Being an alien, as Craig Raine showed us many years ago in his book, A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, gives one a different perspective on matters earthlings see everyday. Of course, though some may claim they truly know what an actual alien might feel or think of us, we can only imagine being an alien.
There are many ways one could imagine being one by choice. And then there are ways one is made to feel like one: the various boundaries set by nation, by society at large, by smaller groups of people. To a certain extent, bullies like pointing out with their little minds those they perceive as aliens who must be exterminated, or at least be shoved to the ground and ridiculed.
I’ve had my share of being forced to feel like an alien. In a creative sense, that is what one tries to be so that what is ordinary can be turned into something to be marvelled at.
I wrote a poem in 2015 in response to what was happening in my adopted country, South Africa, under the leadership of Jacob Zuma. I sent the poem to a number of journals hoping to get it published and found no luck.
Earlier this year, following the publication of WINGS OF SMOKE, my hopes were raised. I submitted to a local publisher a poetry manuscript (currently called CROCODILES IN BELFAST), which included the poem. The reader they asked to assess the manuscript singled out that same poem. I don’t know who the reader was, but I’m quoting his/her words here.
Most striking for me are some of the political poems – “Baleka, what do you know…?”, “Fire, the King Who is Called” – poems which are daring, in our present context, critical, perhaps even scandalous, but which doesn’t contain the demeaning language that some of our slogans, memes or cartoons may contain. This doesn’t make the poems less critical or less subversive of the powerful figures they address, but they show what a non-indulgent, properly poetic treatment of powerful figures may look like. The language of “King” is remarkably restrained, yet one can feel almost something akin to literary tectonic plates shifting in terms of traditions of South African political poetry. It is as if the author knows that they are playing with fire, tries to hold their hands from the flame, but cannot resist the draw of the flames. But irrespective of the subject matter, it is the control over language that makes “King” remarkable, and it is this quality that runs throughout the collection: clarity of expression (even if resolution may escape the reader – which in itself is not a bad thing), restraint in the expression and control over language, which creates tension and torsion.
Despite the high recommendation from that reader, the publisher got back to me, after they asked for a few revisions, with a final rejection. They cited “economic realities” as the reason. I cannot hide my disappointment. But I have to move on.
That poem has finally found a home online. The Johannesburg Review of Books, free for all to enjoy, features my poem “Fire, the King Who is Called,” alongside some fantastic poetry and short stories from leading SA authors. I am deeply honoured.
Although the poem has been slightly edited for South African readers, which I don’t really mind, I do need to point out something for those unfamiliar with local politics. The main word removed that some might find important was “Gedleyihlekisa” – the middle name of Jacob Zuma. That name’s definition is the poem’s epigram which I quoted from an SA history website.
It might also help non-SA readers to search online for stories that mention the following: firepool, ANC Women’s League, Khwezi, kanga, Nkandla, Zapiro versus Zuma, rape trial, The Spear painting, and The President’s Keepers.
Tomorrow, 16 December, the African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party of South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994, holds its 54th national conference to elect new leaders. Some people might see it as the beginning of the end of Zuma’s reign.
This alien will be watching.