An Interview with Peter Midgley

Charles Earle

Sharon Caseburg: What brought you to Canada? What were your reasons for staying?

Peter Midgley: I came to do a PhD at the U of A and got offered a job right after I finished. And well, here I am, and I guess now Edmonton is home.

SC: After all this time in Canada, do you still get homesick for South Africa?

PM: I do miss South Africa, but I miss the country of my birth, Namibia, too. I miss the melody of many languages in my day. I miss the intensity of the interactions I had with people. I miss the acute political awareness Africans have made part of their daily lives. So yes, I get homesick. But in return I have gained a supportive writing community here in Canada that has helped me grow artistically in ways and directions I may not have explored in South Africa. I guess you could say that I live in a constant state of exile — and that is a fantastic place for me to be in, as a writer. Exile presents such intensified emotions, such wonderful potential for writing. Writing is about tension and conflict. When you live with the conflict of belonging in more than one place, and yet constantly on the periphery, it can feed your writing in fruitful ways.

SC: Has your writing practice changed in your new country? How?

PM: Most definitely. On a very basic level, I used to write mostly in Afrikaans and then translate into English. Now, I write more in English. But at the same time I’ve become more aware of language and what it does. It’s as if you take language for granted when you live in a country that has eleven official languages. By contrast, here in Canada, I live in a very Anglophone province and I no longer shift between languages like I did when I was in South Africa. This has changed my thought patterns. Although I still occasionally find myself doing things like responding to family in Afrikaans without realizing that I’m doing so, I now consciously translate my Afrikaans thoughts into English before speaking them, or originate them entirely in English — something I seldom did in South Africa. This kind of shift between languages definitely affects how you write. My rough notes and journal entries have always been a mish-mash of Afrikaans and English. When I write, my early drafts drift between languages and then slowly gravitate towards English. I now employ Afrikaans or Xhosa words and phrases more selectively because I have to be certain that the context becomes clear, since I can’t assume Canadians will have even a basic knowledge of what I’m saying. The shift has occurred because of my primary audience at this time. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o noted in Decolonizing the Mind that African writers who use English enrich the colonizer’s language, often at the cost of their own. That thought is always in the back of my head when I write. I try to be very aware of what phrases and expressions I bring to English.

SC: How many languages are you fluent in (or at least functionally competent at)?

PM: I speak English and Afrikaans fluently. I can no longer claim fluency in Xhosa. That is the price of absence, of not constantly hearing the shape and sound of a learned tongue and therefore forgetting its cadences. I still read Xhosa, but even in reading, I find my vocabulary slipping. I read Dutch and French, too, and I read Latin. It’s a privilege, like so much else in my life.

SC: Have you ever done a piece or project which has incorporated them all?

PM: Not all of them. In “Welcome,” one of the poems in perhaps I should/miskien moet ek, I do use Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa. I also use some French and words from several other languages. But all of them in a single work? No.

SC: Why do you feel it is important to incorporate a variety of dialect and language into your work? What are you hoping to preserve or introduce by doing so?

PM: Mostly, it is a turn of phrase, an expression, or a worldview that I want to bring to English. Something that hasn’t been said before. I want to tune Canadian ears to sounds from around the world. Too often, Canadians say things like “I can’t pronounce that name or that word” and make no attempt to learn how to say it. They blithely assume that we must just accept that. It’s a very Anglophone thing and it’s offensive when people don’t make an effort. I’m not asking for perfection. I’m asking for effort. In perhaps i should/miskien moet ek in particular, I consciously worked to include the “foreign” so that I could force readers out of their linguistic and cultural comfort zones by giving them words that make them stop and consider the weight and meaning of each word. Try to sound the word. Hear it. Read closely. Not only do I want you to become aware of the languages that surround you on the street, I want you to learn to read more attentively.

I detest that word “foreign” in relation to language, by the way. It alienates. It sets writers who use languages besides English, users of other languages, apart in ways that contradict the purported inclusiveness of multiculturalism. I try to normalize these words and phrases. Where other poets may experiment with form, I want to push the boundaries of language, as I do to some extent in perhaps i should/miskien moet ek. I’m challenging the centrality of a western worldview by introducing concepts like ubuntu in my poetry. I grew up as a white person in an apartheid society, with all the privilege that attends that position. I had to discover my own prejudices and confront them. When I use words from other languages in my poetry, I want readers to confront their own discomfort at the sight of these “foreign” words and to work through the underlying prejudices and assumptions that characterize that discomfort. Why do I want this explained to me? Why won’t I extend myself to go and find the meaning? Why do I assume a work has to be translated into English? What privileges attend my position as a native speaker of English? What do I take for granted? If I can make you think about your response to a plurality of languages, then I think I’ve achieved something.

SC: So you recommend readers be open to engaging language beyond what they already know and what they are already comfortable with…

PM: Remember that a significant portion of Canadians feel comfortable doing all of their day’s work in languages other than English — almost 25% of the population in some cities. That shift in language patterns is part of the broader cultural shift that is occurring in Canada’s demographic make-up. The more diverse Canada becomes, the more languages and new sounds we’ll hear. We need to become aware of the nuances that accompany these shifts. Today, we can say that Anglo-Western culture is the dominant culture in Canada. This was not always the case, and if the current trends continue, it will not always be so. We have to be open to shifts in language and cultural values. Poetry attunes us to that. We can begin by opening ourselves to the sounds and rhythms, the different poetic traditions that follow immigrants to their new home. Let’s embrace these shifts and let them enrich Canadian culture. Think about the Somali praise singers. I get shivers just thinking about their songs. What wonderful structural patterns, what new ways of seeing the world could accompany the introduction of these forms into the Canadian poetic landscape. Think of the way K’naan has brought elements of these Somali traditions into his work. North American writers have become very insular in their writing, constantly writing back to each other and their own esoteric forms. On some levels, their work doesn’t really speak to anyone beyond their small clique, or the academy. I also want to emphasize the oral nature of poetry. It is meant to be heard as much as it is meant to be read. Think for a moment about Latin poetry. Translation offers us some of the delight of reading Horace or Virgil in our own tongue, but in so doing we can forget that it was always meant to be recited. If you get the opportunity, listen to someone reading Latin poetry in the original, with all the attendant cadences and rhythms. That is when you realize just how extraordinary those writers were. For me, poems have to work on the page as well as in sound. They need to be accessible.

SC: Do you feel it’s necessary to explain to readers, for a lack of a better word, the “foreign” elements in your work?

PM: Sometimes. In perhaps I should, I tend to do that. I religiously translated most of the poems that insisted on remaining Afrikaans during the creative process into English to give Canadian readers access to the poems. I did so because it was important to do so, politically. I don’t regret doing it, although I am not sure I want to continue doing it in that way. I have to grow and find other ways of writing. The point I was making about code-switching and linguistic dexterity is as relevant now as it was when I first began the project. Sometimes, you can get away with only hearing the sound. Hearing La Divina Commedia in Italian is beautiful, even though you don’t understand a word of it. I can listen to opera sung in languages I do not understand and never feel the need for explanatory notes. I let the music guide me and tell the story. The same holds for poetry. Listen to the music of the language. The political work of not explaining is very important, too. It says to readers: Listen to this; this is now part of your language, your culture. See what we recent immigrants have brought with us? Revel in it and make it part of your linguistic and cultural vocabulary. For now, I offer explanations to assist you with that.

Yet I also feel that offering explanations makes readers lazy. They begin to expect it, then gloss over the language and look instead at the note, at the explanation. So offering these explanations ends up negating the purpose of including the phrases in the first instance. I’m torn, honestly. I would like to reach a point where readers go and search for the meaning themselves and don’t rely on my notes and explanations. What would The Wasteland be if Eliot had footnoted and explained all his references. Would we still be reading it and digging into it for meaning? I think not. That cognitive exercise of looking for touchpoints in other literatures, other cultures, is part of what attracted me to poetry in the first instance. An over-reliance on notes would destroy that wonderful adventure.

SC: In an interview with rob mclennan you note that the nature of contemporary Canadian society is rich — multi-ethnic and multicultural. Yet Canadian writing, publishing and bookselling do not reflect this reality. Can you elaborate?

PM: The simplest example is that Francophone writers in Alberta have to go all the way to Manitoba to find a publisher. That despite the fact that the University of Alberta has the largest French department outside of Québec. There’s a large French community — a reading community — in Alberta, and many Francophone writers, yet Alberta publishers appear to shun them. Alberta’s book prizes — in fact, most Canadian book prizes and grant programs — don’t exclude books in French, but neither do they actively encourage submissions in French. How can we claim bilingualism in this country when we stubbornly refuse to extend ourselves into living bilingually?

My argument extends, perhaps even more pertinently, to other languages as well. Think how many Cree publications there are and what we are doing to promote publishing in Cree. Are our efforts enough? I don’t think so. Think of the G-Gs: translation prizes are limited to French-English translation (Aboriginal languages are not excluded, but not openly encouraged, either). Look at the majority of grant programs for writers that aren’t open to projects that don’t produce work in either English or French. Beyond Canada’s indigenous languages, we have writers who write in many other tongues, yet they are ignored here. What becomes of the writers who write on Canadian topics in their heritage language? These languages have become part of the Canadian literary oeuvre, yet they are consciously excluded. Perhaps I’m over-sensitive; perhaps it is a reflection of where I live and of where I grew up. We begin to think of bilingualism as the right to have works translated, not as the ability to speak the language. We only begin to understand and respect each other, begin to get to the nuances of our cultures, our shared humanity, through language. I appreciate the practical difficulties of opening up competitions, etc., but at this point in time there is very little that offers writers in other languages any opportunities or encouragement. And when they do produce books on their own through small specialty publishing houses, there is no effort to include these works in the Canadian literary corpus through translation. I am not suggesting that we now rush ahead and publish in every language under the sun, but I am suggesting that a more open attitude may reveal some extraordinary talent among Canadians who write about Canada in languages beyond English and French. How much can we learn about how contemporary, multicultural Canada works by reading the responses to the country filtered through an array of literatures from many languages. Surely we can work towards finding a space for them and include them in our corpus of Canadian literatures? Think how readily Ngũgĩ’s Devil on the Cross (first published in Gikuyu), or A.C. Jordan’s Ingqumbo yeminyanya (The Wrath of the Ancestors) have made it onto English and Afrikaans literature syllabi in the original and in translation as part of the corpus of African writing taught throughout the world. Or the poetry of S.E.K. Mqhayi and Nontsizi Mgqwetho. African writing is that much richer for the presence of these books. We can only imagine what we are excluding from Canadian literature through our myopia.

SC: What are some of the obstacles you perceive that poets who are not writing from a Western European intellectual/academic perspective face?

PM: We have to work harder to legitimise what we do. We’re shown off as curiosities rather than celebrated as an integral part of the Canadian literary landscape. Getting our work published in magazines is harder. We first need to prepare the ground, as it were, by explaining how to read our work. Then we have to write our work. Not that much different to the work early sound poets in Canada had to do. Or anyone else pushing against an accepted structure.

SC: How might you suggest writers who operate outside the status quo break down these obstacles to get their material noticed? Is breaking down these barriers possible?

PM: I think it is possible to break them down. I have to believe they are. There are parallel translations, to begin with. This is already done with some Aboriginal languages. Just keep slogging. Find a platform. I’ve had the generosity and dedication of people in the Edmonton writing community who have embraced poetry in other languages. Alice Major and the rest of the organizers have worked hard to make poetry in multiple languages part of the Edmonton Poetry Festival. What started as a curiosity has become a staple. Work with other multilingual authors. Rita Espechit, Jalal Barzanji, Naomi McIlwraith and I have done joint readings, reading each others’ work in translation and moving between languages throughout. Make yourself visible. I know the inclination is to make oneself smaller in English, but don’t. Be proud of what you’re bringing to the Canadian poetry scene and to Canadian society.

This interview is excerpted from a longer piece published in CV2.

Peter Midgley is a poet and storyteller based in Edmonton. He has performed in several countries around the world and has published three children’s books, one of which, Thuli’s Mattress, won the International Board on Books for Young People Award for Literacy Promotion and has been translated into 27 languages. He is also the author of two plays and a collection of poetry. Peter writes in English and Afrikaans. His bilingual volume of poems, perhaps i should / miskien moet ek, appeared with Kalamalka Press in 2010. His creative nonfiction book, Counting Teeth: A Namibian Story, is due out in 2014 (Wolsak & Wynn). A second collection of poetry, Unquiet Bones, will be published by Wolsak & Wynn in 2015.

Sharon Caseburg is a Canadian writer, editor and book designer. Her poetry and critical writing have appeared in numerous North American publications. Her long poem chapbook sleepwalking was published by JackPine Press. She is co-founder of the Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for Poetry.