“The History of Intimacy,” the third book of poetry by Gabeba Baderoon, associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and African studies, has garnered international attention. First published in South Africa and more recently by Northwestern University Press, the collection was named a book of the year by South Africa’s Sunday Times and received the Elisabeth Eybers Poetry Prize in 2019, the University of Johannesburg Prize for South African Writing in 2019, and the National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences Best Fiction, Poetry and Short Stories Award in 2020.
But, according to Baderoon, she wasn’t supposed to be a poet at all.
Born and raised in South Africa during apartheid, Baderoon fully expected to become a physician, like her mother. Her mother, however, did not share those expectations.
“My mother encouraged [my siblings and me] to be as open-ended as we wished and to follow our desires,” Baderoon said. “My interests turned intensely toward literature.”
Freed by her mother’s endorsement, Baderoon attended the University of Cape Town, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and eventually a doctorate in English literature. Before completing her doctorate, however, Baderoon received what she called a life-changing fellowship that brought her to Penn State – where years later she would become a faculty member.
“It’s rather ironic, and it’s going to sound as though I’ve crafted my story just for [a Penn State audience],” Baderoon said. “In August of 1999, I came to Penn State for a semester, which turned out to be a really wonderful time in my life. It was during that time that I decided to take a number of extramural courses, one of which was a course in poetry.”
Baderoon said she remembers everything about “Poetry for Beginners,” which she described as a “creative refuge from the intellectual theory and analysis of a Ph.D. student.”
“Though I took many courses that semester, it was the poetry writing course that impacted me the most,” she continued. “I know it’s paradoxical because I was a literature student, but through that class, I learned the practice of listening to words in a new way and understanding as a writer how a line ends. I learned to recognize the arc of a poem and to know when a poem ends. These were magical new ideas and skills I was learning for the very first time.”
Inspired by all she had learned at Penn State, Baderoon returned to South Africa to continue her doctoral studies. She began writing poems – in English, one of her two main languages, with Afrikaans – in her spare time.
“While working on my dissertation, I was also attending evening classes and writing as much poetry as possible,” Baderoon said, noting she continued to study poetry during a subsequent fellowship in the United Kingdom. “I was very struck by the liberation I felt as a Ph.D. student – the liberation of being a beginner in something and not having to know or pretend to know as much as I could.”
Baderoon defended her dissertation, “Oblique Figures: Representations of Islam in South African Media and Culture,” in 2004 and published her first book of poetry, “The Dream in the Next Body” (Kwela Books/Snailpress), the following year. The work earned Baderoon a national poetry accolade: the Daimler-Chrysler Award for South African Poetry.
Her second poetry collection, “A hundred silences,” published by Kwela Books/Snailpress in 2006, was a finalist for the 2007 University of Johannesburg Prize for Creative Writing and the 2007 Olive Schreiner Award. Baderoon joined the Penn State faculty the following year.
Twelve years passed before Baderoon’s next poetry collection “revealed itself” to her, she said. In the interim, she wrote a critical book, “Regarding Muslims: from Slavery to Post-apartheid” (Wits University Press, 2014), which received the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences Best Non-fiction Monograph award.
In “The History of Intimacy” Baderoon’s poetry reflects her thoughts and experiences during the 1990s, a decade that for her was framed symbolically by Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1991 and the suicide of jazz pianist Moses Molelekwa in 2001.
“I did not intend to write about the 1990s,” Baderoon said. “But of course, in those years I had been writing poetry, and I came to realize that the decade was a crucial one for me. In some ways [‘The History of Intimacy’] is a reflection upon that time. It shows how history and politics were so intimately connected with everything that was hidden and private and secret and shameful. The poems revealed themselves to me as being part of that pivotal time in my life.
“Because the collection took shape over a long time, I find it quite a strange book because it isn’t entirely clear to me how its story’s pieces fit together. As a result, I am incredibly grateful that it has had an audience that recognizes it perhaps more fully than I did. I am so glad it resonates with people.”
In the collection’s title poem, Baderoon pays tribute to her mother, who had “painful memories and lifelong friendships” from her days in medical school:
Since the beginning, you have been breath,
You told me how Black students were asked
to leave the room during the autopsy of white bodies.
And of my writing about this, you said,
That is my story. That is not your story.
Baderoon said she jokes that her mother, from whom she learned about literature, writing, and being an ethical person, was “only” a physician because “a teacher is the most amazing thing you can be.”
“I think I became a teacher myself because my teachers recognized something in me that I didn’t know,” she said. “I want to convey to students how liberating it is to be free in your own mind. At first, I had quite rigid ideas about what my future would be, but it was the liberation of recognizing that I loved literature – something that gave me the possibility of taking another path – that was the greatest gift my teachers in high school and onward gave me. I very much want my students to feel this possibility no matter what shape that freedom takes.”
Baderoon’s latest work is a book on Black feminism, titled “Surfacing: On being black and feminist in South Africa” (Wits University Press), which she co-edited with Desiree Lewis, a colleague at the University of the Western Cape.