SHE’S LOOKING AT you peripherally, her face fierce and focused in profile, a pencil in her hand. She’s a woman who has waited her turn in a schoolroom in Kampala, Uganda. For generations. But she’s more than just a reflection of education and abandonment, of culture and sexism. She’s everywoman in so many ways. The word ‘Nakawa’ in the image’s caption, is the only clue given to her identity, but it’s okay: you don’t need more. It is prompts of this nature, in word and image that embody Jean du Plessis’s self-published collection of ideas called Why are you looking at me?
It takes a special kind of courage to sift through your own work after a lifetime of ideas and experiences have rushed through your head and heart. And even more courage to edit out, to pare down and to ruthlessly select those that capture the moment in the most intense way. Those you deem ‘best’ in a litany of bests.
Du Plessis cut his intellectual teeth at Stellenbosch University during the dark and ugly days of grand apartheid. Banned, shunned, forcibly shut up by the Powers That Were for publishing poems that cast shadows on their values, du Plessis’s mind was, in his words, ‘prised open’ by those same powers, and clearly, this prising sowed seeds.
This book is not a blow-by-blow chronological account of du Plessis’s oeuvre, or his life. You can see from the photographic captions that he’s travelled from Nepal to Rome, Haiti to Ghana, Kenya to London. He’s seen the blank and contorted face of burnt-out contexts that are resonating with a sense of their own freedom, women in traditional dresses walking on long and dusty roads, cyclists at rest, women drivers of oxen and homeless men with the skill of sleeping upright in the sanctuary of a MacDonald’s outlet. The biographical input at the end of the text is a tad self-deprecating in its tone, fraught with ellipses in context and a broad understanding of time, rather than a focus on nitty-gritty.
And as you page through this book and imbibe the stream-of-consciousness scraps of poetic ideas on the pages facing the images, on the one hand, beauty is conjured. But it is not direct, crude beauty that slaps you in the solar plexus or unseats you. It is, like simple poetic words, the kind of material that you can read quickly, but which may come back to resonate with you. Du Plessis seldom mentions characters’ names in this whirligig narrative he offers. People are referred to by pronouns. This enhances the intimacy he shared with strangers in his journeys across geographies and mindsets.
Why are you looking at me? is an essay as much about the ebbs and flows of humanity with all its flaws and brokenness as it is an autobiographical memento for a deeply introspective creative person who plays with images and words with the same level of quirkiness and courage. And ego is present here, as it must be. But the book is allowed to stand on its own and reach you in idiosyncratic ways.
- Why are you looking at me? by Jean du Plessis is published by Lonely Staircase (2020).