Fearless novelist Miriam Tlali looked within herself to find her muse, writes Sam Mathe.
Miriam Tlali, who died last Saturday at a nursing home in Parktown, Joburg, has been described as a pioneering and inspiring literary voice. She was 83.
Her life as a black, female writer living under apartheid was punctuated by persecution by the Special Branch police, but she refused to be silenced.
In the 1970s, when Tlali was on the threshold of global renown as a novelist, a young literature boffin and friend who was tasked with reading her manuscripts compared her literary style to that of James Baldwin and Alex La Guma. However, he was pleasantly surprised, and disappointed, to learn that the fearless anti-apartheid novelist hadn’t read the two authors at that stage.
They say writers learn and draw inspiration from their peers and predecessors. When Tlali started the search for hers, she found nothing.
Her mother introduced her to the family’s long-buried treasures from her father’s collection - writings of early black journalists such as Solomon Plaatje, Allan Soga and John Tengo Jabavu. There were also pamphlets on the works of Olive Schreiner, the country’s first feminist writer during the Victorian era. Tlali’s frustrating hunt for works by her own generation of writers, such as Es’kia Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi, Can Themba and La Guma, proved fruitless. Their books were banned.
The problem was compounded by the fact that, as a black person, she wasn’t allowed to use public facilities such as the Johannesburg City Library where books by some of her favourite authors, Nadine Gordimer and André Brink, were available. She dared not step into the hallowed grounds of the Pretoria State Library. It would have amounted to breaking the law.
Ironically, in 1975 when her first book, Muriel At Metropolitan, was published, library administrators surprised her when they asked her to grant them permission for her book to be read there.
Meanwhile, she found momentary solace in Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, and Father Trevor Huddleston’s Naught for your Comfort, because they were available.
Through students from Swaziland, she obtained works of African writers such as Chinua Achebe, Camara Laye, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Cyprian Ekwensi. She read the English classics from Shakespeare to Dickens and George Eliot. She relished American novels such as Ernest Hemingway’s To Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea, but remained unfulfilled. It was great literature but it didn’t reflect her experiences as a black person.
“Because I had no base I had to change and find inspiration from within myself. I could not divorce myself from my peculiar status in an ‘artificial’ society which refuses to acknowledge even my existence.
“It was while in this dilemma that I found myself; that I finally drew the line and retraced my steps. Only then could I come to terms with myself and walk upright again,” she said.
When she eventually managed to read the Drum generation of writers such as Lewis Nkosi and Themba, it was years later at the Wits University library, where she was a literature student.
But her newfound freedom
to read books of her choice was rudely interrupted when African students were barred by law from studying at white institutions of higher learning. She enrolled at Roma University in Lesotho, but was forced to abandon her studies owing to financial difficulties.
Tlali’s experiences as a bookkeeper and administrative assistant at a furniture shop in downtown Joburg became the inspiration for her debut. Written in 1969 but published only in 1975, Muriel at Metropolitan is a semi-autobiographical novel. In the same year her publishers, Ravan Press, released The World of Nat Nakasa. She was dismayed when the publishers turned down her preferred title for her book, Between Two Worlds.
“They told me that the book would be banned because my preferred title was too political,” she explained. “But Muriel at Metropolitan didn’t capture the weight of the novel and the message it conveys. Muriel sounded like a corruption of Miriam but they had a final say.”
She was also unhappy about the way her manuscript was edited and lamented the removal of chapters, sentences, phrases and paragraphs in the remaining chapters. Despite her misgivings, the book was a global success.
“Tladi’s manuscript consisted of a large ring binder crammed with disjointed writings including verses and prayers. It was clear, however, that embedded in this mass of material was an interesting and original narrative.
"The work was edited brilliantly, shaped into a lean and publishable text while retaining the writer’s own voice,” Ravan Press director Peter Randall recalled.
In 1979, the government banned the novel but Longman Publishers released it internationally under the author’s desired title as part of its African Classics series. Thirty years after its publication, Between Two Worlds has come out in 45 editions and been translated into three European languages.
It was unbanned in 1986. Contrary to popular belief, Tlali was not the first African woman to publish a book. Noni Jabavu’s autobiographical novel, Drawn in Colour: African Contrasts, was published in 1962.
Incidentally, its successor, The Ochre People: Scenes from a South African Life (1963), was also published by Ravan Press in 1982. Former Drum journalist Bessie Head started her publishing career as a novelist in Serowe, Botswana, in 1968. However, it is indisputable that in the 1970s Tlali was the only black woman to have published a book within the country’s borders.
Following the publication of her debut novel, she became one of the first regular contributors to Staffrider, a literary and arts journal established in 1978 with funds contributed to Ravan Press by the Rev Beyers Naudé after his ecumenical magazine, Pro Veritas, was banned by the apartheid authorities.
The magazine was the most important literary presence after The Classic, founded by Nat Nakasa in 1963. Staffrider brought together new voices from the townships as well as established writers from the other side of the tracks - literary figures such as Gordimer and JM Coetzee.
Mtutuzeli Matshoba, one of the first contributors to Staffrider, remembers Tlali as a matriarch who took it upon herself to encourage young writers to tell their stories.
Matshoba’s collection of short stories, titled Call Me Not A Man (1979), was launched at her house in Rockville, Soweto.
Number 2129 on Lekhooa Street was, in fact, home to young activists. It was regularly raided by the police who were either looking for prohibited literature or simply spoiling for a fight.
“I feared no political opponent at the time and was already being pursued by the Boers,” she recalled. “It was difficult for me to write because they could come at any time, and they would come in the night and search the house.”
She had to devise ingenious ways to conceal her books and manuscripts. Her second novel by Ravan Press, Amandla (1980), is a landmark work on the events surrounding the June 16, 1976 uprisings. It shows how being a black woman in South Africa contributed to an extra dimension of subjection and oppression. Amandla also enjoyed the international acclaim of its predecessor, and was translated into several foreign languages including Polish and Japanese.
Its theme of the double oppression of black women also finds expression in her subsequent works, Mihloti (Skotaville, 1984) and Footprints in the Quag (Pandora, 1989). In the former, she graphically recounts her ordeal in a detention cell after she was stopped from attending Steve Biko’s funeral in King William's Town. Both works are a miscellany of journalism, travelogue and short stories.
Born Miriam Masoli Tlali on November 11, 1933 in Doornfontein, she was raised in Sophiatown and went to schools in neighbouring Western Native Township.
Her forebears owned Tlali & Co, a printing press which had published a newspaper for many years in Lesotho, her ancestral land. Her father, Moses Molefi Tlali, was a studious collector of books and newspaper cuttings.
Married to Stephen Lehutso, she followed the unusual practice for an African woman of her times when she decided to retain her maiden surname.
Her husband and her two children have passed on. She is survived by two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
At the time of her passing, she was the patron of the Miriam Tlali Reading and Book Club that was established in 2009 by the wRite associates.