Born in South Africa on September 16th, 1939 in the small town of Bonnievale, he studied philology and painting at the University of Cape Town. He published his first poems as a student, and became part of a new generation of Afrikaner writers who came to the fore in the 1960s. Breytenbach’s “The Iron Cow Must Sweat” (Die ysterkoei moet sweet), an innovative work of poetry, marked his publishing debut in 1964, followed by “Catastrophes” (Katastrofes), his first volume of prose.
In the early sixties, he became increasingly critical of the apartheid policy (he participated in student protests against excluding black African youth from gaining an education). At the same time, he was pursuing a career as a painter, and left South Africa for Paris. There, in 1962, he met the daughter of the then-ambassador to South Vietnam, Yolande Ngo Thi Hoang Lien. The couple’s marriage violated a South African law prohibiting interracial marriages, and resulted in South Africa denying them entry rights. Breytenbach could not even claim the prizes awarded to him for his debut book. It was not until the early seventies that he was able to return to his homeland, where his parents still lived, with his wife, thanks to a special three-month permit.
During this time, he wrote several works portraying his immigrant journey. His work remained controversial in his homeland. Another book, “Scrit. Painting Blue a Sinking Ship” (Skryt. Om 'n sinkende skip blou te verf), dedicated “to the people of South Africa, denied citizenship in their own country,” was published in 1972 in the Netherlands. However, it was not approved for sale in South Africa.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Breytenbach was involved in the anti-apartheid movement, becoming a member of the international “Okhela” organization (“Spark”), appearing as an anti-apartheid speaker at writers’ forums and United Nations conferences.
In 1975, he chose a more direct form of action, and entered South Africa using a false passport. He intended to recruit new members for “Okhela,” and to help black Africans organize trade unions, but after a few months he was arrested, accused of terrorist activities and imprisoned. Despite protests by the international community, he was sentenced to nine years in prison, the first two in solitary confinement. Although his writings were meticulously checked by the prison authorities, he wrote what was published years later as “Mouroir: Mirror Notes of a Novel” (1983).
Having served seven years of his sentence, Breytenbach was released in December 1982, thanks to protests in Europe and the United States. He fled to France, took French citizenship, and wrote about his prison experience in “The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist.”
Even after the abolition of apartheid, he has remained a critical observer and commentator on South African political and social issues.
For more than a decade, he was a Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. Since 2013, he has been the curator of the Poetry Festival in Stellenbosch, South Africa.
He has won numerous awards, including the University of Johannesburg Prize (2008), Hertzog Prize (2008), Max Jacob Prize (2010), Mahmoud Darwish Prize and the Protea Poetry Prize (2010). He is a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, which is also an influence on his work. He divides his time between France and South Africa.
As a painter, he draws creative inspiration from Bosch and Goya. He has exhibited in numerous galleries in Europe. As one of his translators, Jerzy Koch, noted, “Breytenbach brings the arts of writing and painting together, not only because he studied both or that visual elements dominate his poetry, while the act of examination precedes insight. Activity in both areas derives from the same creative impulse, so it remains uncertain whether he does not »write« his paintings, not unlike icons are »written«, and whether or not he paints his texts, as representatives of the avant-garde used to do, applying a palette of colours spontaneously.”
The human relationship to language is important to his poetry and prose—especially because Afrikaans is unique to South Africa, where it evolved from Dutch under the influence of both Malay and Portuguese, as well as other local languages. Since its inception, it has been a blend of many cultures, and a representation of the region’s nature, particularly of the colonial expansion of the white population.
Jurors of the Herbert Award on Breyten Breytenbach
It is not enough to say that Breyten Breytenbach is an outstanding poet of the present time. Yes, he is a marvellous poet. But, beside that, he is a bright and powerful personality, who fought, and still fights, for human dignity, especially against apartheid and its, so to speak, “traditions”– not just in words and lines but also in actions. In his person we also honour a representative of Afrikaans – a language in danger of gradually vanishing. Breyten Breytenbach extends its life, writing poetry as resistance.
The South-African poet, writer, painter and activist Breyten Breytenbach is without question the most gifted and most productive poet of White-Africa’s literature. His travel-books about the post-apartheid South Africa show a clear and convincing picture of the problems which are still not solved: the clash of mentality between the black and the white population. In his poetry, full of images and linguistic inventions, he expresses the feelings of an emphatic man of our times when confronted with the more archaic culture of the people he is living with. His works as a poet and as a painter are now acknowledged as outstanding in understanding our modern world.
Breyten Breytenbach is a remarkable poet and a remarkable human being. What distinguishes his poems is their moral tension, its range, and dynamism of the imagination. The quality of his humanity – zero tolerance of violence, discrimination, inequalities; a Herbert-like imperative not only to recount, but also to stand with the weak. His human qualities brought earned him admiration, brotherhood, and seven years in prison for his uncompromising stand in a good cause. Today, his poetic qualities bring him the Zbigniew Herbert Award.
In his poetry, Breytenbach engages the full richness of the worlds inhabited by man: of love, attachment to the land, recognizing each other by our response to others. He is a poet born in the South African town of Bonnievale, writing in Afrikaans and English (somewhere between these languages, in the fissure that represents what is best in both), painter and interpreter of love, landscape, fate and brotherhood – experienced in joy.
Breyten Breytenbach is a poet – a sensual sage, opening before us a volume of dizzying, passionate Logos, with a sense of humility and purpose, unyielding curiosity of other people, the world, and what they mean, these inanimate and sentient inhabitants.
The question that he poses to himself as author: “how to bring presence into a poem?”
The task that falls on writing poetry comes down “to raising imagination as stones / and distributing it as bread is distributed to the hungry.” He demands of himself that he “be in motion," and feels that “to move implies: enter the rhythm / because it is a dance / dance / dance”.