Sunday, June 12, 2005

Ascertaining Truth in South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission: Ingrid de Kok's "The Transcriber Speaks"

As my life has been a whirlwind of deadlines lately, I'm scrounging for material to post. Here's another essay from the semester I just concluded in the New England College low-res MFA program. It examines White South African poet, Ingrid de Kok's poem, "The Transcriber Speaks." As usual, it probably helps to read the poem first.

(_ei__, I promise I''m going to generate a new entry.)

IT IS 1996, JUST TWO years after the fall of the apartheid regime. From 1960 to 1994, the South African state was an absolute censoring, torturing, and killing machine. Of the innumerable crimes committed by the government, perhaps the most brutal was the suppression of ideas: How many dreams deferred in 30 years? For one man? For millions?

Which creates a direct issue of voice. During apartheid, White citizens, who made up less than 12% of the country’s population, received a full vote in national elections; Indian and Coloureds (citizens of mixed ancestry) counted only as 1/3 vote. Blacks, comprising 80% of the population, were not considered citizens and thusly received no vote at all. Add to this, the systematic censorship used to dismantle the African National Congress and other anti-apartheid organizations and it becomes obvious why the Mandela-led administration had to create a forum where all South Africans could vocalize, could “come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation,” Dullah Omar, former Minister of Justice – a forum to detonate these volatile dreams before peace-building could begin.

Which brings us to the 1996 Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the scene of White South African poet, Ingrid de Kok’s “The Transcriber Speaks,” from her 2002 collection, Terrestrial Things. The purpose of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is to pave the way for forgiveness, so that bombs could defuse within the safety of government chambers and not out in the open streets. What horrors? What unspeakable terrors would await? So it is that here the silenced get to speak – except for the one person whose duty it is to remain silent and neutrally record the speech of others – the court transcriber. This becomes becomes de Kok’s poetic conceit.

Ingrid de Kok’s technique for this exercise is to employ the first person perspective, creating a dramatic monologue to give the transcriber voice:

I was the commision’s own captive
Its anonymous after-hours scribe,
Professional blank-slate

Choosing the words captive, anonymous, professional, and blank-slate, the poet creates an opening tone which is pink-collar, passive, and controlled, as if the transcriber is merely a cog in a corporate machine. De Kok furthers the mindlessness of the transcriber’s work in line 4 with the droning “Word by word by word,” a device which she repeats in line 10 with “Word upon word upon word.”

In lines 5 thru 8, the poet invokes the mechanical - “from winding tape to hieroglyphic key” and stresses the sense that this is work being performed without feeling:

Like bricks for a kiln or tiles for a roof
Or the sweeping of leaves into piles for burning:

Here, the poet juxtaposes the notion of building something with “bricks for a kiln or tiles for a roof” against destroying something, “leaves into piles for burning.” Which is she, in fact, doing? But in the true spirit of a peon worker, in line 9, the transcriber remains unquestioning: “I don’t know which.” Which is to say, whether it is creation or destruction, the transcriber is not here to offer her opinions or feelings, but to simply take sounds and equate them to letters and syllables.

But then something pivotal occurs in lines 13 – 16:

But how to transcribe silence from tape?
Is weeping a pause or a word?
What written sign for a strangled throat?
And a witness pointing?

After successive declarative statements for the first half of the poem, the transcriber rattles off four successive questions. This turn in the poem symbolizes awareness, a change in consciousness. If we look more deeply at the nature of these questions, we see the speaker raises greater issues about the nature of objectivity and truth – especially in the context of this Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Is truth simply a literal transcription? Or is there more to it?

If the transcriber is transcribing literally - as neutrally and objectively as a machine - the silence in line 13 would be indicated by no keystrokes, blank space on the transcription page. But such a system quickly deteriorates in line 14:

“Is weeping a pause or a word?”

It is a legitimate concern. How does one transcribe the sound of tears? And once that tide has started, it leads to lines 15 and 16:

“What sign for a strangled throat? ... a witness pointing?”

The more visceral the communication becomes, the more challenging it becomes for the transcriber to communicate its truth.

The poet’s plain-spoken, almost childlike, diction in these questions indicates a yearning for a simple truth, an essential truth; but can this be arrived at using the mechanical tools in the transcriber’s hands?

The answer is, No. And so in line 16, the transcriber crosses a line:

“And a witness pointing? That I described.”

As the transcriber’s duty is essentially to take dictation – not to provide commentary - she breaks the fourth wall. This again challenges the notion of the telling of truth. What limitations are there depending upon one’s chosen medium of recording? In text? In video?

Which raises another question: Is there a truth beyond “the spoken truth” in these proceedings? It certainly suggests that there is a truth beyond what the constructs of conventional language can bear.

And so the poem turns to an examination of negative space and what pregnant truths are held there:

But what if she stared?
And if the silence seemed to stretch
Past the police guard, into the street
Away to a door or a grave, or a child,

Do these questions lead to more truths (“a door”), a truth with an end (“a grave”), or a truth which continues to grow and change (“a child”)? Rather than answering, “The Transcriber Speaks” raises more questions about the impossibility of ascertaining truth – that truth is an ideal, that it is larger than life, that it defies transcription, especially when it is as suppressed and horrific as that of apartheid.

Ingrid de Kok articulates this in her conclusion - not with the mechanical tools of the transcriber, but rather with the empathetic and ironic tools of the poet:

Was it my job to conclude:
“The witness was silent. There was nothing left to say?”


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