Yvette Christiansë is a South African-born poet and novelist whose writing explores the rich themes of the country’s history – slavery and apartheid, exile and displacement. The precise date of her birth in a humble dwelling in the curiously named Hondsebek (literally “the mouth of the dog”) is something of a mystery. “In truth,” she says, “only my mother, my now deceased grandparents, and the midwife who delivered me know. My official birth date is 12 December 1954, but we have always celebrated it on 4 August, which my entire family swears is the date I was born on. There’s a picture of me with this written on the back, but no year. You can imagine what hell the Green Card process was.”
Hondsebek was an unlikely spot to nurture a writer. The area, which once serviced the Rand lords of the Doornfontein gold mines, had become a slum that offered women the limited opportunities of domestic service or factory work. Her mother taught her the rudiments of grammar at home, but at school Christiansë wrestled with the meanings of words like “colour”, “Coloured”, “black” and “white”. At the age of five, she was thrown off a bus reserved for whites and she opted to label herself as “Colourine”. This early fascination with the power of language was an indicator of what would emerge as a desire to be a writer. “But arriving in Mars seemed more likely,” she said.
Her mother, growing increasingly discomforted by the machinations of apartheid, relocated with her two daughters, first to Mbabane, Swaziland and then to Australia in 1973. In Sydney Christiansë initially acquired a teaching diploma that was followed by studies in scriptwriting, publishing and book editing. In 1988 she commenced her BA in English at the University of Sydney, where she later graduated with a PhD in English.
Reflecting on her transition, she says, “While other 18-year-olds were learning to be adults, I was learning to walk on the street.” She describes feeling as though she’d been driven out of her country, of having had her country stolen from her.
A selection of her early poetry appeared in a shared volume, Faultlines: Three Poets (Round Table Press, 1991). It was here that the fractured territory that her later poetry would fully inhabit was first glimpsed. Appearing in embryonic form are her trademarks: the counterpoint of betrayal, brutality and resilience as the splintered psyche endeavours to make sense of the void.
Her first solo poetry collection, Castaway (Duke, 1999), presented an epic narrative of the island of St Helena, a port of call for the slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was also Napoleon’s final place of exile and the place where her grandmother, descended from freed slaves, was born. This volume was nominated for the PEN International prize in 2001.
Her epic debut novel, Unconfessed (Other Press, 2007), returns to and expands the theme of the slave narrative. It was a finalist for the Hemingway/PEN Prize for first fiction and a recipient of a 2007 ForeWord Magazine BEA Award. Additionally, it was also shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2008. In this novel her embodied writing style portrays the voice of Sila van den Kaap in a song of betrayal and redemption sung with a poetic lyricism that haunts the modern reader.
With a window that overlooks Central Park, Yvette Christiansë now lives in New York City where she balances her academic responsibilities with a robust creative energy and a demanding aesthetic. She teaches African American and postcolonial literatures and poetics at Fordham University. In great demand as a speaker, she has been a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Center and Barnard College’s Africana Studies Program; she has taught in Princeton University’s Center for Creative and Performing Arts and has also been a National Research Council Fellow at the University of Witwatersrand and a visiting writer at the University of Cape Town.
Her most recent poetry collection is Imprendehora (Kwela Books/Snail Press, 2009). The six “Sister Thomas” poems presented in this issue attend to the zealous convert who was also known to suffer from “distemper in the head”. They constitute the second section of the collection, ‘Wind’.
Christiansë explains that the title of the collection is a misrepresentation of the Spanish word for enterprise, emprendedora. “The misspelling occurs originally in Admiralty Fleet records after the ship was captured running slaves illegally and delivered to St Helena where the ship’s human cargo was ‘liberated’. Who could resist this undoing of the entire Enterprise that Columbus began?” she said.
Imprendehora, Kwela, Cape Town, 2009
Castaway, Duke University Press, Durham, 1999
Faultlines: Three Poets, Round Table Publications, West Ryde, NSW, 1991
Unconfessed, Other Press, New York, 2006 and Kwela, Cape Town, 2007
Sila van den Kaap, Querido, Amsterdam, 2007 (Dutch translation of Unconfessed by Lidwien Biekmann & Gerda Baardman)
Excerpt from Imprendehora
Video of the poet reading from Imprendehora
Gus Ferguson on Imprendehora
Review of Imprendehora poetry reading
J. Robert Lennon's audio interview with Yvette Christiansë
Tavis Smiley's audio interview with Yvette Christiansë
Sean de Waal's interview Yvette Christiansë in the Mail & Guardian
Grace Kim reviews Unconfessed in The Mantle
Yvette Christiansë's website