Raphaël Lambert with John Mateer

Raphaël Lambert and John Mateer (photo credit: Daniel Terkl)
Raphaël Lambert and John Mateer (photo credit: Daniel Terkl)



This interview, conducted in Australia at the 2014 Sydney Writers Festival and supported by a research fund from the Japanese Ministry of Education, is organized around three themes (the persistence of history; memory and trauma; and identification and heteronyms) which reveal Mateer’s work as a counter-narrative that relentlessly questions established concepts and overturns certainties. The reader always feels a slight décalage, a shift in perception that opens up to the diversity of experience and dismisses the quest for objectivity as futile and vain. This capacity to circumscribe the reassuring discourse of a unified, monolithic world is also what allows Mateer to identify with other cultures and reach—as he does with Portugal and its imperial past—the deeper recesses of their soul. But Mateer does not appropriate; he explores, and he shares.Raphaël Lambert

Raphaël Lambert: A recurrent theme that I find in your poetry and essays is something we could call the “persistence of history.” Thus, in your essay “Echolalia”—the afterword to your collection of poems, Unbelievers (2013)—you make a reference to the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, which marked the beginning of the expansion of European nations outside Europe, and you put this expansionism on a par with the “War On Terror” orchestrated by the Bush administration in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Later, you also see the expulsion of the Moors outside of Granada in 1492 as the starting point of what you call “the invasion of the rest of the globe.” Could you elaborate on this continuum that you establish between imperialism of the past and that of today?

John Mateer: Well, the first thing is that I’m interpreting this as a poet. So my kind of historical understanding approaches history through the eyes of a poet, looking for the concepts that drive some of these things: What is the concept of the West versus the Islamic world? That concept exists from the beginning, from the expulsion of the Moors from Iberia in the 15th century. That discourse is very similar to what was going on at the time of the War Against Terror, namely the West versus the Islamic world. So as a poet that’s the important thing: the language and concepts.

And also the symbolism … Once I saw a picture of George W. Bush in the White House and I looked at it and I saw that the White House is in an hallucinatory continuum of European architectural styles; the icon of the bald eagle looks Germanic, almost Nazi. The Nazis also saw themselves as in a continuum of Western culture.

Then there’s a level which has to do with the words people think with in times of war. Language becomes simplified and brutalized. On a few occasions, about ten years ago now, when I was in the US, I noticed that the poets there were keen to say that their experimental poetry was a critique of politics in its breaking up conventional meaning. I don’t exactly agree with that. I think there can be moments where you break up conventional meaning as a political act, and I think that some black South African poets did that, and Dada did that, too. But I think poets have to be careful. The Polish poet, Aleksander Wat, who began as a futurist poet, once said that the problem with experimental poetry is that you feel you can take apart meaning whenever you want to, yet you can’t always reconstruct meaning whenever you want to. This question of what war, violence and experimentation do to the meaning of language needs to be carefully thought through.

What I found in going back to look at certain grammatical and stylistic qualities in Portuguese or Spanish poetry to see how they’re related, how they relate to the Provençal poets and the Troubadours and how that relates to European tradition, is more insightful than any kind of modernist experimentation, allowing us to see how Islam and Arabic are closely related to the Western tradition. The violence of the Expulsion was really the violence of excising one part of a common culture. I think it’s good to try to retain a memory of the shared culture. It might prevent some of the violence of the present, at least the linguistic violence.

RL: This idea that our world is bogged down, as it were, in some sort of historical standstill manifests itself in some of your poems such as “Kaffir” and “Unbeliever” from your collection Ex-White (2009). Both poems explore racial prejudices and use that derogatory word, “kaffir,” which you call a “word-scar.”

JM: I’m glad you brought this up because this, the word “kaffir,” is one of the things that led me to think about all these questions. In South Africa, when I was growing up during Apartheid, probably the most violent years of Apartheid, that was a word used all the time. It was illegal from about the late 1960s, if I recall correctly. Once in London I found a very large dictionary—a tome—of South African English I had never seen before. I opened it to find out what they had for “kaffir,” and it confirmed that it was an illegal word, considered derogatory. But the word itself and all the variants of it went on for several pages. So that’s a statement in itself, isn’t it?

I was always interested in this terrible word because it was really the most violent or insulting word you could use, and it was everywhere. When I went back to South Africa in 1995, I realized no one was using the word anymore. It had been effaced, as if no one had any memory of it. What interested me was, on one hand, that it encapsulated the violence of Apartheid, and, on the other, if you tried to understand what it meant, it revealed its origin in the Arabic for “unbeliever” or “nonbeliever,” effectively “not one of us.” But to understand the logic of that within South Africa …

How did an Islamic concept, an Arabic word, come to be used by white people, against black people, and in insult? It seemed to me connected to the history of the slave trade on the East Coast of Africa, where the slave traders were predominantly Islamic, probably mostly Arabs. And that was after I had been to Indonesia, time I described in my prose book Semar’s Cave.

So I started looking at the geography of the Indian Ocean region, trying to think through its mental geography. For Muslim people in Indonesia, the Islamic world is very close; Yemen was one of the entry points for Islam in the region. Geographic proximity on the Indian Ocean is for Indonesians different from what it is for Australians and South Africans due to culture. There’s a mental geography, allowing them to see the real geography in different ways. Through that one word, I could see there was historical evidence of connections and movements and contradictory relationships.

And then the poems themselves are addressing aspects of that word. Like the poem “Kaffir” in which I talk about the word being a “word-scar.” That was written when I was reading Aimé Césaire, looking at his idea of surrealism, his use of metaphor and image to convey traumatic experience; his surrealism of the image as a way of talking about loss and trauma. Whereas the poem “Unbeliever” is very much in the actual world, listening to how people use and efface the word in today’s South Africa.

RL: In the poem “The Translator,” from your collection Unbelievers, or ‘The Moor’ (2013), you write that Thabo Mbeki, the former President of South Africa, once wrote “an unsigned communiqué labeling [Coetzee’s] Disgrace an example of the Unreconstructed Whites.” And there is the poem “Winsor Hotel” in which you call yourself an “ambiguous African.” So here is a candid question: is it difficult to be a white South African today?

JM: What is the idea of a “white South African” today? And now, with Coetzee, it’s an intriguing question: Coetzee came to Australia in mysterious circumstances. No one can quite understand why. He didn’t go to the most glamorous city. As I understand it, one of the things that occurred before he left was a government inquiry into racism in the media under Apartheid in which Disgrace was given as an example of racism in the media. I’ve heard various reports about what occurred and who was responsible. I was told by someone quite well informed that Coetzee was “targeted”—this is the word that was used—and that it came from high up within the government. I was told that it was Thabo Mbeki who wrote the text. Of course, it could just be a rumour because several years afterwards he [Coetzee] was given an award by Thabo Mbeki.

Disgrace was interesting in that it addressed the fear of violence many people experience in South Africa. White people talk about it a lot, but everyone experiences it. The book seemed to me a provocation. I was surprised that the book was so popular. I thought it would be criticized in a number of other ways, but it wasn’t. And it became very popular in academia, which may say something about the West’s continuing racism rather than South Africa’s historic racism.

There was a very strange review by the novelist John Banville in the New York Review of Books in which he said that the only character he found convincing was the black African character who takes over the farm. He said something to the effect that this character had “the inscrutability of the peasant.” That character’s the least convincing of all the characters. I feel that the problem with Coetzee’s writing, certainly in that book, is that he’s unable to actually provide a discursive space for the black South Africans. The “inscrutability of the Other” performs a very useful role for the “white West,” if we can call it that. I think, though, that we can access the sensibility of the Other. Coetzee, I imagine, is aware of this. That book was a provocation, but it seems to have provoked something different from what was intended.

But in answer to your question, to get back to this subject of “whiteness,” I feel the concept is a difficult issue because if, as a South African, I use the word “white,” it has the possibility of re-inscribing Apartheid definitions and divisions. I think, in a poetic sense, it can be dispensed with. Yet in a political context, if you dispense with it, then certain corrections, redistributing wealth, education, creating potential for jobs in South Africa, etc., can’t be undertaken. For that we do need to retain racial categories. One of the things that few people, it seems, are aware of now with Coetzee’s writing is that during the Apartheid years he never described someone by their race in any of his books. That was very unusual. Gordimer did it all the time. It was a profound rhetorical and political decision. Anyway, readers could deduce the characters’ races from their cultural, linguistic and economic circumstances.

That’s something that I would also stand by, certainly in literature. That’s why my book of South African poems is called Ex-White. It’s a bit like “Unbeliever.” I’m interested in negation, negative relation. Then there are the Unbelievers in Zakes Mda’s novel The Heart of Redness, those who didn’t believe in Nongqawse’s prophesy in the 19th century that if they killed all their cattle the white invaders would disappear into the sea …

RL: In an essay on Victor Segalen, you argue that, “[T]o read Segalen today is to attempt to understand a man who, despite his desire to be otherwise, was of his time—a humanist adventurer, doctor, scholar, archaeologist and poet—and it is for the reader to confront the question of what it is to feel foreign, foreign not to the Other but to oneself and one’s own culture.” This question of feeling foreign to oneself and one’s own culture is at the heart of your own poetic quest. I am not sure whether, like Segalen, you are writing to “try on the various masks of history,” but you do use the voices of other poets or historical personae in such poems as “After Returning from a Voyage of Exploration,” “Pessoa as Photographed Child,” and “The Book of Namban Art” (Southern Barbarians, 2007). Could you talk about this dissociation of the self and perhaps in relation to that, about what you’ve called elsewhere, in the poem “The Ex-Photographer,” from Unbelievers, your “inner exile”?

JM: The first issue when we talk about subjectivity in literature and criticism today is that there’s often a conflation of personal subjectivity and political subjecthood, or, put differently, personal subjectivity and its political conditions. Then there’s the metaphysics of personal subjecthood: How do you think you exist? With political subjecthood, there’s the question of how one is a subject in a certain political circumstance: How does that relate to the political circumstances of the past? Put another way, they are subjecthood and the subjectivity. They connect through identification. They connect when you look at something and say, “That circumstance has meaning for me, and I’m going to react to it.”

In my poems, what I think is key is that the poems take these experiences apart in various ways. Most poets seem to be interested in affirming a continuum of subjectivity, and as part of that, they affirm the continuum between subjectivity and subjecthood. This is the conventional model of the poet. It is the model where the poet embodies the language, subjectivity and politics.

My poems don’t do that. My poems are about looking at and identifying with a particular thing, experience or context, but recognizing that it is a special, transient circumstance. They’re circumstantial, in the way that evidence in court can be circumstantial, suggestive. I think that’s important because what I am interested in is the diversity of experience. This is something, I think, Segalen describes well in his famous essay on exoticism. Exoticism is important because it constantly reminds us that there are things that aren’t you, that are Other. And that’s what makes culture: this difference between you and those things that are Other.

Segalen was making an argument for the power and insight of exoticism. He was also very much of his time—as I say in that essay—because one of the things he, like Ezra Pound and others, were doing was finding in archaic foreign cultures a status for the poet that didn’t exist under modernity, and doesn’t exist now under globalization. They were dreaming of a period when the poet was a kind of introspective statesman. And they slotted in a very peculiar way with the violent “project” of colonization.

In one way, their respect for foreign culture was anti-colonial. In another way, it was enabled by colonialism. This is where I would see myself as being quite different from him and Pound. What I’m interested in is a radical diversity of the present. Even though I’m interested in history, which allows us to look at the present, I think that today there’s no normative experience or subjectivity, what seemed possible in the modern era. I think that Segalen had that ethos of that approach and a similar investigation, yet he couldn’t address his present.

RL: Those heteronyms you like to create are often personae that are not necessarily individuals but rather the representatives or embodiments of historical realities. A good example of that may be “The Moor” in Unbelievers, which is told from a first-person point of view. It involves role-playing, sex, and slavery. It is a very personal poem, but it is also a poem steeped in history because of its themes. There is, therefore, a clear connection between the self and the collective, and the present of the self and History. In a way, you seem to be saying that we are still entangled in the politics of empire and colonization. I think you make that very connection in “Echolalia” when you write about Indonesia, an Islamic country, and its proximity to Australia—the Great South Land, and you say that, “the Great Southern Land was an upside-down Iberia, that Indonesia was my Morocco, Africa my South America.” Can you explain?

JM: I think when people first heard me talking about Portugal, they thought, “This is crazy.” Even when I said things to ‘validate’ myself: actually, when I was at school in Johannesburg, I had many friends who were Portuguese; more Portuguese people live in Johannesburg than any other city outside of Portugal. There was that sort of geography.

Then, within South Africa … My parents were born in Cape Town. South African history, under the “old history,” begins with the Portuguese rounding the Cape. So as South Africans, we were always aware of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. People in South Africa could travel to Mauritius and the islands in the Indian Ocean under Apartheid, but they weren’t allowed to travel anywhere in Africa. I knew people from Mauritius. And I remember my father going on holiday to Mauritius and bringing me back a little dodo. So that’s another geography—the Indian Ocean.

When I look at old maps, what intrigues me is how flexible they are, how inaccurate they are, how they depend on contemporary knowledge of the world. I always think it’s an interesting way to conceive geography—through points of contact, experience, rather than more objectively. There’s a geography in all this that owes a lot to the 15th century and earlier explorers, too.

My interest was in the Portuguese because in Portugal, the idea of the explorers, and the discoveries, is central. Everyone in Portugal knows de Gama and Luis de Camões, etc. Everyone knows Camões went to Macau and Malacca. Everyone knows something about his epic poem on de Gama’s voyage. So when you talk about the 15th century as still important in Portugal, it makes perfect sense there. And when you talk about South Africa in Portugal, there is some idea of how South Africa is related to Portugal, too. And I’ve met many South Africans in Portugal.

Once I did a reading in Lisbon and afterwards someone told me her parents had been in a refugee camp in Pretoria. When the Portuguese were expelled from Mozambique, many of them fled to South Africa. The understanding of Africa for Portuguese people is quite different from what it is for many other Europeans.

About the poem “The Moor.” This poem was quoted in a review recently, in the Sydney Review of Books, and the reviewer used it as an example of how I might be going too far in the way of playing with identities. I don’t think it’s good to over-interpret the poems or reviews, but what interests me is that in the case of erotic fantasy, role-play is quite key, and accepted. But what’s not always accepted is that the erotics of role-play is part of everyday life, today and in retrospect. With that poem, I’m trying to bring back a lightness as well …

There is a very dark side to it. Sexuality was a part of slavery. This is something very difficult to talk about, but is an issue: to use that very ugly word, “miscegenation” or, much better, “creole.” In the US, for instance, they’ve created a very strong distinction between black and white and Latino, yet actually, many people there, a vast number of “white” people, are mixed-race. Sometimes that occurred through violence, or other exploitation. But what I was trying to do in the poem is say that there can be a light, humorous erotics of identity, and therefore of history.

RL: I want to go back to what you said earlier about Portugal and its relationship to its past; and I want to talk about the issue of nostalgia. In your work, nostalgia is the nostalgia of empires—like in your poem “An Essay in Sweetness” in Southern Barbarians, which is about those pastries, Pastéis de Belém. But nostalgia is never about the desire to go back home, as if there were no home. And in your poem, these Pastéis de Belém are described as the Portuguese equivalent of the Madeleine of Proust when it comes to its imperial past. However, your poem implies either that these pastries are the remnants, or the ruins, of that past, or the equivalent of displaced pleasure: imperialism and colonization were ugly, but they left that wonderful pastry, Pastéis de Belém. Of course, the “Empire of Nostalgia” to which you refer in both “An Essay on Sweetness” and “There Remains Another Place” is the very opposite of what could be called the “nostalgia for empire.” The “Empire of Nostalgia” is a place for imagination, a mental home where one wants to return to, even if, or all the more so that this is a place with a trapdoor that leads to saudade, that ineffable Portuguese feeling of sadness—a sadness that is not necessarily negative. This, no doubt, is related to your ideas about exile.

JM: There is the idea that empires exist to gather the wealth of the colonies for the imperial center. When I first went to Lisbon, I saw it wasn’t quite like that … The empire was at its greatest extent for only about a century, before being defeated and taken over by the Dutch. So even though there’s the idea that the Portuguese went to Malacca, to Macau, maybe even to Australia, around Africa, to Brazil, and colonized those parts of the world, the reality is that they didn’t conclusively. They might have gone and claimed those places, but they only stayed in small little pockets, in fortresses, islands, colonies. There were only a few million people in Portugal, and so, as Portuguese people often point out, they couldn’t completely colonize and dominate the colonies. Only in the imagination, the empire seemed vast. This is something Salazar affirmed. Colonization is a fantasy, a delusion. Then there were the later phases of colonization, when Portugal was drawing wealth from Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique. That continued for a long time, up until ’75 or ’76.

But we mustn’t lose sight of the long history of Portuguese slavery in Africa and elsewhere. In that sense, wealth would go to Portugal, but it didn’t make the average person wealthy. It made some wealthy, much fewer than were made wealthy by British trade with India. The average person in England benefited more than the average person in Portugal. The Portuguese, more than most, seem to me to understand Empire as a phantasm. So in that poem when I talk about those cakes—what are called “Portuguese tarts” in English—they understand that it may be possible to have had a positive, ironic colonization. These cakes are Portugal’s most famous export. What I said about the poem “The Moor” is true here as well. Yes, let’s talk about these issues of identity and the effects of colonization, but in other ways.

It’s interesting that you say that I don’t seem to have nostalgia for a place because I think maybe that’s not quite right. And I think I may have nostalgia for a place that I didn’t originate in. I feel very close to Lisbon, and to Cape Town.

RL: For you, is going to Lisbon going home, even though you’re from Cape Town?

JM: I’m not from Cape Town; my parents are. I’m from Johannesburg. But the other side of it is that often the impulse to imperialism is nostalgic. That’s why contemplating the idea of nostalgia as an unreality is worthwhile. What you have, say, in the case of the National Socialists before the Second World War, was the idea that they would make a new Roman Empire, a new empire, but driven by nostalgia for another, ancient one.

This impulse to nostalgia is always with us, even in the case of a self, as I was saying in relation to subjectivity before: there is the sense that the self is a continuity. So in a way, you’re returning home to yourself every time you assert you are a self, an identity. In fact, really, at every stage of your life, you’ve changed to something else: you’re not a continuity. This feeling of nostalgia is not actually a regressive thing, which is how it’s usually characterized, rather a quality, a mood, a hope, in relation to the continuity of being.

For me, it’s interesting in terms of the rhetoric of contemporary culture, too. Culture today is resistant to the idea that there might be something in the past that’s useful or interesting or dependable. Today’s culture is very resistant to the idea or the feeling of nostalgia. There’s a resistance to the ambiguity of feeling, especially the feeling of yearning or dissatisfaction. Saudade is usually characterized as sadness, but it’s more a yearning. Some people say that it can be thought of as almost a satisfaction in yearning. Modernity or, its current manifestation, globalization is enforced, violent discontinuity.

RL: Yes, because it’s yearning for something you know you’re not going to get, and that’s why you’re yearning for it.

JM: It’s a very particular thing. Like all of these things that seem to be a national condition, it has a specific, nationalist history. It was constituted as a concept as part of a 19th century Portuguese movement. I have a sequence called “Monsanto” in Unbelievers in which I write about a village of that name, a village famous for having houses built around huge boulders. It is known as “the most Portuguese village in Portugal,” called such during the Salazar dictatorship. Just like Fado, it was promoted by Salazar. As was the Festival of Santo Antonio in Lisbon. Santo Antonio is not even the Patron Saint of Lisbon!

I’ll just say one last thing on this issue of nostalgia. Recently, I read a book about the history of Muslim migration in the Indian Ocean. It was mostly about people coming from the Arab world, going to Indonesia and moving backwards and forwards, so-called circular migration. And at the start the author writes, “For the migrant, the important thing is not where you’re born, but where you die …” I always thought that when I die, I would like my ashes cast to the wind in Lisbon. Even though I’ve not yet lived there for an extended time. For me, it is a pleasure to imagine that I will end up there, dust on a Lusitanian breeze. I could be part of that empire of nostalgia …

The Nobel Prize-winning novelist JM Coetzee has described John Mateer’s South African poems as “rolling back the tide of forgetting, giving us one glimpse after another of a multifarious and beloved homeland.” Yet, although he was born and brought up in Johannesburg and is now resident in Australia, John Mateer is a poet-traveller. His work includes booklets that have appeared in places as far-flung as Johannesburg, Macau, Kyoto and Lisbon, and the collections Emptiness: Asian Poems 1998-2012, The West: Australian Poems 1989-2009 and Ex-White: South African Poems. Two recent volumes, Southern Barbarians – recently republished in Portuguese as Numban – and Unbelievers, or ‘The Moor’, take the seemingly disparate issues of Apartheid, globalization and the US-led wars in the Middle East and place them in a deeper historical and poetic context.

Raphaël Lambert earned a PhD in English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2001. He’s been living in Japan for the past 13 years and is Associate Professor of African American literature and culture in the department of Anglo-American Studies at Kansai University in Osaka. His current research focuses on the transatlantic slave trade with an emphasis on the notion of community; his essay, “The Slave Trade as Memory and History: James A. Emanuel’s ‘The Middle Passage Blues’ and Robert Hayden’s ‘Middle Passage’” is available in the latest issue of African American Review, and another essay, “Political Principles and Ideologies in Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage” is forthcoming in Transatlantica: American Studies Journal.

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