Not many people celebrate their 95th birthday by publishing a new book! Author Elsa Joubert talks to us about her travels and the journey of getting older.
Cynthia Mtini, Elsa Joubert’s caregiver, guides the author to a chair at a table next to a big window with a view of Lion’s Head and Signal Hill. “My legs are giving me trouble,” Elsa says. “I struggle to walk. I lose my balance.” She is 95 and has had two hip replacements. Cynthia puts a glass of water down in front of her. It’s just after 3 pm on a Friday and I’m sitting with Elsa in her two-bedroom flat in the Berghof retirement village in Gardens, Cape Town. Berghof is home to about 60 other residents – the average age is 88. Elsa published her first book, Water en Woestyn, 60 years ago. With a camera, a typewriter and a few traveller’s cheques, she travelled through Uganda, Sudan and Egypt, following the Nile River from source to sea. “I wanted to travel alone because you’re so much more dependent and more receptive when you’re on your own,” she writes in that first book. Elsa was a travel writing pioneer, visiting places in Africa, Europe, the Americas and the Far East. Her travels were more than geographical, however, they were deeply personal. Later, as an influential novelist, she enriched local literature with award-winning books like Die swerfjare van Poppie Nongena (1978) – which was translated into 13 languages, including English as The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena. In 2002, Poppie Nongena was named one of Africa’s 100 best books of the 20th century. It tells the story of a young woman’s long struggle against South Africa’s segregation policies and forced removals, while trying to keep her growing family together.
Elsa’s latest book Spertyd, which means “Deadline”, was published in 2017, making her the oldest Afrikaans author still working. It’s an unsentimental, introspective and often humorous look at growing old. “I never enjoyed deadlines,” she says. “But when I told my son Nico that I’d be taking my time with this book, he was quick to remind me that I would have to finish it before my deadline. Nico was the one who inspired the book. He said, ‘Mom, you’ve visited so many strange places and written about your travels. Now you can explore the continent of old age.’” She leans forward and takes a sip of water. “It’s an odd place to be. I’m on the home stretch; few people make it past 95. It is how it is: You don’t have a say in how long you get to live.” Building on Nico’s metaphor, she likens old age to an undiscovered continent. “You don’t know whether everything will be taken away from you or if you’ll remain cheerful until the very end. No two ages are the same.” She doesn’t believe that you’re only as old as you feel. “That’s rubbish. You’re as young or as old as your body allows you to be. Once you realise this, you no longer feel guilty. You shouldn’t be selfcentred and only think about your own ailments. And don’t complain because it only makes it worse for you and for those around you.”
To decide for yourself
Elsa wrote Spertyd in her study in the flat where we’re sitting. Her routine was to write for a few hours in the morning, take a break and work for another hour
in the afternoon. Her granddaughter, Isabeau Steytler, helped her with the technical aspects of the manuscript. “I worked on a computer and finished just in time because my typing isn’t as precise as it used to be. A computer is like an octopus – you’re typing away and then it lifts a tentacle and makes a mess of things. It just stops or it does something unexpected. I’ve never even had a cellphone. I’m not good with technology.” Her late husband – her soulmate – was the writer Klaas Steytler. He passed away in 1998 after a battle with cancer and he’s a constant presence in Spertyd. Sometimes a few words speak volumes: “I miss Klaas – where is Klaas?” Elsa has been a resident of Berghof for 16 years. “Writing has made the past two decades meaningful for me,” she says. “How will I know what I thought if I can’t see what I wrote? It might sound silly, but my thoughts and beliefs take form when I can see words on a page.” Somewhere in the book, she mentions that she’d like to take a notebook and a BIC pen with her to the afterlife. I ask her what her first journal entry will be when she gets there. She hesitates and says: “Nee man, that’s a stretch too far for the imagination.”
Unsurprisingly, death is a major theme in Spertyd. “Death is played down in society and I’m not sure that’s a healthy way of dealing with it,” she says. “People are scared and they’d prefer not to talk about it. But the only thing I can be sure of at my age is that I will die.” We ponder death for a few more minutes, then Elsa says: “My father-inlaw often told the story of something a boy once said to him when he was working as a school inspector in the Free State. The boy said, ‘But Sir, you ask very heavy asks.’ What we’re talking about here is a heavy ask.” There’s real travel in Spertyd, too. Joubert was in her 80s when she went on a tour of the Northern Cape and Namibia by train and bus. She travelled with a friend and visited places like Augrabies, Kolmanskop, Windhoek, Etosha and Swakopmund. It wasn’t plain sailing: She suffered from severe dizziness and realised the physical toll of such a trip was too much for her to bear at such an advanced age. Coming home was a revelation: “My flat is my salvation, a refuge, a shelter…” she writes. “I can lie still and see trees through the window, more scenic than the famous desert views; the furthest, mystical stone ridges.” After her tour of Namibia, Elsa decided long-distance travel was no longer feasible. “It was easier to accept because I was the one who had made the decision,” she says. “No one told me what I could or couldn’t do. I also learnt another lesson: If you can no longer do something, accept your fate. Don’t keep trying.”
Keep the wheels turning
Elsa never kept count of how many countries she travelled to, but there were many. “I no longer have the energy to go to all those places, but I can still think of them,” she says. “Especially when I read something in a newspaper about a place I once visited.” As one of South Africa’s foremost literary voices, she has also had the opportunity to meet some interesting people, including the late Nelson Mandela – a meeting she describes in her book Reisiger. Madiba greeted her in Afrikaans and said, “Dis so ’n eer om die skrywer van Die Staf van Monomotapa te ontmoet.” He’d read her Mozambique travelogue many times while imprisoned on Robben Island. “I would have known nothing about my new wife’s country if I hadn’t read your book,” he said to her later. In Reisiger she also recounts a visit to Madrid in 1949, and describes the overcrowded tube station in detail. “It all comes back,” she says. “When I think of an event, I have a visual memory of it. Sometimes it’s a bother because there’s too much to think about. The memories just keep coming. German author WG Sebald called it the writer’s ‘peculiar behavioural disturbance’ – those wheels in your mind that won’t stop turning.” She believes in keeping busy. “You have to have something to look forward to every day. I can’t go for my daily walks any more, which I find difficult. I loved going for a stroll, even if it was just around the garden outside.” Cynthia enters the room and Elsa orders tea for the two of us. “The caregivers here play such an important role if you’re on your own,” she says. “I dedicated Spertyd to everyone who looks after us here. It’s wonderful to get a cup of tea in bed in the morning.” Her family members – including her four great-grandchildren – form a valuable support system. “I can’t begin to tell you what my family means to me,” she says. “Klaas always said that children surround you like cedar trees.”
Tranquillity is something the writer values highly. In Spertyd, she writes that she can only find herself in silence. “It’s about the quiet within,” she says. “Especially when those wheels in your mind are spinning. You have to be open. You make contact with yourself and expose yourself to indescribable forces. Silence solves your problems. You wake up the next day and your problems are gone. It gives you perspective.” She has made peace with what the
“It all comes back,” she says. “When I think of an event, I have a visual memory of it. Sometimes it’s a bother because there’s too much to think about. The memories just keep coming.”
rest of her life’s journey may bring – and the inevitable end. “Still, I don’t trust myself,” she says. “When I feel death drawing near, there might be something that will scare, surprise or stun me. You never know how you will react. I’ve seen the devout become hysterical on their deathbeds.” She recently had a revelation that put her mind at ease. “I’m not a mystic, and I didn’t necessarily hear these words, but they came to me nonetheless: ‘I was with you at birth and I will be with you in death.’” It’s like the line from the TS Eliot poem “East Coker”, which Klaas translated into Afrikaans years ago: “In my end is my beginning.” We drink tea and eat biscuits. It’s still a bit early for another of Elsa’s favourite rituals. “I usually have a whiskey on the rocks at 5.30 pm,” she says. “I sometimes get a headache if I drink gin, but never with whiskey. It’s my go-to drink.”
Flowers, books and time
Despite her age, Elsa remains an avid reader and is currently making her way through a large-print version of The Bookshop, a novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. She signs my copy of Spertyd, gripping the pen with determination and writing with difficulty. Her hands are covered in a network of blue veins, like rivers flowing across the continent of old age. She leans back and studies her handwriting. “I don’t know why everything shrinks with age,” she says. “Enjoy your handwriting while you still can. It’s ephemeral, like all things; the body being stronger than the will.” We sit together in silence for a few seconds. Elsa looks out of the window. “My windows are living paintings,” she writes in Reisiger. It’s true – I look out into the garden filled with arum lilies and agapanthus, and further towards Lion’s Head. It seems that Elsa finds meaning among her flowers and books, and she still travels through the landscapes of her mind and soul. In Spertyd she writes about her final journey: “The flowers bring me joy, peace and rest; the books unsettle the calm and send me off on journeys. Journeys of the mind and of clashing ideas; they vex and stir up the peace the flowers bring. But that’s a good thing – it makes me feel alive, I reach to the ends of the earth, I disappear, I grow as big as a dinosaur, I shrink down to an atom.” Water en Woestyn, Reisiger and Spertyd were published in Afrikaans. The English translations are our own.
THE WANDER YEARS. Elsa Joubert with Klaas Steytler in Dublin in 1949. They married the following year.