As a child I wrote poetry in French (what now seems to me, with a strange feeling of loss, to be poetry written by somebody else since I have since forgotten the meaning of every fourth word). Coming to South Africa at the age of ten, I flailed about in search of a language that would fit well enough to give rise to poetry. Afrikaans, my mother tongue (in the sense that it is my mother’s language), felt so earthy and clumsy beneath my throat that no poems would happen.
And then in high school, romantic and forlorn like every teenager, I tried my hand at poetry in English. Writing in your second (or third) language, for those who haven’t tried it, is strange yet appealing – it gives you a sense of distance, of romance even, because every word doesn’t feel as fully and awkwardly birthed from your own innards.
But then the romantic phase passed and for many years I wrote no poetry whatsoever. At varsity, tentatively, I started writing in Afrikaans, my very own language, the language I have had the most complicated and passionate relationship with yet. Afrikaans is a Germanic language. It asks for guttural sounds and little explosions of consonants beneath your pen. It asks for honesty. I loved it and found it daunting. I kept at it.
But English – English sometimes reminds me of French in how it allows me to bring some smoothness to the process. And so, eventually, I found myself writing poems in English again as well. Today I alternate between Afrikaans and English, always conflicted, always longing for the ease of English and the rawness of Afrikaans, whichever language I choose.
Here is the first poem I wrote in English as an adult, after an almost 15-year hiatus: