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THE DREAM IN THE NEXT BODY (article first published : 2005-04-24)

The Dream in the Next Body, the debut collection by the DaimlerChrysler award-winner Gabeba Baderoon, has just been released by Kwela Books in association with Snailpress. She joins Keorapetse Kgositsile, Mongane Wally Serote and Ingrid de Kok in Kwela and Snail Press's select poetry list (a collection by the Pringle Award-winning poet Rustum Kozain's will be published by Kwela later this year).

Growing up in Crawford, Athlone, she attended Livingstone High School in Claremont like generations of her family. She studied English at UCT, attaining her doctorate with a thesis on the way Islam is portrayed in South African media and art. Her initiation into poetry occurred during a four-month fellowship to the US in 1999 when she enrolled in an evening class. “Though I was a PhD student, I was a complete beginner at writing poetry, and I loved it. I learned how to listen to the rhythms of words and how to end a line. It connected with something in me,” she remembers. She submitted one of her class exercises to a competition in Philadelphia and during the December holidays she received a phone call from her mother saying that she had won the poetry competition.

“I learned two lessons from that experience”, she says. “One correct and one gravely mistaken. The mistake was that I thought winning an award meant I knew how to write poetry. The valuable lesson was that I realized that I loved doing the hard work of turning up morning after morning to write, to struggle, to lose faith in something, almost to abandon it, and still try to produce a poem that rings true. That poetry is something I want to do for the rest of my life.”

In the six years since, Gabeba Baderoon's poems have been published in journals South Africa, the US and Britain. 'I'm still learning,” she says. 'I still get turned down [by publications] and that hurts, but then I go back to my journals the next morning.”

She continued her studies in poetry when she was a visiting scholar at the University of Sheffield as part of her doctorate. She enrolled in the respected MA in Writing at nearby Sheffield Hallam University taught by the decorated British poet and playwright Sean O'Brien. Her poetry education was rounded off with an Advanced Poetry Workshop with the distinguished American poet Robin Becker at Pennsylvania State University. “I wrote a new poem every week and it was discussed by a gifted but rigorous teacher and a roomful of apprentice poets. It was incredibly demanding, but I couldn't wait for each class and I did my homework ahead of time.” In 2004, Gabeba concluded her studies when she graduated with her PhD, “but I'll always want to grow as a writer”, she says.

The poems, written in the course of the past six years, have been collected into her first book, The Dream in the Next Body. “As a poet in this country, you wait a long time to receive a phone call telling you your manuscript has been accepted by Kwela Books and Snailpress. Every writer knows them. When I heard the news I couldn't talk and just ran around the house like a cat,” she confesses. “When I was a child, my parents taught me to love reading by taking me to the library every week and helping me choose stories to read. I learned to respect books and the people who worked with them. And now my name will appear on the cover of one. It's an incredible privilege. I remember every person who encouraged me over the years, and I am deeply grateful to them. It's important to me to repay that generosity by giving back to others too.”

Gabeba Baderoon was nominated for the DaimlerChrysler Award for South African Poetry 2005 by one of her heroes, the much-honoured Keorapetse Kgositsile. She was eventually chosen by the judges for crafting an “original voice”. Prof Joan Hambidge, the chairperson of the jury, said on behalf of the panel that Baderoon “finds the poetic in the ordinary with a fine sense of locality and space. She weaves political and social issues into her poetry without sloganeering. Her work tackles a wide range of themes, astutely shifting the focus from the outside to the inside.” Previous winners of the DaimlerChrysler award include Guy Tillim and Jane Alexander.

“I was deeply honoured to be counted among such superb poets, she says. “To receive the Award was more than I could have hoped.”




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