Book Review: John Mateer’s Ex-White

South African-born poet John Mateer writes with a constant awareness of the pain of parallel realities under Apartheid

South African poet | Photo courtesy of John Mateer

John Mateer

South African poet | Photo courtesy of John Mateer

Poetry on a Split Screen

When poet John Mateer visited Budapest soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, it seemed oddly familiar: the habits of concealment, the pretense, the schizophrenia of a double life, that so reminded him of the South Africa where he had grown up.

“There were things that were there that weren’t allowed to exist in public,” Mateer remembered. “Most of the people on the street were black, with one person who was white but you would pretend that everyone was white – it was a lot like communist countries. It reminded me of [the Czech writer] Milan Kundera, how he described things disappearing from photographs as history got rewritten.”

John Mateer’s world has been a life in split screen, the constant awareness of two parallel realities: the suburban life of a white child, not so different from other parts of the world, but in a setting of heartbreaking disadvantage that everyone in the other world agreed not to see.

“Terrible things were happening but then there was this white world with people doing sports and having a barbecue on Sunday. It was part of Africa but pretending it was not,” Mateer said, “but because of the background, the double life, the imaginings were quite different.”

Out of such contrasts poetry is born, and when it succeeds, it can sometimes find an audience far beyond its land of origin.

We met John Mateer on a recent evening in a 2nd District restaurant in Vienna. It was a few weeks after the release of his first dual language poetry anthology, Ex-White/Einmal weiß, translated by Ludwig Roman Fleischer, with an introduction by novelist Josef Haslinger. It was presented in Vienna in a joint reading Mar. 10 at the Alte Schmiede Literary Quarter on Schönlaterngasse.  Since then Mateer had also been to Germany for a second reading at the Literature Institute of the University of Leipzig to coincide with the Leipzig Book Fair.

Over dinner we talked about the sources of his poetry, about writing across cultures and living in between them, about finding a voice in a language that isn’t completely your own.

Because, though born in an Anglo family and now living in Australia, Mateer is not completely at home in English: His truer mother-tongue, he feels, is Afrikaans, also the language in which he was first introduced to poetry.

“The English spoken in South Africa is inauthentic,” he said, “because the life is – it’s a dead life.” So he finds himself writing in what ought to be his own language as if from the outside, writing in English with an African sensibility, but yet as a white man, an outsider even in that. An obstacle, perhaps, but also an opportunity.

“When I am looking at my own or another [language], I see what the language could be, but often not in the way the language is usually used,” he said. It is an obligation to reinvent.

In “For the Mothers” one of his most powerful poems in the collection, the litanies of African chant throbs through the lines, the stanzas beginning with a repeated incantation, like a villanelle:

“Like a mother she must have held me,”…  

“Like a mother she must have seen me,”… 

“Like a mother she must have known me,”…

“It escalates in a declamatory way, something that is very true to African poetry,” Mateer said, and a reliance powerful images, much more part of the African tradition than the English. “I try to get away from the idea that there is one way to write that is appropriate to your culture.”

The evocation of the Mother is also a tradition in African poetry, he said. “It’s central to bodily experience – her hands strong from wringing out laundry/her back straight from children bound there – it’s so different from the west.”

In West Africa, he said, it is the women who control the market economy. And while South Africa is “pretty chauvinistic,” still it is the women who hold the culture together.

Ex-White/Einmal weiß by John Mateer“Apartheid tried to separate black people from their culture,” he said. “They were expelled to Soweto; the men had to go into the cities to work and the women stayed home to hold the families together. Women represented tribal life.”

The crossing and mixing of cultures helps explain how it is that Mateer has ended up in translation in the German-speaking world. In part, it’s because Afrikaans, derived from Dutch, is a Germanic language.  But he had already crossed one language barrier and two cultural ones. More important, then, may have been the literary world he found here, first through Josef Haslinger  whom he had first met at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the United States, and then from Kurt Neumann, of the Alte Schmiede.

“I have felt very welcome here,” he says. “The German-language literary tradition is a very serious one – so the interest is very strong.” And perhaps also a history that has led to an understanding of prejudice, of the poison of racism and the trail of psychic damage left behind. For this language itself becomes a metaphor.

“Language is an instrument of power,” Mateer said. “If people don’t accept your language, it is a way of not accepting you. So for meaning to exist, there must be a common understanding and level of trust.”

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