Abstract: For most of his life, Arthur Nortje’s poetry remained relatively unknown, especially since he died very young at 28. Activist Dennis Brutus called Nortje “perhaps the best South African poet of our time.”[i] Due to the racial oppression he saw in South Africa, Nortje fled the country in 1961 to the U.K. and to Canada. When he realized he could never return to the country, his poetry took on a new level of freedom as he discussed what it meant to be Coloured.
Key Words: Arthur Nortje, Coloured, exile, poet
Arthur Nortje: Poet in Exile
The 1940s in South Africa was marked by incredible racial tension as apartheid divided the nation. Caught in the middle of this struggle was poet Arthur Nortje, a Coloured man who grew up in Port Elizabeth. Finding the oppression and conflict in South Africa too harsh, Nortje entered into exile in 1961 and fled to the United Kingdom. While in exile and in South Africa, Nortje wrote poetry highlighting the racial injustice he had experienced. These poems reveal an inner turmoil that Nortje shared with many Coloureds who felt caught in the buffer zone between two opposing forces of White and Black during the height of apartheid, both in South Africa and in exile. While Nortje writes mostly on his experiences, the themes of racial identity and isolation transcend his work.
Nortje was born on 16 December, 1942 in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. His mother, Cecilia Potgieter, was a Coloured domestic worker. His father was a young Jewish man named Arthur Kaplan who was thought to be the son of Cecilia’s employer. It is also rumored that this was her second illegitimate pregnancy. Cecilia was disgraced and forced to move to Port Elizabeth from Oudtshoorn, a small town in the Western Cape, after her Calvinist family learned about her pregnancy. However, Nortje never learned about a majority of his childhood until he was an adult. His mother kept some information away from him out of shame and also to protect him. Because Nortje’s origins were hidden from him for most of his life, his poems contain many themes of indeterminacy.[ii]
Nortje grew up in the shanty towns of Port Elizabeth in a working class family as his mother continued to be employed as a domestic worker in the city. His mentor, Dennis Brutus, described the society that Nortje was born into as one in which “not to be a racist was a crime.[iii] Although he grew up in a Coloured Afrikaans-speaking community, he chose English as his preferred language for communication. In Port Elizabeth, Nortje grew up an area known as Korsten. Though his family was considered working class, they lived in an iron shack, symbolizing the reality for many poor Black and Coloureds during apartheid. The suburb was marked by conflict and gangs and Nortje would be forced to walk in groups to avoid the violence. Nortje was one of the few poets who presented the urban South African setting in poetry. He observed “slums billowing woodsmoke, prison cell and secret police interrogation rooms” as well as “township landlords, gaol warders, political refugees and urban guerillas.”[iv] Otherwise, very little is known about Nortje’s early life. It was not until he entered college was more of his life documented. Even after he left, Nortje spoke little about his life in the South Africa. Some, such as Nortje’s colleague Mrs. McPhedran, determined that he was very troubled by his African past which prevented him from talking about it with many of his colleagues.[v]
In 1961, Nortje received a scholarship to attend the University College of the Western Cape where he got a B.A. Because of the apartheid legislation, Nortje was educated at a Coloured college. There, he met Raymond Leitch, a teacher at the school who became one of Nortje’s few friends. He described Nortje as a very quiet student who was very interested in the liberation movement. However, because the movement had been crushed after the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, there was a general mood of pessimism. After his graduation, Nortje briefly taught at Alexander Simpson High School in Athlone. While at the University of Western Cape, Nortje kept a collection of notepads about his responses to music, film, and literature as well as his friends and family. These records show Nortje sharpening his observational skills while collecting his ideas. His journals also contained poems which were derived from his readings and experiences.[vi] In 1962, Nortje received the Mbari Poetry Prize along with Brutus for his poetry and published Black Orpheus the next year.
In October of 1965, Nortje left South Africa after receiving a scholarship to attend Jesus College at Oxford. There, he earned an honors B.A. degree in English. Later, he would also receive an M.A. and start a degree in Philosophy at the school. Nortje started the first of his Oxford journals in his final year in Port Elizabeth. Inside, he wrote about sequences of sexual escapades, parties, and other attempts to affirm his reality. When he arrived in the UK in March of 1966, he began writing about Maggie Lenox who became his muse. In this section of his journal, Nortje wrote about social events and the academic routine of Oxford.[vii] While in school, many described Nortje as very reserved. Not many people would be able to detect that he protested racism and apartheid harshly unless they had read his poetry.[viii]
After finishing his studies, Nortje left the U.K. for British Columbia, Canada, in 1967. Two of his good friends, James Davidson and Raymond Leitch, lived there at the time, which may have influenced his decision in immigrating to the country. In September, Nortje took a job teaching at Hope Secondary School after completing an Interim High School Assistant’s Certificate in English. While in Canada, Nortje wrote many letters to Raymond Leitch and Dennis Brutus, however many of these letters were lost. In 1969, He left Hope, British Columbia and moved to Toronto where he moved in with Leitch. However, Nortje’s health deteriorated rapidly while he used large amounts of pharmaceuticals, especially amphetamines and barbiturates, to treat his anxiety. He failed to establish any meaningful relationships, and all signs pointed to the fact that he may have a complete collapse. In Canada, Nortje gave up being a student for the first time and was forced to adapt to a working lifestyle. However, he had difficulty leading that life and his psychological state continued to falter.[ix]
In 1970, Nortje returned to London to begin his postgraduate studies after his teaching contract in Toronto was terminated for his ill health. While in Britain, Nortje constantly struggled with racial relations. Though he did suffer from segregation and an oppressive racial system like in South Africa, Nortje was victim of increased anxiety and agony. While he lived in comfort in a nice apartment, he was haunted by the realities in South Africa as many of his friends and colleagues still suffered under apartheid. Some of them were even imprisoned under the apartheid laws. It was clear that Nortje’s health was failing. In February of 1970, Nortje had taken a leave of absence in order to treat his nervous disorder. Soon, it seemed that Nortje began to recover. However, his late poetry tells stories of a loss of purpose and meaning which he never seemed to recover from.[x]
Arthur Nortje was found dead on December 11, 1970 in a rented apartment in Oxford. After staying out late partying, Nortje returned to his room where he overdosed, slipped into a coma, and suffocated in his own vomit. His death was ruled a suicide, but the details about his death conflict. Dennis Brutus, Nortje’s mentor, claimed that he had died from an overdose of forty-five barbiturate tablets while other sources vary in the details of his death from only ten tablets to twenty-five tablets. The coroner returned his death as an “open verdict” because he had believed that his death could not have been accidental. Brutus writes that Nortje’s life was the result of British bureaucracy. Nortje’s passport had expired and the British government agreed to issue him a new set of documents. However, he had to wait six years for them and had to apply for them in South Africa. This dilemma led Nortje to his death.[xi] On the other hand, David Bunn argues that Nortje “was driven to suicide because of intimidation by ANC ideologues.”[xii] Either way, the direct cause of his death is still unknown.
One of the most important relationships in Nortje’s life was with Dennis Brutus. While beginning to write at Paterson High School, Nortje became the pupil of Dennis Brutus, a South African activist, poet, and educator, who was his English teacher. Brutus would describe Nortje as “a very talented student” and “a very fine poet, certainly a finer poet that I could hope to be.”[xiii] After Nortje’s death, Brutus held on to his poems and supplied them to various publishers. Brutus heled publish Dead Roots in 1973, three years after Nortje’s death. However, Brutus eventually became very jealous of Nortje’s reputation as an activist. Since Dead Roots had not been published in America, Brutus published a dozen of Nortje’s poems under his name in The Greenfield Review. It was not until 1979 that Brutus supplied a note, admitting his error. Brutus continued to mess with Nortje’s work. In 1980, Hedy Davis, a student at the University of South Africa in Pretoria, wrote her master’s dissertation on Nortje. However, she found many controversies between Nortje’s journals and the published versions in Dead Roots. Brutus had refused to allow her to read Nortje’s journals and had claimed that many of the documents she requested was in the Herskovits Africana Library at Northwestern University and would not be released to any South African library. However, Davis continued to sleuth and found that as many as 200 poems had been excluded from Dead Roots and that some poems were not even written by Nortje. Other poems had multiple mistakes that affected their meaning. After receiving heavy pressure, some of Nortje’s letters were released. These letters revealed information that Brutus “would want to elbow out and suppress.”[xiv]
Many of the themes of Nortje’s poetry are shaped by his experience growing up in a segregated South Africa where Coloured such as himself felt isolated from Blacks and Whites. Nortje was born in 1942, on the eve of apartheid. Afrikaner nationalism was growing in the 1930s, but the National Party of South Africa never had enough seats in the parliament to push their agenda. In the election of 1948, the Nationalist Party ran on platforms of White supremacy and White security. Afrikaners had felt that the country was moving too far towards liberalism and non-racialism and a new movement was needed to steer the country back. The party warned against the rising number of Blacks that were moving into urban areas and cities, threatening White workers. Starting in the late 1940s, the government designed several legislative pieces to prevent the intermingling of races. Many apartheid laws were erected to keep Whites and Blacks separated including The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949), the Immorality Amendment Act (1950), Group Areas Act (1950) and the Group Areas Act (1950). This meant that many Coloured people, including Nortje, represented an illegality and Black criminality. In order to facilitate the separation of peoples, the apartheid government consolidated a pass system through which every person was classified according to their race. Professor Grant Farred of Cornell University describes Coloureds as caught between the classifications of “White and “Black.”[xv] In many cases, the classifications of Coloureds were absurd. Some families were split up by the classification system and others were reclassified several times. Many Coloureds suffered identity crises while trying to pass as “White”, including moving into White neighborhoods and establishing new identities while leaving their families behind.
Nortje published his first poems in the summer of 1963. During this time, South Africa was in a State of Emergency and new legislation followed the Rivonia arrest of the MK executive. The apartheid state continued to censor works and removed the ability for speech, robbing Nortje of an audience for his poetry.[xvi] Laws such as the Unlawful Organizations Act, the Sabotage Act, and the Terrorism Act made it almost impossible for Nortje to share his literature as the state introduced “banning” in order to suppress all forms of opposition and he was left with no audience. However, there was also stark resistance to the new changes as groups such as the African National Congress, South African Indian Congress and South African Coloured Peoples Organization fought segregation and racism. State repression intensified in the 1960s while resistance attempts and protests failed. By the time Nortje left South Africa in 1965, most of the African liberation movements had begun to die down as many leaders were arrested and imprisoned.
After Nortje’s death, hundreds of his poems from his journals were published in books. Most notable are his Dead Roots (1973) and Anatomy of Dark (2000). Throughout his life, most of Nortje’s works were based on his day to day experiences. Because of that, most of his poems contain descriptions of an everyday event such as the season or the weather. His memory of these events are all attached to strong emotions that he felt inside. Many of the poems he wrote were in his daily journals that he kept for the majority of his adult life and were not published. Most of his works are influenced by his relationship with his parents, his experience with apartheid in South Africa, or his racial identity as a Coloured man.
Nortje writes about his experiences in the buffer zones often in his poetry. What did it mean to be a Coloured man in South Africa? For Nortje, he was classified as a racial hybrid without a defined cultural background. By many Whites, he was considered a “half-breed” and a “bastard child.” Nortje found himself between two opposing forces of Black and White while Coloureds were reduced. Coloureds were disenfranchised by apartheid laws and distanced from all others. They were separated from Whites in citizenship and they were separated from Blacks in their racial double-ness. In response to their disaffiliation, Coloureds constructed themselves into a singular South African community, though it was not homogenous. Coloureds become a sort of “other” in south Africa though they were biologically linked to every other community but belonged nowhere. Former professor of English at University of York, Jacques Berthoud describes Nortje’s poetry as an attempt to “make possible a community where a community was not.”[xvii] Mohamed Adhikari also writes about the struggles of Coloureds in apartheid South Africa. Because Coloured people usually enjoyed privileges that other Africans did not, they had concerns that they may “end up being relegated to the status of Africans and lose their position of relative privilege.”[xviii] This collective concern created a Coloured community exclusive of Africans. The Coloured classification also became associated with many negative and derogatory connotations. Because the term was used broadly and included anyone that was not white or African, the community “was usually not identified in a positive manner … but was instead conceived in a negative fashion with reference to other groups, in terms of what of what it was not.”[xix] There was a communal idea that Coloureds were “not a proper nation’ and had no culture that was distinctively theirs.[xx] Because of the many negative association attached to being Coloured, many did not embrace their identity and felt it brought shame as “a bad draw in the lottery of life.”[xxi]
Nortje attempts to tackle many family issues he faced early in his life that shaped his Coloured identity. He had known little of his past since his mother had kept most of it hidden from him for the majority of his life and he turned 17 before he even learned that his father was Jewish. However, after learning of his father’s identity, his anger was reflected in his poetry. In “For Sylvia Plath I”, Nortje writes, “Hate for the father… A pool of malice in my blood … His blood confuses mine.”[xxii] Nortje holds his father accountable for his racial ambiguity. However, he also expresses deep anger towards his mother. In “Casualty”, he attacks his mother for his past. He describes how she used household chores to “drown his questions.”[xxiii] However, the only thing that the chores did was remind him of his family’s poverty. Nortje paints his mother as a failure, unable to provide for him while he slept on “old mattresses” with “brown lice” and rats.[xxiv] Nortje even determines his mother to be worse than his father, saying, “I shall be true eternally towards my father Jew … I shall die at war with women.”[xxv] Although there is no recorded history between Nortje and his father, he removes his father from any responsibility to attack his mother and transfers his hatred of her to all women.
Nortje expresses deep anger towards the past which led to his mixed blood. In “Dogsbody half-breed”, Nortje opens by tracing the roots of Coloured people. He describes the “midway station” at the “Cape of Storms”, also called the Cape of Good Hope.[xxvi] The Cape represents the midpoint in the journey from Europe to South Asia for many merchants and travelers, but Nortje also sees it to resemble his life. He is the midpoint, caught halfway between Whites and Blacks. His inner turmoil from his lack of identity is captured in the storms along the coast. The storm that rages in the sea is entirely psychological for Nortje. He cannot control the weather like how he cannot control the effects of colonialism, so he directs his anger towards his ancestors instead. He is angry at those who were “bud-open to both blond and Black”, but he does not blame them. Instead, he blames the “scurvied” and diseased” European seamen who penetrated the indigenous women after subduing the land.[xxvii] For Nortje, his mind and body had become the war zone between White and Black.
Nortje constantly struggles with his racial identity as he considers himself a “racial other.” This topic was the most written about in his poems. In “My Mother Was a Woman”, Nortje concludes that he will forever “be under the blood curse of the moon.”[xxviii] The blood curse that Nortje describes is the mix of White and Black he carries around with him. Nortje also describes his mind as separated from his body in the poem. Since the moment he was born, Nortje describes himself as a divided personality. He sees that no matter where he goes whether in “Saskatoon, Or at a London bus stop”, his racial identity will follow him.[xxix] In his poem “Waiting”, Nortje describes his “isolation of exile” like limbo, always lost without direction.[xxx] In Hangover”, Nortje feels incomplete, even while he is in South Africa. He describes his existence as “alone…living with …fragments.”[xxxi] Nortje’s sense of alienation is characterized often as a fracture. These themes about Nortje’s racial identity is found throughout all his poetry. Whether he was in South Africa or the UK or Canada, Nortje never felt a sense of home or a singular identity that he associated himself with.
Another common theme in Nortje’s poetry is the theme of division. In his poem “My Vacant Self”, Nortje describes divisions and conflicts he faces, both internally and externally. Even in the title of the poem, he divides himself into his mind and body as if one is repressed underneath the other. In other works, such as “The Alter Native”, Nortje splits one word into two to create new significance out of old words. Nortje feels that his “Native” self is a counterforce, or “Alter”, to his inner personality. In this poem, Nortje splits his narrative into two. The first part describes his setting in Newfoundland. However, there “is no-one who can teach him when to write a poem” suggesting that he is lost.[xxxii] In the second half of the poem, Nortje discusses regret as he urges the reader to move. The division in this poem can be seen as a representation of Nortje’s mind. In the first half, Nortje describes the bleak environment in January, covered in snow. In the second half, Nortje shifts to see sun, solstice, and equinox. The two themes of the two different halves, being lost and regret, come together to form his past and future, but divide him in his personality.
Nortje was never able to realize the end of apartheid in South Africa. While his works were not very appreciated while he was alive, Nortje’s mind was praised by his peers and mentors for being one of the best that South Africa had produced. The poetry that Nortje left behind was some of the most engaging to come out of the apartheid era, with deep psychological insight and lyrical self-disclosure. Nortje’s experiences are similar to the experiences of many Coloured people who were marginalized by apartheid and lost their sense of racial identity. For Nortje, life as a Coloured man meant confusion, isolation, and division, factors that he was never able to overcome.
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Berthoud, J. (1984). Poetry and Exile: The Case of Arthur Nortje. English in Africa vol. 11, no. 1, Rhodes University, pp. 1-14
Bunn, D. (1996). Some Alien Native Land. World Literature Today vol. 70, no. 1, pp. 33-44.
Brutus, D. (1973). Poetry of Suffering: The Black Experience. National English Literary Museum Journals, pp. 1-10
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Farred, G. (2000). Midfielder's Moment: Coloured Literature and Culture in Contemporary South Africa. Boulder: Westview Press.
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Headshot of Deceased Poet Arthur Nortje, Fair Use
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Lindfors, B. (2011). The Dennis Brutus Tapes: Essays at Autobiography. Woodbridge: James Currey.
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Nortje, A. (1999). Arthur Nortje. In A. Schwartzman, Ten South African Poets. Manchester: Caranet Press Limited, pp. 23 – 39.
Nortje, A. (1965-1969). Oxford Journals.
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Nortje, A., & Klopper, D. (2000). Anatomy of Dark: Collected Poems of Arthur Nortje. Pretoria: University of South Africa.
Robolin, S. (2015). Grounds of Engagement: Apartheid-Era African American and South African Writing. Chicago: University of Illinois.
Smith, N. (2013). Divided Personas in the Early Poetry of Arthur Nortje. Current Writing: Text
[i] Craig McLuckie and Ross Tyner, “The Raw and the Cooked’: Arthur Kenneth Nortje, Canada, and a Comprehensive Bibliography,” English in Africa vol. 26, no. 2 (1999): 41. ↵
[ii] Dirk Klopper, “In Pursuit of the Subject: Towards a Biography of Arthur Nortje,” Journal of Southern African Studies (2004): 875-876. ↵
[iii] Dennis Brutus, “Poetry of Suffering: The Black Experience,” National English Literary Museum Journals (1973): 1 ↵
[iv] M. J. F. Chapman, “Arthur Nortje: Poet of Exile,” English in Africa vol. 6, no. 1 (1979): 37 ↵
[v] McLuckie and Tyner, 7. ↵
[vi] Klopper, 882. ↵
[vii] Ibid., 882. ↵
[viii] Brutus, 2. ↵
[ix] Craig McLuckie, Arthur Nortje: Poet and South African: New Critical and Contextual Essays, (2004): 14. ↵
[x] Ibid., 20. ↵
[xi] Brutus, 2. ↵
[xii] McLuckie and Tyner, 43. ↵
[xiii] Stephen Gray, “Caught on Tape: Dennis Brutus’s Questionable Hold on Poet Arthur Nortje,” Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa (2013): 31. ↵
[xiv] Ibid., 36. ↵
[xv] Grant Farred, Midfielder’s Moment: Coloured Literature and Culture in Contemporary South Africa (2000): 45 ↵
[xvi] David Bunn, “Some Alien Native Land,” World Literature Today vol. 70, no. 1 (1996): 36. ↵
[xvii] Jacques Berthoud, “Poetry and Exile: The Case of Arthur Nortje,” English in Africa vol. 11, no. 1 (1984): 12. ↵
[xviii] Adhikari, Mohamed, Not White Enough, Not Black Enough, Racial Identity in the South African Coloured Community, (2006): 11. ↵
[xix] Ibid., 13. ↵
[xx] Ibid., 13. ↵
[xxi] Ibid., 14. ↵
[xxii] Arthur Nortje, Dead Roots, (1973): 46. ↵
[xxiii] Ibid., 34. ↵
[xxiv] Ibid., 34. ↵
[xxv] Ibid., 35. ↵
[xxvi] Ibid., 104. ↵
[xxvii] Ibid., 104. ↵
[xxviii] Klopper, 876. ↵
[xxix] Klopper, 876. ↵
[xxx] Klopper, 876. ↵
[xxxi] Klopper, 876. ↵
[xxxii] Nortje, Arthur, Klopper, Dirk, Anatomy of Dark: Collected Poems of Arthur Nortje, University of South Africa (2000): 312 ↵
This article forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project