Travel additionally has the effect of a heightened subjectivity. White, male, 40-ish, South African, a poet (an approximation of his author), João’s cultural displacement seems salient, meaning that part of our reading of João is to pare back the rhetoric of exile. To what does Mateer owe his exile? If the displacement of perpetual travel doesn’t qualify, an abstracted and life-long expatriation from colonial disappointment seems more credible. We have to remember that Mateer left South Africa to come to Australia.
It remains curious, however, that Mateer so strongly emphasises João’s marginal status. In the west, a selected poems from 2010, Mateer writes: ‘Payback is how / we are ghosts’, inverting colonialism’s conventional power dynamic and proposing a white victim (‘In real time’). At the same time he laments a ‘Romantic’ who speaks of his culture’s ‘own annihilation’ (‘Visiting the Site of a Shell Midden’). In a similar manner, João’s creditable empathy for cultural alienation frequently oscillates to Mateer’s own displacement. This is often treated ironically: ‘Poor João, never African enough for the Europeans!’, and duly derides claims of white marginality. The stream of epithets (‘barbarian’, ‘ghost’, ‘Lost Boy’) that mark João’s difference, however, insist upon João’s and Mateer’s marginality. When in Sonnet 3 João’s friend, Yvonne, tells him: he should go to Ethiopia – ‘They will love you […] besides you are African too’ – the point seems to be to remind readers of the cultural misperception afflicting João. But Yvonne’s position, that any African – arguably a cultural rather than national designation – identity belonging to or claimed by a white descendant of colonialism should be considered secondary seems the more fitting.
João’s portrait of a well-travelled and multi-lingual but culturally ill-equipped antihero expresses, often humorously, the difficulty of communication and connection across class and culture. The displacement we see in João reads as a generative element of Mateer’s writing, which connects with place and person via themes of distance and separation. It carries a mnemonic reflex for memorable poems about ancestral and cultural belonging and extends to a wider cultural concern, especially relevant in the context of what Mateer calls a contemporary apartheid.