where the writers are
Black Butterflies: Film, Literature, and the South African poet Ingrid Jonker



On a typical day I wake up, write, work out, write, and then read for several hours.   When I'm worn out, I often settle into a deep chair with my IPad on my lap and rummage through Netflix for a movie I can watch until bedtime.


Quite often, almost always in fact, I look at movies from abroad.  I live in Virginia now, but I've lived lots of other places, and I feel at home somewhere else…almost anywhere else. Take me somewhere different. I like that.


Last night I watched a movie called Black Butterflies. Initially I didn't focus on more than the fact that it dealt with a South African poet at odds with her father and apartheid…just started it up…wanted to sit there looking at South Africa if nothing else.


The poet was called Ingrid Jonker.  You can't know everything, and I assumed she was a fictionalization. What tipped me off that this wasn't so was that the voice-over recitations of poetry attributed to this particular character were better than any screenwriter could possibly write.

So wait…this is a biopic. There had to be a "real" Ingrid Jonker and these were her poems and this was her life with her harsh father played fiercely by Rutger Hauer; Ingrid played incandescently by Carice van Houten; Ingrid's lover, the novelist Jack Cope, played stoically by Liam Cunningham. They're at war with themselves and with each other in various ways, and Ingrid somehow represents, or internalizes, all the pain. No one can live in a hypocritical, unjust, tense place like South Africa during apartheid and not reflect its contradictions and miseries--especially not a gifted poet with a tendency to write her poems on the walls of the cell-like room her father has assigned her among the servants


So having paused the movie to do some research via Google, I return and begin watching differently.  The precocious Ingrid Jonker, whom I had never read, was born in the thirties and committed suicide in the sixties. She had her first overtures from publishers when she was thirteen. She met with a great deal of success, was bad at sticking with one man, and was renounced by her father, Abraham Jonker, who ironically was apartheid's chief censor…and who severed ties with Ingrid because of the things she wrote that dramatized, with a compelling lyricism and gift for unexpected imagery, the injustice suffered by black South Africans (and the moral self-mutilation white South Africans inflicted on themselves).


You can go on-line now and find Ingrid Jonker's poems instantly.  She's been compared to Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Both comparisons seem apt. Pain was a compelling subject for all three of them, love a perplexing problem…and then there was Daddy.


The points I would make, then, are as follows: There was a South African poet named Ingrid Jonker and you might like to read her work. There is a movie about her called Black Butterflies and you might like to see it. There also is the cyber flight of the imagination enabled by the internet, Netflix, and curiosity that does not always clarify things…but can make things vivid, let you know what you've been missing…more than you can ever know.