South African Wordsmith Breyten Breytenbach

Breyten Breytenbach | Vincent Fournier | J.A.

Breyten Breytenbach, a South African wordsmith, has made a significant impact on the literary and artistic world as a novelist, essayist, poet, and painter. He is known for his powerful and evocative works that reflect his experiences and observations about the socio-political landscape of his country. Breytenbach’s writing is deeply influenced by his South African heritage and his unwavering commitment to human rights and freedom of expression.

Born on September 16, 1939 in Bonnievale, South Africa, Breytenbach displayed an early aptitude for literature and art. He embarked on a career that would see him excel in various creative fields, becoming a highly respected novelist, poet, essayist, and painter. His literary works are characterized by their profound insight, lyrical prose, and raw honesty. As a painter, his art echoes the themes found in his writing, often visually representing the struggles and triumphs of the human spirit.

Breytenbach is not just a creative force but also a dissident poet. His outspoken criticism of the apartheid regime in South Africa led to his imprisonment for seven years in the 1970s. This period of his life had a marked influence on his work, leading to some of his most powerful and poignant writing. His experiences as a political prisoner are recounted in several of his novels and essays, providing a stark commentary on the brutalities of the apartheid system.

Despite facing enormous personal challenges and hardships, Breytenbach remains deeply committed to his craft. His work continues to inspire and challenge, reflecting both the beauty and complexity of the human experience. Breyten Breytenbach’s contribution to literature and art is truly remarkable, marking him as one of South Africa’s most significant cultural figures.

Rebel Song

give me a pen
so I may sing
that life is not in vain

give me a season
an autumn a spring
to see sky with open eyes
when the peach tree vomits its white plenitude
a tyranny will be brought to earth

let mothers lament;
may breasts become dry
and wombs shrivel
when the scaffold finally weans its own

give me that love
which won’t rot between fingers,
give me a love like this love I must give you,
my dove

grant me a heart
that will pulsate its throb
more strongly than the white thrashing
heart of a terrified dove in the dark
knock louder than bitter bullets

give me a heart
small fountain of blood
to spout blossoms of bliss
for blood is never for naught

I need to die before I’m dead
when my heart is still fertile and red
before I eat the darkened soil of doubt

give me two lips
and bright ink for tongue
to write the earth
one vast love letter
swollen with the milk of mercy

sweeter day by day
spilling all bitterness
burning as summer
burns sweeter

then let it be summer
without blindfolds or ravens
allow the gallows to give the peach tree
its red fruit of satisfaction

and grant me a love song
of doves of atonement
so I may sing my life was not in vain

for as I die
to wide eyes
under sky
my red song will not lie
my red song will never die

-Breyten Breytenbach

Curated by Jennifer

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