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JOHN MATEER: LOST FOR WORDS

In 2003, South African-Australian poet John Mateer and Indigenous Australian writer Kim Scott met at the Fremantle Arts Centre for a public reading.

Mateer’s contribution to the evening was his poetry-cycle ‘In the Presence of a Severed Head’, in which he addresses Yagan, a Noongar warrior who was killed in 1833, after which his head was cut off, smoked in a tree stump and taken to England to be exhibited. Scott, according to Mateer, was “visibly agitated” (Mateer 2008, unpublished lecture) after listening to the reading and “explained that he felt there should be a moratorium on non-Aboriginal people writing on blackfella culture”

(ibid). In his 2005 book Kayang and Me, Scott himself wrote about the incident, calling Mateer “a stranger” and “a recent arrival” (Scott 2005, p 230-231), who had no right to address Scott’s Noongar heritage. After the event in Fremantle, Mateer wrote a poem about Scott’s reaction, called ‘The Novelist’s Comments’:

After I read my poem addressed to one of his people’s heroes, in his reclaimed, autochthonous voice

the novelist doesn’t say

This is our language, our land.

Nor does he say:

Why don’t you go back where you came from?

And in what he doesn’t say he is echoing the woman

who after burying her father – a rare fluent speaker of language – declared she should have chucked his tapes and journals,

his repository of the tongue, after him into the mouth of the grave:

So that the white bastards wouldn’t get that too (Mateer 2005, p 25).

The episode, in Mateer’s mind, solidified his outsider-status. He felt he was treated not simply as a (white) writer accused of trespassing, but as “an un-Australian”

(Mateer 2008, unpublished lecture). I will elaborate on the details of Mateer’s alleged trespass later in the chapter, but for the moment I would just like to propose that, as is the case with Ruth Park and Alex Miller, the critical position of John Mateer’s work in Australian literary circles and academia is complicated – most of all by his migrant status. On the one hand Mateer is, more than Park and Miller, recognised as a migrant author, someone from elsewhere, who has a migrant story to tell. Most reviewers refer to his country of birth as well as acknowledging, albeit tentatively, that this migrant position and the content of the writing are somehow connected. Added to that, the fact that Mateer is white, English-speaking and South African (and especially the meshing of the three factors) poses a problem. As a consequence of the Apartheid-era, white South Africans are viewed with suspicion both in their own country and across the social spectrum in Australia. Australia’s long involvement in anti-apartheid activities in the 1970s and 1980s has meant that white South Africans are viewed with some cynicism in Australia. They are not usually placed in the largely invisible group that includes people like Alex Miller and Ruth Park. However, they do not fall under the

‘typical’ Australian migrant classification either (see chapter 2), nor are they regarded as Australian writers per se. Even though many of them left their country because they felt they were forced out, the fact that they are collectively seen as having been on the wrong side of the political divide, denies them unproblematic acceptance into the migrant category that usually implies ‘grateful sufferer’ status.

According to the Australian definition, it seems unlikely membership of the dominant group in your birth-country, as was the case with white South Africans, will allow for the label of ‘migrant’, a term whose meaning refers to being part of the periphery or non-core, as discussed above. In multicultural Australia, emphasis on visible, ‘ethnic’ difference, constitutes writers like Mateer (and for that matter, other South African-Australian writers as diverse as Courtenay, Coetzee, Kellas and

Croggon) as unsettling reminders of the complexity of multiculturalism. Indeed, given their background, it is hard for them – whatever their politics – not to see race and ethnic issues at work in their new country of residence. Monitoring these, as John Mateer often does, can be taken as unwarranted provocation by an unqualified alien.

In some ways it is tempting to see in the response in Australia to writers such as

Mateer as a manifestation of a deeper anxiety that belies the fear that South Afica made explicit conditions not dissimilar to those in Australia (cf Lake and Reynolds, 2009). Furthermore, Mateer’s work displays recurring themes that are closely tied to migrant preoccupations. I would propose that his particular in-betweenness, based on the combination of colour, language and country, has led to a fundamental conundrum for both writer and critic. It seems difficult to determine where John Mateer fits, according to himself and others, and to establish a position for him to speak from.

Questions that come to mind in the case of Mateer and his work are: What shape does his particular (in)visibility take, and what are its limits? Does this (in)visibility only disable, or can also be seen to protect him and his work? Also, is it is possible to compare Mateer to other white, English-speaking migrant writers like Park and Miller and place him in the same category?

Starting to understand Mateer’s work is hard without first looking at his personal background. Although a biographical reading of texts can be reductive, as I have argued before, almost all of Mateer’s writing struggles with and originates in a dilemma of positionality that is inextricable from his white South African past. In the poetry-magazine Five Bells, Mateer himself actually suggests the following:

When I read my poems and talk about my poems I usually have the problem of knowing where to begin. Unfortunately, as much as I don’t like it, a biographic approach is quite effective; biography is where we talk about the auditory, historical, social and linguistic environment we are from, all of which are related (Mateer 2003, p 23).

This view echoes Simon Schama’s insistence that it is impossible to assess a painter like Rubens without “[wondering] whether the bristling cavalry that appears

incongruously behind the classical figures [owes] something to Rubens’s [personal]

reponse to contemporary history”, for example. Incorporating the painter’s

background, according to Schama, leads to a deeper understanding, in this case the inescapable conclusion that “the intense fervour of Rubens’s religious painting is not just art, but spiritual weaponry” (Schama 2010, p 249-250). So that is where I will start, also following Mateer’s premise that the poet is “a namer-of-things”, and that it should “be his Self that is named first” (Mateer 1998, p 1).

John Mateer was born in 1971, in Roodepoort, now a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa. After the student uprisings in Soweto in 1976, when the young Mateer

was five years old, the family decided to migrate to Canada, where they stayed for almost two years. When the feared civil war in South Africa did not materialise, Mateer’s father moved his family back to his birth country. Every time the situation in South Africa worsened, another migration was considered, leaving the boy with a constant “feeling of impermanence” (Mateer 2008, interview, 6 June). Eventually the permanent relocation came in 1989, when Mateer was served with his conscription papers in the midst of one of the worst episodes of what the South African

government called the State of Emergency. The country of choice this time was Australia, and the Mateers arrived with many other South Africans. “From 1986 until 1990 some 12.000 South African WICs migrated to Australia to escape the civil war”

(Louw and Mersham 2001, p 313), WIC being used here as a term to describe “white, coloured and Indian” South Africans (2001, p 304).

For this particular white, English-speaking South African, Australia was a confusing country. Mateer told Michael Heald in 2001:

When we left, [South Africa] was in a state of undeclared civil war: the African townships were frequently on fire, troops were being sent in to

‘restore order’, there were mass rallies and boycotts, and there was a very strict censorship of the media. Shortly after we arrived in Australia, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the so-called ‘thaw’ began. But even during that period there were bombings and the threat of radical Afrikaner nationalists. So, even while trying to live a ‘new life’ in Australia, I felt beset by traumatic events taking place in South Africa. It took me a long time to become used to the experience of being here. And quite often I feel that I’m yet to become used to it (Heald 2001, p 1).

Mateer felt lost and isolated in Australia, and literally stopped talking. Referring to this period in 2008, he called it the “migrant part of the story”. Australians, he said,

are not interested in your background [as a migrant], your story, your history, your experiences. Come and play sport and don’t talk about those things. You are in Australia now, everything is fine. So for me it was impossible to find points of reference to talk about the past. Nobody wanted to know. I did feel that they judged me, though. I was white and from South Africa, so I must be one of the evil-doers. That made it even more difficult to talk or find a connection (Mateer 2008, interview, 8 June).

Of course Mateer was not alone in this reaction. Many migrant (writers), white or non-white, English-speaking or NESB, have struggled to fit into Australia. Mateer’s point here, though, is that it was specifically the combination of being white and

South African (and the political connotation attached to that) that complicated his particular migrant position. Also, because of his personal history of being “in a constant state of migration” – the family moved between South Africa and other countries multiple times –, Mateer felt he “couldn’t claim [he] was South African”, but there was no sense of belonging to Australia either. Furthermore, although the two countries spoke English and English was his first language, he struggled to understand the Australian version. “The significance of landscape for Australians, the logic of their language-use, its ironies, to me seemed ridiculous. […] I didn’t feel able to say anything” (2008, 8 June).

For a while Mateer tried to translate his confusion through art, specifically painting, studying Fine Arts and Literature at the University of Western Australia.

Then the need to speak became too great, resulting in the publication of his first poetry collection in 1994, Burning Swans. The writing, in Mateer’s own words, was

“a glimpse of iconoclasm, a moment through which an antipodean symbol burns with the light of an individual’s past and an adopted country’s ahistorical present. The disturbance in the poems is a recognition of loss” (Mateer 1994, blurb). Burning Swans was followed by Anachronism (1997), Barefoot Speech (2000, winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry), Loanwords (2002, shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards), Semar’s Cave (2004, the result of a stint as writer-in-residence at the Australia Centre in Medan, Indonesia), and The Ancient Capital of Images (2005, after another writer-in-residence experience, this time in Kyoto, Japan). In 2007, two books were published, one in South Africa, Southern Barbarians, and one in the UK, Elsewhere, a categorisation and sometimes re-writing of earlier work. Apart from this, Mateer wrote several chapbooks and a steady stream of art criticism and essays. In 2001, he was awarded the Centenary Medal for Contributions to Australian Literature and Society. As is the case with Ruth Park and Alex Miller, the conclusion can be drawn that John Mateer has a definite place within the Australian literary core. The question, on the basis of the content of his writing and his position as a migrant writer, is again: does he belong there?

The fairly recent history of South African migration to Australia is an interesting one because Mateer’s work and its positioning can partially be explained by placing him within his ‘group history’. According to James Jupp, by 1921 “there were 5408 South African settlers in Australia” (Jupp 2001, p 688). Most of them were

white and of English descent. Eric Louw and Gary Mersham, reporting on one of the very few bodies of research done on South African migration to Australia, determine five distinct ‘waves’. The first one materialised after the 1948 elections “produced an unexpected victory for Afrikaner nationalism” (Louw/Mersham 2001, p 308). The subsequent “challenge to British hegemony over South Africa” and the

implementation of the “first stages of apartheid” (2001, p 309), “was deeply traumatic for white Anglo South Africans who came to see 1948 as the year they ‘lost power’”

(Ibid). Around 2000 white Anglo South Africans “settled in Australia during the 1950s” (Ibid) and this number grew to around 8000 (Ibid) after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, when South African police opened fire on black protesters, killing 69 and injuring over 180 people. The result was black protests, a state of emergency and the banning of the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress. The threat of violence, coupled with the fact that South Africa proclaimed itself a republic a year later and left the Commonwealth, encouraged more whites to leave the country.

The second wave “began with the 1976 Soweto revolt” (ibid), that brought 17.000 Anglo settlers to Australia and resulted in the fact that by the 1986 census, there were 37.000 South African-born Australians (2001, p 311). Fears of a civil war and a “black-ruled” South Africa were at the core of most of the decisions to migrate.

Within South Africa, the researchers claim, there was “much hostility to migrants who were seen as taking the easy option of migrating (disparagingly referred to as ‘the chicken run’)” (ibid). The pejorative term for this cohort of migrants, liberal white Anglos “with no loyalty to South Africa” (ibid) became PFP’s (Packed for Perthers), a pun on the acronym for the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), led by the charismatic politician Helen Suzman and associated with English-speaking white South Africans.

It was not the first time that liberal white, English-speaking South Africans were spoken of with less than respect. A derogatory term for English-speaking South Africans, used by speakers of Afrikaans, is ‘soutpiel’, where the metaphor is someone who has one foot in Britain, one in Africa and his penis (piel) in the sea. This points to the in-between position that this group has always had, or was supposed to have:

neither belonging to Africa, nor to Britain.

Where the third wave of migration from southern Africa consisted mainly of Rhodesians, the fourth one, the one that brought the Mateers to Australia, started with another state of emergency, in 1985, that intensified the civil war and found many white males conscripted into an army that acted as a de facto police force (2001, p

312). Although there was a brief period of optimism in the early 1990s, with the release of Nelson Mandela from jail and then President De Klerk starting negotiations to end the civil war, Louw and Mersham point to an increasing “black nationalist rhetoric”, from the ANC especially, as a reason for many white South Africans contemplating migration. By 1996 there were 55.753 South Africans in Australia (Jupp 2001, p 689), predominantly white and English-speaking (90%) (ibid). The most recent 2006 census makes mention of 104.128 South African-born Australians, the tenth largest group of “migrants” in the country (ABS 2009).

Apart from identifying crime as a key motivation to leave South Africa, Louw and Mersham suggest that race and colour, and especially the feeling that South Africa is in a process of “racial re-ranking” (Louw/Mersham 2001, p 315), are important as well. With the ANC starting to “undo the former ‘racial hierarchy”’

(Ibid), whites reported that they felt “‘discriminated against’ in the new South Africa”

(Ibid). Ethnographic studies in Australia reveal that there is a belief amongst white South African migrants “that they had become an ‘unwelcome minority”’: “there was a growing sense of marginalization and second-classness. As one white migrant said:

‘There is a sense of being ignored, as though we didn’t matter. Hostility I can maybe take, irrelevance I can’t handle’” (2001, p 321). Louw and Mersham conclude that these migrants carry with them “a sense of ‘displacement’ and ‘loss’ which translates into the sort of ‘collective identity’ characteristics of diasporic populations” (2001, p 322). They quote Clifford, who described diasporas as “‘dispersed networks of peoples who share common historical experiences of dispossession, displacement, adaptation, and so forth”’ (ibid). In short, I would say there are three contradictions in the position of white, English-speaking South African migrants in Australia: first that they are here both voluntarily and forced, secondly that they are both privileged and

‘victims’, and lastly that they are both fellow colonials and foreigners. These issues, and the confusion that flows from them, can be found throughout the work of John Mateer.

In a 1997 article for Australian Studies, Sarah Nuttall, currently professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of

Witwatersrand, South Africa, made a comparison between South African and Australian literature, focussing on themes of nationalism and identity.

Multiculturalism, she states, has made thinking about and defining post-colonialism

and post-modernism, both theoretically and practically, imperative. Nuttall says that literature in particular “shares some of the concerns which underlie the Truth and Reconciliation Commission […] as to how to invest a commitment to the future by representing the meaning of the past” (Nuttall 1997, p 61). In talking about different South African writers, Nuttall points to “a new sense of fracture and dissonance”, and says there is a feeling of “the strangeness of history, its otherness, changeability, ungraspability” (1997, p 62) in the work of some writers, while others are concerned with “breaking free from the past” (ibid). With “the old narrative quite literally gone”

(ibid), everything has become more or less provisional. In her comparison, Nuttall maintains that while South Africa is preoccupied with “History and with inheritance”, Australia’s concern is “with romanticism and renewal” (ibid). In this country, the past is reconstructed to address the present (1997, p 63). The aesthetic of romanticism is used, says Nuttall, quoting Amanda Nettlebeck, “‘to lay to rest a colonial history of violence and exclusion; to move beyond a culture of division and to gesture towards tolerance and reconciliation’” (ibid). It is a form of “idealism” that, contrary to the new forms in South African literature, works “within a language often compromised by its inherited colonial codes of reference” (ibid). In both white and Aboriginal literature, authors use nature and landscape especially, and a “deeper consolation is to be found in tradition – an older history” (1997, p 64). In Australian writing there is, Nuttall says, “a resistance to disturbance through question and contestation”, and “an impetus towards […] wholeness in response to historical and social fracture” (ibid).

In an earlier text (the introduction to Text, Theory, Space, co-edited with Kate Darian-Smith and Liz Gunner), Nuttall had already argued that the themes in South African and Australian cultural and literary history are very similar: “the underside of the colonizing psyche, landscape theory and practice, the liminality of the emigrant position, and the discursive formation of settler sites in the field of empire” (Nuttall et all 1996, p 2). Landscape is of prime importance in these literatures, the editors contend, because with writing about landscape comes writing about identity, space, place and history. It turns “geographical territory into” something that is culturally

“defined” (1996, p 3). Also, this process is closely connected to the concept of

“national identity”, which “would lose much of its ferocious enchantment without the mystique of a particular landscape tradition, its topography, mapped, elaborated and enriched as a homeland” (1996, p 10). In South Africa as well as in Australia, “space and land ownership” have been consistently “prescribed in terms of race and power”

(1996, p 15), with major consequences in terms of the “contestations between indigenous and European populations over the naming, ownership and symbolic currency of land in South Africa and Australia” (ibid).

If South African and Australian writing have much in common as far as themes and cultural references are concerned, we might expect that the South African migrant writer would feel quickly at home in this country. But Mateer suggests this is not the case, so we have to examine what the particular ‘interference’ is in his case.

Particularly since the end of apartheid as a system, white South African writers, both in and outside South Africa, have been investigating their position in ever increasing numbers. Often writing from a biographical starting point, people like J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Antjie Krog and Lisa Fugard have begun to ask difficult questions:

where does my responsibility for my country’s racism lie, and how can I learn to live with the wrongs that have been done in my name? And, leading from that and the political changes: do I still have a place in South Africa, and if not, where do I go?

This has resulted in a myriad of conflicted, but all very personal and emotional, writings. Breyten Breytenbach, for example lashes out, “in anguish and bitterness, in all directions” (Coetzee 2002, p 306). Writing about Breytenbach’s 1992 book Return to Paradise, Coetzee describes Breytenbach’s personal and authorial dilemma like this:

It is in this very traditional, very African realisation – that his deepest creative being is not his own but belongs to an ancestral consciousness – that gives rise to some of the pain and confusion recorded in Return to Paradise. For though Breytenbach may recognise how marginal he has become in what is nowadays on all sides, with varying degrees of irony, called ‘the new South Africa’, and may even enjoy dramatising himself as the one without a self, the bastard, the

‘nomadic nobody’, or, in his favourite postmodern figure, the face in the mirror, a textual shadow without substance, he knows that ultimately he owes his strength to his native earth and his ancestors (2002, p 307).

There are many interesting aspects to this passage, but something that needs exploring first is Breytenbach’s sense that he has become marginal, somebody even without a self, in post-apartheid South Africa. In this he is not alone. Writers like André Brink, Michael Heyns and of course Coetzee himself continue to wrestle with their position as white males. This is “Guilt, postcolonial white guilt”, Georgie

Horrell contends in her essay ‘Post-Apartheid Disgrace: Guilty Masculinities in White

South African Writing’. This, she writes, “is a well-worn track in discourses”, and

“post-Apartheid South African fiction and autobiography form a field which bears the marks of whiteness in painful transition” (Horrell 2005, p 2). If this is true for those still living in their homeland, how much more so will it be true for the migrant? The shame, guilt, humiliation and a feeling of redundancy expressed in autobiographical, confessional and unsettling writing – often, as in the case of Coetzee, without a resolution – must carry over into the work of South Africans abroad.

There are many and diverse reasons for white South African writers to force themselves through this process. As Tony Simoes da Silva argues:

Faced with the rapidly changing political conditions that once framed the White self in Africa as a ‘stable’ locus of privilege and power, self-writing forms allow White writers in Southern Africa to reclaim some of the influence they once held over the telling of a national story and the making of cultural memory (2005, p 472).

It is, he says, a way to “exercise some control over the meaning of [the writers’]

‘lives”’, and maybe even “an attempt to negotiate the White person’s growing sense of political invisibility” (ibid). In Simoes da Silva’s reading of these narratives then, especially in the form of life-writing, they articulate the writers’ more or less hidden agenda to maintain a sense of self worth. White writers are trying to find an

alternative to the space they once had, asserting identity in the process of writing, but unsure if anyone is listening. In this sense, perhaps there is a closer connection between writing from ‘home’ and ‘away’ for South Africans than for migrant writers in Australia from other countries. Still, white South Africans in Australia must find some accommodation to the new South Africa and to their new place of residence abroad. One problem in Australia is that the direct confrontation of colonialism, race-relations and the role of language, fundamental to South African identity, is not the preferred method of expression for Australian cultural arbiters. Writing oneself into a guilty victim persona can also be regarded with suspicion or scorn (similar to the reaction against the ‘whinging Pom’). This leads to a double dislocation for white South African writers: the ‘normal’ positionality-problem of the migrant is

compounded by the slowly dawning realisation that you think you are talking about the same things as white Australians, but really you are not – not in content, but especially not in form. This is, I would propose, John Mateer’s situation. On the one hand, he seems a privileged white who should easily assimilate, but one who adopts

many of the features of the outspoken NESB minority writer. On the other, his South African origin places him in the ‘minority victim’ position of the ‘migrant writer’, but his Anglophone whiteness allows him to speak out in ways exceeding expections of that role.

As I stated before, whiteness, in the context of South Africa, has very different connotations from whiteness almost everywhere else in the world. In American whiteness-studies, white is considered a non-colour, an invisibility, something that is unselfconscious because of its hegemonic location (see chapter 2). In South Africa, especially under Apartheid, white has always been very visible, as a colour and as a sign of power. In an early essay, written a year after the publication of his first book, Burning Swans, John Mateer attempts to explain the ‘baggage’ he brought with him to Australia. Being white and English-speaking meant that his whiteness did signify power, especially compared to non-white South Africans. But it also implied a certain in-between whiteness – linguistically outside of the centre of political power, but privileged nonetheless. Mateer’s family, like many white, English-speaking South Africans, could not make up their mind about where they belonged. On the one hand, they felt they had little in common with what they saw as “revolutionaries” and

“communists”: Mateer’s father viewed poet Breytenbach as a “shit-stirrer” (Mateer 1998, geocities p 2), and there was a fear that the end of apartheid would entail

“massacres of white people” (Mateer 2008, interview 8 June). On the other hand, “we weren’t on the Afrikaner, white, National Party, apartheid-is-the-only-answer side either” (ibid). While in Canada for a brief period during his childhood, the young Mateer even realised that the only other child at the school with whom he had

anything in common was a black Nigerian boy. “We were both Africans. It was a type of crazy logic I held onto, because it gave some sort of stability and belonging. South Africa normally was all about fragmenting and dividing people and making them fight one another, but this gave me a sort of comradeship” (ibid).

His whiteness made Mateer think about what his ‘duty’ was to his birthplace and how that translated into Australian culture: “By not speaking, am I being

complicit with behaviours many call ‘evil’? Doesn’t that make me evil? Does Africa have anything to do with me? What language do I have? Am I ‘human’?” (ibid). In Australia he soon realised “these doubts” were called “’white guilt”’, but the label did not do away with a sense of confusion and debt. Afrikaners in South Africa, in

Mateer’s view, could be forgiven after apartheid because they had been guilty. For