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New Chair in Creative Writing promises boom in Afrikaans literary art
Author: Corporate Communications and Marketing (Hannelie Booyens)
Published: 27/02/2024

​​Stellenbosch University’s (SU) award-winning author and dramatist Prof Willem Anker has been appointed as the Head of the brand new Chair in Creative Writing that has just been established in the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch. He describes his view of his new role as an academic in the promotion of Afrikaans writing and why he is interested in questions rather than answers as a writer.

Congratulations on your appointment to the Chair in Creative Writing. Can you shed light on how this Chair came about and the goals you want to achieve to promote creative writing in Afrikaans?

The Chair in Afrikaans Creative Writing was established to promote Afrikaans literature through the teaching and supervision of writing in the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch at SU, as well as involvement with Afrikaans-speaking writers in the community.

The Chair aims to facilitate, increase, and develop the creative outputs of students in Afrikaans through the acquisition of qualifications, as well as the publication of outputs.

Dr Alfred Schaffer and I have written a PhD programme in creative writing, and we hope it will soon be approved by the Department of Higher Education and Training so that students can enrol in it.

What is your vision for the Chair in Creative Writing? How do you plan to lead and present the programme to contribute to the development of South African literature?

The PhD programme was written to stimulate the writing of innovative literature of high quality. The MA programme in our Department has already produced wonderful texts and the hope is to build on it. By offering undergraduate and honours modules in writing I hope to get students interested in writing and learn them basic techniques. I would also like to get involved with Afrikaans writers and writers’ groups in the broader community in order to work outside the academic milieu as well.

Can you tell us about your journey from bartender and security guard to lecturer in creative writing at SU? How have these varied experiences influenced your approach to literature and writing?

I was only a bartender for one December holiday, and it was a complete failure. I was a security guard in Edinburgh’s clothing stores for about 3 or 4 months and that wasn’t much fun either. At least the security guard days later provided the spark for a play. What I have learned over the years is that life experience feeds the imagination.

As a lecturer in the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, how do you approach the teaching of creative writing and what kind of mentorship do you offer to aspiring writers?

At third year and honours level, there are ongoing smaller exercises to practice certain trades, and larger projects that are worked on throughout the semester. With the MA (and the PhD in the pipeline) the focus is naturally more on creating longer, more complex manuscripts. At both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, the academic work that accompanies the creative work counts for a significant percentage, and in the MA and PhD 50%. The reading process is an important part of the writing process.

Your plays have received numerous awards. How do you see your contribution to the landscape of South African theatre and what themes and messages do you want to communicate?

I don’t think it’s for me to say how or if my plays contribute to the theatre landscape. The topics I explore vary quite a bit from piece to piece – things like ageing, language, dead writers, bugs, and terrorism – but messages… I hope there are never any lessons to be learned. When it comes to writing, I’m interested in questions, not answers.

Your novels Siegfried and Buys received great praise. Can you share the inspiration for these works and how your background in creative writing and literature influenced their creation? 

An early version of Siegfried was the manuscript I submitted as part of my MA in writing under the supervision of Marlene van Niekerk. I then rewrote it a few times before it was finally published. I learned an awful lot from her, as a student and later as a colleague when I taught the MA programme in writing with her. When I read about the historical figure Coenraad de Buys, I immediately thought that his story could be good material for a novel. I read up on South African history, and went on trips to see where the main character lived and travelled.

With every thing you write, you make mistakes, but hopefully you also get a few other things right. What I learned is that the only way to write is to sit down and write and write some more, cross out, and rewrite. As Samuel Beckett wrote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” 

Your doctoral thesis investigated the use of the nomadic figure in the texts of Breyten Breytenbach and Alexander Strachan. Can you elaborate on how this theme affects your academic and writing work?

One day, my promoter jokingly asked me how I could write about nomads if I had been living in Stellenbosch for a decade. I told her that one can hopefully be nomadic anywhere, no matter how much or how little you move. I think I may have been a little naive, but for me the best way to jump over the vibracrete fences of life is to write. Later, I would also write about a nomad in Buys, a man who could not sit still.

Are there any projects or initiatives in the pipeline regarding creative writing that you are particularly excited about, either personally or within the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch at SU?

Our Department was recently approached by a group of writers who write about the place and stories of their community. It would be an honour to be involved in this and similar projects in one way or another.

Furthermore, a workshop and book talks are planned which will be presented in the Department. We are also very excited about the PhD programme that will hopefully soon be implemented. 

As for my own writing, my adaptation for theatre of Han Kang’s International Booker Prize winner Die vegetariër now (after the Woordfees) has two further seasons at the Baxter Theatre and later at the KKNK. A new play, Patmos, will also debut at the KKNK this year.