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Ingrid Jonker (19 September 1933 – 19 July 1965) (OIS), was a South African poet. Although she wrote in Afrikaans, her poems have been widely translated into other languages. Jonker has reached iconic status in South Africa and is often called the South African Sylvia Plath, owing to the intensity of her work and the tragic course of her turbulent life.
Jonker was born on a farm in Douglas, Northern Cape. She was the daughter of Abraham Jonker and Beatrice Cilliers. Her parents separated before she was born, and Jonker’s mother moved back home with her two daughters. Jonker’s grandparents moved to a farm near Cape Town. Five years after the move, her grandfather died, leaving the four women destitute.
In 1943, Jonker’s mother died. Jonker and her older sister Anna were then sent to Wynberg Girls’ High School in Cape Town, where she began writing poetry for the school magazine. They later moved in with their father and his third wife and their children. The two sisters were treated as outsiders, which caused a permanent rift between Jonker and her father.
Jonker started writing poems when she was six years old and, by the age of sixteen, she had started a correspondence with D.J. Opperman, South African writer and poet, whose views influenced her work greatly.
Her first collection of Afrikaans poems, Na die somer (“After the summer”) was produced before she was thirteen. Although several publishers were interested in her work, she was advised to wait before going into print. Her first published book of poems, Ontvlugting (“Escape”), was eventually published in 1956.
Jonker married Pieter Venter in 1956, and their daughter Simone was born in 1957. The couple moved to Johannesburg, but three years later they separated. Jonker and her daughter then moved back to Cape Town.
Her father, already a writer, editor and National Party Member of Parliament, was appointed chairman of the parliamentary select committee responsible for censorship laws on art, publications and entertainment. To his embarrassment, his daughter was vehemently opposed to these laws and their political differences became public. In a speech in parliament Jonker's father denied her as his daughter. During the same time period she had affairs with two writers, Jack Cope and André Brink. One of these affairs resulted in a pregnancy and she underwent an abortion (a crime in South Africa at the time). The mental distress of her father's rejection and the abortion contributed to her decision to enter the Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital in 1961. (Jonker's mother had died at Valkenberg several years before.)
Jonker's next collection of poems Rook en oker ("Smoke and Ochre") was published in 1963 after delays caused by the conservative approach of her publishers. While the collection was praised by most South African writers, poets and critics, it was given a cool reception by the more conservative white South African public. Thereafter she became known as one of the Die Sestigers, a group that also included Breyten Breytenbach, André Brink, Adam Small and Bartho Smit, who were challenging the conservative Afrikaans literary norms at the time.
Rook en oker won Jonker the £1000 Afrikaanse Pers-Boekhandel (Afrikaans Press-Booksellers) literary prize, as well as a scholarship from the Anglo American Corporation. The money helped her to realize her dream of travelling to Europe, where she went to England, the Netherlands, France, Spain and Portugal. She asked Jack Cope to accompany her, but he refused. Jonker then asked André Brink to join her. He accepted and they went to Paris and Barcelona together. During the trip Brink decided against leaving his wife for Jonker and went back to South Africa. Jonker then cut her tour short and returned to Cape Town.
Jonker had started writing a new collection of poems just before her death. A selection of these poems was published posthumously in the collection Kantelson ("Toppling Sun"). She then witnesses a shattering event: a Black baby was shot in his mother’ arms. She underlined from Dylan Thomas: "after the first death, there is no other". And she wrote: "Die kind (wat doodgeskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga)", "The child (who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga").
During the night of 19 July 1965, Jonker went to the beach at Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town where she walked into the sea and committed suicide by drowning. On hearing of Jonker's death, her father reportedly said: "They can throw her back in the sea for all I care."
After Jonker's death, copyrights and control of her literary estate and papers were awarded to Jack Cope by the Master of the Court. He established the Ingrid Jonker Trust. He remained a trustee of the Trust until his death in 1991. Jonker's daughter Simone Venter is the beneficiary. Copyright is still vested in the Trust.
Jonker's literary papers went to the National English Literary Museum (NELM) in Grahamstown. Her sister Anna Jonker borrowed these with the intention of writing a biography on her sister. November 2005.
Jonker's poetry has been translated from Afrikaans into English, German, French, Dutch, Polish, Hindi and Zulu, among others. She wrote a one-act play 'n Seun na my Hart ("A son after my heart") about a mother's illusions about her handicapped son. Jonker also wrote several short stories.
The prestigious Ingrid Jonker Prize for the best debut work of Afrikaans or English poetry was instituted by her friends to honour her legacy after her burial in 1965. This yearly prize, consisting of R1000 and a medal, is awarded alternately to an Afrikaans or English poet who has published a first volume in the previous two years.
Nelson Mandela read her poem, "Die kind (wat doodgeskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga)" ("The child (who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga)"), in Afrikaans, during his address at the opening of the first democratically elected parliament on 24 May 1994.
In 2001 a documentary about Jonker was produced for Dutch television by Saskia van Schaik: "Korreltjie niks is my dood".
In 2002 the one-woman, interactive play by Ryk Hattingh, Opdrag: Ingrid Jonker ("Assignment: Ingrid Jonker"), was staged at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival starring Jana Cilliers. The play dealt with questions and comments on Jonker’s life, interwoven with her poems and other writing.
In April 2004 Jonker was posthumously awarded the Order of Ikhamanga by the South African government for "her excellent contribution to literature and a commitment to the struggle for human rights and democracy in South Africa."
In 2005 Chris Chameleon (known better as the lead singer of the South African band Boo!) released the album Ek Herhaal Jou ("I Repeat You"), which consisted of a number of Jonker's poems that he had set to music. The release coincided with the 40th anniversary of Jonker's death. Some of Jonker's poems that inspired Chameleon's songs are "Bitterbessie Dagbreek" ("Bitterberry Daybreak"), "Lied van die gebreekte Riete" ("Song of the Broken Reeds") and "Ontvlugting" ("Escape").
In 2007 a documentary Ingrid Jonker, her Lives and Time by Mozambique-born South African film and documentary maker Helena Nogueira was released in South Africa. Hailed as the definitive work on Jonker this is the first literary documentary to ever get theatrical release in South Africa.
Also, in 2007 work was already underway on a feature film about Ingrid Jonker with the working title All that Breaks. Based on a script by Helena Nogueira workshopped at Johannesburg's Market Theatre, the film focusses on three years in the life of Jonker and the Sestigers who gathered around poet Uys Krige at Clifton in Cape Town. The film is produced by David Parfitt (Shakespeare in Love), Charles Moore (Schindler's List) and Shan Moodley and is directed by Nogueira.
Also in 2011, South African musician Chris Chameleon released an album of Jonker's works, entitled "As Jy Weer Skryf" ("If You Write Again").
In 2012, Nicola Haskins choreographered a dance drama which told the life story of Jonker for the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and then later to be performed at various venues including the University of Pretoria
Jonker's biographer is Petrovna Metelerkamp, who published Ingrid Jonker – Beeld van 'n digterslewe ("Ingrid Jonker – Image of a Poet's Life") in 2003. This book contains new insights into the poet's life, and includes love letters (some unsent) and an as yet unpublished account of the night of Jonker's death by her friend, Bonnie Davidtsz. The proceeds of the book are said to assist Simone Venter (Jonker's daughter) financially. An English, updated version of this biography appeared in 2012: Ingrid Jonker - A Poet's Life.