Poetic fragments from non-fiction Namibian travel book grow into their own collection

Peter Midgley hopes that collection can link common colonial contexts and challenge perceptions

Peter Midgley could be said to be a hybrid writer – he works in multiple genres, publishing non-fiction, children’s lit, plays, and poetry.

“I do not consciously set out to write a children’s story, or a poem,” says the Edmonton-based author. “I write. Sometimes, the form emerges from within the words. Sometimes, it appears in multiple forms.”

For instance, his third collection of poetry, let us not think of them as barbarians, which draws upon a history of violence in Namibia and explores African worldviews in sensual and evocative poems, also exists as a stage play called barbarians, which was runner-up in the Toronto Fringe Festival’s new play contest in 2017.

Born and raised in small communities in Namibia and South Africa, Midgley’s writing process doesn’t just involve movement between genres – it also means movement between languages and cultures.

let us not think of them as barbarians started in 2011, while Midgley was working on Counting Teeth, a non-fiction account of travelling through Namibia with his daughter.

“There were fragments, almost exclusively in Afrikaans, that were clearly poetry – images, line breaks, et cetera – that did not fit with the prose narrative I was working on,” he says. “I put the fragments aside while I worked on Counting Teeth and Unquiet Bones, but kept adding new bits and pieces that clearly belonged in this collection.”

Midgley finds the interplay between languages to be enormously generative.

“Most of the poems were initially written in Afrikaans and then reworked during translation,” Midgley notes. “Although the Afrikaans remains unpublished, this is an Afrikaans collection in its conception and development. After a first draft, I translated the works, exploring the opportunities English gave me. The poems changed; those changes were then taken back to the Afrikaans.”

Peter Midgley
Peter Midgley

Midgley emigrated to Canada 20 years ago to do a PhD in African literature at the University of Alberta, but he is still connected to his home communities, which makes for a unique perspective.

“Although this is a book about the colonial experience in Namibia, my experience of living in multiple places and in different contexts has reinforced my belief that the colonial experience has many commonalities throughout the world,” says Midgley.

“It doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to go from genocide in Namibia to genocide in Canada. We are all implicated (and imbricated) – through familial lines, through privilege, through conscious choices – and writing is one way of exploring our part in it. North American readers should not think that this is not about them, too.”

And Midgley is all about conscious choices.

“A number of readers remarked of my previous Namibia book, Counting Teeth, that there were too many unpronounceable names,” Midgley says. “Such criticism just makes me more determined to use language to shake such people out of complacency. I’d wager that the majority of the world’s population has to work in polyglot frameworks. It is arrogance to assume we’re monolingual here in Canada, or that our culture is a more or less homogenous assemblage of Euro-American values.

“If this collection can start to challenge such perceptions, I’m satisfied that it is doing its job.”