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Suhrkamp Calling the World from Cape Town: Isibongo

by Peter Horn

88888 The Xhosa word "Isibongo" refers to what is usually translated as praise poems, although some of these are more critical than giving praise to the traditional chief of the tribe. The praise poet, an oral poet, has an important function in the context of traditional society, as its conscience and its memory. Despite the title we did not intend to publish traditional poetry exclusively. In modern times the techniques of praise poetry have entered the poems of modern African writers and played an important role in the poetry which accompanied the struggle against apartheid. With the title we also intended to indicate that we wanted to feature poetry of countries not generously represented in the media of the world.

88888In 1996, between 27 June and 3 July, Ingrid Fiske, the South African poet, organised the Faultline Conference in Cape Town. Given the disastrous situation of cultural journals in South Africa, there was little hope that this very important conference about the transition from apartheid to democracy and its impact on culture with ten South African and ten international writers woud be documented adequately. The first issue of Isibongo was thus conceived to provide an internationally accessible platform for the contributions of these writers. We were lucky to get material from Manuel Alegre, George Bowering, Vasco Pereira da Costa, Jürgen Fuchs, Miroslav Holub, Chenjerai Hove, Taban Lo Liyong, Liv Lundberg, Sybren Polet, Marcela Serrano, and Natan Zach, and from the South African poets Robert Berold, André Brink,Michael Cope, Jeremy Cronin, Ingrid de Kok, Sandile Dikeni, Nadine Gordimer, Peter Horn, Antjie Krog, Don Mattera, Karen Press, Lesego Rampolekeng, Sipho Sepamla, Ari Sitas, Kelwyn Sole, and Zoe Wicomb.

88888 When Jürgen Fuchs invited us to a similar conference on Literature and Freedom - Literature and Dictatorship- we took the opportunity to document this conference in Isibongo as well, although this time the conference was also documented in bookform. But by now we had understood the tremendous possibilities of the internet to reach people who would not normally have access to the printed version of the conference. To the present day I get emails from everywhere in the world requesting information or commenting on the material which we made available.

88888 From the beginning, therefore, Isibongo was meant to showcase not only South African but also writers from other countries, to further a dialogue which usually does not take place. While it was our intention to showcase in particular those countries in the Third World which get little attention in Western media, this has proven difficult for logistical reasons. Not only in my work for Isibongo, but also in guest-editing an issue of Atlanta Review on African literature, I found that communication in the Third World is extremely haphazard.

88888 One of the ways in which we could solicit material was through our guest editors. Azila Talit Reisenberger was the first one and she put together a most exciting selection of modern Hebrew poetry in English translation. Then there was the exciting issue with the theme Self-Portraits guest-edited by Michael Rothenberg and the guest artist Michele Kaplan. We did publish a lot of South African poets, some in the open sections of our issues, some in issue 2 of volume 3. Volume 4 unfortunately did not get off the ground. I have retired from the University of Cape Town, and access to the server of UCT became more and more difficult, when I moved to Berlin in April this year. Once I am back in Cape Town, I will attempt to revive the journal.

88888 We always also had a open section where writers who had spontaneously sent us their material could contribute, and the reaction to this was so overwhelming that we could not publish even a tenth of the good poems and stories which reached us.

Anette and Peter Horn
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