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Breyten Breytenbach – Writer and Painter

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Breyten Breytenbach is considered one of the greatest living poets in Afrikaans. Breyten Breytenbach (born September 16, 1939) is a South African writer and painter with French citizenship. He was born in Bonnievale in the Western Cape, approximately 180 km from Cape Town and 100 km from the southernmost tip of Africa at Cape Agulhas.

Breyten arrived in Paris in 1961. Departing without telling his family, he travelled to Europe in fourth (or cattle) class on a Portuguese liner.

After his marriage to Yolande Ngo Thi Hoang Lien (which means “Yellow Lotus”), a French woman of Vietnamese origin, he couldn’t return to South Africa because of the Mixed Marriages Act.

He started publishing in 1964, both poetry and prose. He started exhibiting in various European galleries from the early 1960’s on. He made his debut with the innovative volume, Die ysterkoei moet sweet and in the same year Katastrofes, a prose work, appeared.

Johnny Makhathini, the ANC’s Chief Representative in Algeria, recruited Breyten into the international anti-imperialist movement Solidarité. Solidarité helped Breyten and other white radicals to form a small underground activist offshoot of the ANC, which was named Okhela (Zulu for “spark”).

Mistrusted and subsequently betrayed by the ANC, Breytenbach was arrested in 1975 while on an illegal trip to South Africa. He was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for high treason, and was subsequently accused of terrorism while in jail.

Most of the charges were eventually dropped due to a lack of evidence – he was only found guilty of having smuggled letters and poems out of prison – and he was released in 1982, whereupon he returned to Paris.

He received the Hertzog Prize for poetry in 1984, but refused to accept it.

Breytenbach’s work includes poetry, novels, plays and essays, most of which are in Afrikaans and a number originally published in English. Most of his books are translated into several languages. He is also known for his artwork. Exhibitions of his paintings and prints have been held in various cities including Amsterdam, Stockholm, Paris, Edinburgh and New York. He received the Hertzog Prize for poetry in 1999 for, En Oorblyfsels and Papierblom. His most recent collection of poetry, Die Windvanger (2007), has been awarded the University of Johannesburg Prize for Creative Writing, the Hertzog Prize as well as the WA Hofmeyr Prize.

Yet only in 1994, his art was exhibited in South Africa. This was the first time. The exhibition, Painting the eye, was displayed in Cape Town and Pretoria.

The Breytenbach Centre, a culture hub for art, music and writing, opened in Wellington, 2007 in the house where he grew up.

Resident in Paris, he currently divides his time between Europe, South Africa and the USA, mostly writing and lecturing. In January 2000 he began a three year period in the Graduate School of Humanities of at the University of Cape Town as a visiting professor in the departments of English and Drama. He has taught creative writing there as well as at the Gorée Institute in Dakar, Senegal and the University of New York.

The Goree Institute, is a foundation that he helped found to promote democratic unity on the African continent.


Breyten Breytenbach in person

His face is serene; his gaze is beatific; his hands, one layered gracefully over the other, seem to float in front of him. Breytenbach’s, red shoes; his trademark; are made of bright red, soft African leather. His voice sounds better than beatific; it faintly resembles Sean Connery’s.


Breyten Breytenbach’s writing 

It does truly feel as though Breytenbach has freed his language to explore life’s uncharted regions and has welcomed the various truths these expeditions discovered.

His writing reads quite freshly when compared to popular, purpose-driven texts like stories about relationships and morality tales. Breytenbach’s writing tells some of the most fascinating stories.

Breytenbach seems to have developed this technique of free association during his time in solitary confinement; from 1975 to 1982, in an South African Prison. His writing process varies drastically from the norm.

During an interview with Ann Landsman from The Believer, he said of his prison writing:

I felt that as I wrote, I was entering a world that started unfolding as you entered it. You didn’t know where you were going to go when you entered it. It took you—it took you to places which may have existed there before in your mind somewhere, in your memory, but that you could not be sure about . . . the sense I had was that the writing was a kind of thread into a maze that revealed itself to me as I entered it with the line of writing.


Courtesy quarterlyconversation.com

Courtesy humanrousseau.com

Courtesy spierpoetryfestival.co.za

Courtesy Mail & Guardian



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