| This is the 321st story of Our Life Logs |
This is the story of Ingrid Jonker, South African poet laureate, who passed away on July 19, 1965. Her daughter, Simon Jonker, retells the following story in the tone and voice of her mother.
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What makes a person unique? One just has to look up at the night sky. Just as each star differs from all the others, each of us has a part to play, and we must do it well.
1 | For Every Object I Took, I Should Bury Another
I was born in 1933 in a small town called Douglas, the Cape Province in South Africa, to Beatrice Cilliers and Abraham Jonker. Sadly, my father was not present at my birth. He kicked my mother out when she was eight months pregnant after suspecting her of having another man’s baby. She fled with Anna, her 2-year-old daughter and my soon-to-be older sister, to our grandmother’s house where she gave birth to me.
From a young age, Anna and I had to adapt to living a rootless life, always moving from one place to another on the outskirts of Cape Town. With my granny quickly aging and my mother’s frail health, we had to make do with very little. To help feed our tiny family, Anna and I used to collect fish heads from the fisher folk so our granny could make a soup. When we started school, we were too poor to afford proper school bags so I was given Granny’s old cracked patent leather handbag to use, and I filled it with books.
I loved reading all day long. Sometimes, Mother didn’t mind if Anna and I skipped school to sit in the hollowed-out bushes on the beach to read. She would say, “What better way to spend a day than reading books?”
On those days by the shore, I’d often collect feathers and shells, flotsam and jetsam along the thin blankets of waves. Yet, I believed for every object I took, I should bury another in the sand and called these buried treasures, “secrets.”
I then began to fold secrets into paper. I was a determined little girl and learned to write poems after perusing a Christian hymnbook. I’d come to like what I’d written, and at the age of six, I submitted a few poems for publication in a children’s magazine that Anna and I loved reading—and one was selected! When Granny asked me how much it would cost to have poems published, I smiled, shook my blonde curls at her and said, “No, Granny, they pay me!”
Granny played an enormous role in my formative years and throughout my finishing school. She was the source of encouragement for me to continue pursuing writing. She once said to me, “The act of writing is the act of faith.”
2 | I Came Walking Towards the Fire
After finishing school, I found work in a bookshop. Much to my boss’ frustration, I never got much work done as I always had scores of friends coming to visit and chat for hours with me at the shop. What can I say? I loved people! I eventually found work as a proofreader and typist for a publishing firm, a job for which I was much better suited.
As a young woman, I had an inquiring mind. I once asked my local pastor whether “The Lord’s Prayer” was correctly translated because I couldn’t understand why God would “lead us into temptation.” Around this time, I was sharing an apartment with a friend. In those days, pastors of local churches used to make home visits. One of them came by for a visit, and after we politely invited him in and offered him a cup of tea, he took a seat on a big wooden box. Little did he know that he was sitting on a box that contained my rather large pet snake! My friend and I stood by nervously as the pastor preached to us about how young girls should watch their morals. The priest finally left, much to our relief and he none the wiser—but he sure gave us a scare! We weren’t sure how having a pet snake fit into the ladylike nature he was expecting of us. Very early in life, I learned that “happy” and “ladylike” were not inherently synonymous.
I’m sure you can figure out by now that as a young woman, I didn’t follow social norms. I didn’t see much fun in following them. Instead, I loved socializing and I loved to party. My friends and I used to sometimes hold beach parties on hot summer nights. I would wear my tiny, little tango-style bikini (that I handmade!) to each of these glorious escapades. My short hair was always full of sand, but I never minded it.
I decided to go skinny dipping at one of those parties, flushing my body with the shock of cool water. After the swim, I came walking towards the fire. The guests presumed I was a wearing a white bikini until they realized as I came closer—I was completely naked! One of the female guests was disgusted and grabbed her husband, leaving the party in a huff!
It was during one of my days on the beaches that I met Piet, a handsome golden-haired man who looked like a Greek god. We soon fell in love and got engaged. I didn’t like the idea of a conventional wedding in a church. My dream was to get married by the sea wearing nothing but a Greek toga. However, we decided that it would not be practical—let alone legal—so, we eventually married in a small church in the wine lands of the Cape in a town called Paarl. My estranged father gave me away, despite how often we bumped heads as I got older.
3 | A Bunch of Bohemians
As life continued, I gave birth to a baby girl in 1957. I named her Simone. I absolutely adored her, and we used to spend all our free time on the beach. I loved to lounge with my little girl by my side. Even when Simone was a baby, she had a tan. We often used to play in the waves together and roll around in the sand, and I also loved taking her hiking up the mountains in a carrycot. When she was big enough, I had her help me do housework, but those were rare, as I believed there were far better things to do in life like writing poetry.
It was around this time that I published a collection of poetry that had really taken off, boosting my writing career. My father, a member of the Apartheid Regime and censorship of literature board, was not happy with my success. I’m guessing this stemmed from his belief that I wasn’t truly his child, and yet, I wore his name. He publicly belittled me in the newspapers, criticizing my political views and calling my writer and artist friends, “a bunch of bohemians.”
I continued to live a free-spirited life in spite of him. At a ballroom event I attended, I once arrived barefoot. Even as a mother and wife, I still played outside, one time coming home with Agapanthus stems in my hair. My whole head looked like an Agapanthus in bloom and Piet scoffed at me, but Simone giggled and adored my new look. That was just who I was. I had a childlike way about me.
4 | Tongue-In-Cheek
Late into my evenings, I’d click away at my typewriter, composing poetry and emptying my mind of what I’d taken in that day. The subjects of my work came from my life, and I even wrote a few about Simone. In 1963, I won the APB prize for best Afrikaans book, Rook en Oker/Smoke and Ochre.
After I’d won, I was lying on my bed with Simone and said to her, “It’s just as well I wasn’t a better poet, I’d be a bad person.” With the candidness of a young child having to live with a mother with an “artist’s temperament,” she replied, “You’re already bad.” Of course, it was a tongue-in-cheek statement and I knew she didn’t mean it, and I couldn’t help but laugh. My daughter had the same sense of humor as me and always brightened my day.
Yet, there was a darkness that crept in from time to time. Yes, my mind had no walls, but there were days in which I felt as if I floated aimlessly in its realm. In one of my poems titled, “I Don’t Want to Receive Any More Visitors,” I wrote, I just want to be alone journeying with my loneliness like a walking stick and believe I am still unique.
5 | Simply as People
My father continued to utterly reject me and my work. He told the Sunday Times Newspaper that I was making a fool out of him. He was being so ridiculous that I tried to ignore him and stay away. My own daughter was terrified of him. Eventually, my father disowned me after I openly opposed his political views on Apartheid and segregation.
I saw people simply as people and never discriminated against other races. When I had discovered that the lady I had hired to help me around my home, who was of the native race, had stolen some of my clothes and hid them behind the dustbins to take on her way out, I didn’t feel anger or hatred, and most certainly not because of her race. I felt pity that she felt she needed to steal from me to properly live. I never said a word to my helper and even let her take the clothes.
Another time, Simone and I were on the bus and a black man got on. He was immediately asked by the conductor to get off as this was a “white bus.” I lost my temper at the injustice and yelled at the driver before promptly disembarking with the black man. I believed all people should be treated equally.
Seeing the struggles of the oppressed impacted me and my poetry. In 1963, during the uprising and demonstrations against the Pass Laws in Sharpeville (a location where black people were forced to live), I heard that a mother and baby were shot by police because they had crossed the demarcation line. The mother was now on her way to the doctor. I couldn’t help but think of my own daughter in that moment. If we weren’t white, that could have happened to us. Simone could have been in that kind of danger. Knowing that others had to deal with this every day infuriated me and I wrote a poem in support of the protests that followed. It was titled, “The child (who was shot dead by the soldiers at Nyanga).”
6 | An Act of Faith
In those dark days, I found a way to make my own happiness. I’d grab Simone and take her with me to Namaqualand to look at the flowers in bloom. I could forget about my father and his cruelty. I could forget about the wars and tragedies happening everywhere. I once wore a long yellow chiffon dress and danced in the veld between the daisies. As I gazed at the innocence of my daughter’s face, I stopped dancing and said to her, “The political climate is becoming more unstable each day. Be strong as you grow, Simone.”
In the end, I found eternity in poetry and in people. Sometimes, my empathetic view made life difficult to manage, but the tenderness I felt toward people, like my daughter, helped me on the darkest days. For what makes a good life? A life you spend doing what you love and what makes you grow as a person. It is, after all, simply, an act of faith.
This is the story of Ingrid Jonker
Ingrid was born in Cape Town Province in South Africa, where she gravitated towards books and the beach. Her fierce love of reading begged her young, six-year-old mind to write poetry. She had her first works published at the age of six, and continued her free-spirited life as a poet. However, Ingrid’s love of people and story taunted her heart, and eventually led to her death. In 1965, Ingrid killed herself by drowning in the sea.
Often referred to as the South African Sylvia Plath, Ingrid was an iconic poet of her time. Her works have been widely translated into several other languages. Her poem “The Child (Who Was Shot Dead by Soldiers at Nyanga)” was cited by President Nelson Mandela during his opening address in 1994. The film Black Butterflies (2011) was also released depicting Ingrid’s life.
This story first touched our hearts on March 19, 2019.