a ‘pyromanic intensity’.

Such carefully loaded, finely built-up intensity is evident in the poem ‘Rock Painting’, in which the seemingly mundane moment of a quagga’s birth is doubly framed: first by the San rock-painter and then by the poet, here, describing both the rock-painter and the quagga foal. This is done as a commemoration not only of the animal’s celestial, or cosmic, blueprinting, its holiness (evident in the poet’s likening it to the Equuleus star constellation, and the San poet’s rock-ochred shamanic envisioning of it), but also as a counter to the ‘oblivion’ of life in the disenchanted, tourist mould, where all things are mere curiosities. Here, rather, the ‘gravity of defencelessness’ which the quagga foal evokes, ‘concatenates us, tourists / of oblivion, in emotion, / compassion, / courage, connects us to your first painter / in the unspectacular patriotism of tenderness’.

Clearly, the poet-persona is positing a ‘patriotism of tenderness’, a return to the unshowy business of caring in a political world (South Africa, Africa, and elsewhere) in which simple guarantees of tenderness towards defenceless subjects (children in particular) cannot be given. Worse, it is a world in which children are the victims of daily acts of deadly violence, as dramatised in Van Niekerk’s play, ‘Die Kortstondige Raklewe van Anastasia W’. Of course, beneath this poem, too, lurks a political critique of both South Africa’s past and current rulers for their woeful self-interestedness and their Thanatos-like greed, whch blinds them to the simple plight of defenceless beings.

In the poems ‘I Prepare a Salad Before the Eyes of my Father’ and ‘Night Psalm’, Van Niekerk finely enacts her aesthetic and sociopolitical creed, which is to ignore the more academically trendy concentrates of local cosmopolitanisms in favour of a reverence for the local cosmos, an Eros-energised will-to-joy, to exuberance and recognition of all creaturely otherness.

So, when the poet celebrates her father’s (rapidly passing) life through an evocation of all things green, and when she finds the life-beat, the irrepressible pulse of existence, in the sheer abundance of forms – ‘the keyboard of a honky tonk / down at the feet of things’ – she is adjoining the reader to luxuriate in the freshness of phenomena, of both organic and inorganic forms (including the lamppost), the variety and godliness of everything that escapes the human political will to uniformity, conventionality and death:

it’s a honky tonk that illumines the night
it’s the keyboard of a honky tonk
down at the feet of things
at the feet of the lampposts
at the acrid feet of the olive trees
it’s a metronome
at the sweeter feet of the lemongrove
at the vlei’s little slippers of water
down at the bottom of the reeds
where the lilies lilt on stilettos

This is the honkytonk, lushly sonorous, volume-tanked-up world of Marlene van Niekerk, where forms of life are given literary shape in an adequation that is unhappy with anything short of a matching exuberance of expressive vivacity, a gusto-grabbing flourish of finest finesse and hardiest husk.
© Leon de Kock

Sprokkelster, Human & Rousseau, Cape Town, 1977
Groenstaar, Human & Rousseau, Cape Town, 1983

Short Stories 
Die vrou wat haar verkyker vergeet het, HAUM-Literêr, Cape Town, 1992
Die sneeuslaper, Human & Rousseau, Cape Town, 2010

Triomf, Queillerie, Cape Town, 1994
Agaat, Tafelberg, Cape Town, 2004
Memorandum, ’n Verhaal met skilderye, (with paintings by Adriaan van Zyl), Human & Rousseau, Cape Town, 2006

Works in Translation
De vrouw die haar verrekijker had vergeten – Verhalen uit Zuid Afrika, (translated by Riet de Jong-Goossens), Arena, Amsterdam, 1998
Triomf, (English translation by Leon de Kock), Jonathan Ball, Johannesburg, 1999
Triomf, (British English translated by Leon de Kock), Little Brown, London, 1999
Triomf, (Dutch translation by Riet de Jong-Goossens and Robert Dorsman), Arena, Amsterdam, 2000
Triomf, (French translation by Donald Moerdijk), Editions de l’Aube, Paris, 2002
Triomf, (Danish translation by Vagne Steen), Lindhardt & Ringhof, Copenhagen, 2002
Memorandum, story with paintings, (English translation by Michiel Heyns), Human & Rousseau, Cape Town, 2006
Agaat, (English translation by Michiel Heyns), Johnathan Ball, Cape Town, 2006
Agaat, (Dutch translation by Riet de Jong-Goossens), Querido’s Uitgeverij, Amsterdam, 2006
The Way of the Women, (English translation of Agaat by Michiel Heyns), Little Brown, London, 2007
Memorandum, (Dutch translation by Riet de Jong-Goossens), Querido, Amsterdam, 2007
De Sneeuwslaper, (Dutch translation by Riet de Jong-Goossens), Querido, Amsterdam, 2009
Agaat, (American edition, English translation by Michiel Heyns), Tin House Books, Portland, 2009
Via delle Donne, (Italian translation of Agaat by Laura Prandini), Neri Pozza, Venice, 2010
Agaat, (Swedish translation by Niclas Hval), Svante Weyler Bokförlag, Stockholm, 2012
Memorandum, (Swedish translation by Niclas Hval), Svante Weyler Bokförlag, Stockholm, 2013


1978: Ingrid Jonker Prize for Sprokkelster
1978: Eugène Marais Prize for Sprokkelster
1995: CNA Literary Award for Triomf
1995: M-Net Prize for Triomf
1995: Noma Award for Triomf
2004: LitNet Dopper Joris Oskar for Agaat
2005: University of Johannesburg Prize for Agaat
2005: M-Net Prize for Agaat
2005: W.A. Hofmeyr Award for Agaat
2007: Hertzog Prize for Agaat
2007: C.L. Engelbrecht Award for Agaat
2007: Sol Plaatje prize for translation of Agaat (with Michiel Heyns)
2007: Sunday Times Literary Award for Agaat (with translator Michiel Heyns)
2008: Helgaard Steyn Prize for Agaat (shared with Hermann Giliomee)
2010: Beeld-Aartvark Prize for Die kortstondige raklewe van Anastasia W
2010: AngloGold Ashanti/Aardklop-Smeltkroes Prize for Die kortstondige raklewe van Anastasia W
2010: University of Johannesburg Prize for Die sneeuslaper


Interview with Louis Esterhuizen in Afrikaans at Versindaba
Interview with Sharon Jenkings at Litnet 
Interview with Michiel Heyns at Litnet 
Interview with Eben Venter at Litnet 
Interview with Madri Victor at Litnet 
Toni Morrison and Marlene Van Niekerk in Conversation with K. Anthony Appiah at Mantle
Interview with Hans Pienaar on Litnet 
Interview on Radio Netherlands
Marlene van Niekerk Angers Government with Her Poem Mud School
Essay by Lara Buxbaum in the Journal of Literary Studies
Review of Agaat by Mary Gaitskill in Bookforum
Review of Agaat by Liesl Schillinger in The New York Times
Review of The Way of Women by Maya Jaggi in the Guardian 
Review of Triomf by Louise Viljoen at Post Colonial Literature and Culture Web
Review of Die sneeuslaper by Louise Viljoen at Slipnet
Review in Afrikaans of Die sneeuslaper by Thys Human in Rapport
Review in Afrikaans of Die sneeuslaper by Joan Hambidge at Litnet 
Review of Die sneeuslaper by Lara Buxbaum at Slipnet 
Two poems in English at Versindaba
Ten poems in Afrikaans at Versindaba
Spider in a Jar at Slipnet
Two poems at Slipnet
Die Mandjie, a poem
poets van ons vaderland unite, a poem
Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Prins Bernhard cultuurfonds
Lira fonds
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère