In her monthly column Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
“The Republic of South Africa is a country divided into two worlds,” wrote Miriam Tlali in the opening chapter of her debut novel, Muriel at Metropolitan, which was published in 1975. “The one, a white world—rich, comfortable, for all practical purposes organized—a world in fear, armed to the teeth,” she explains. “The other, a black world; poor, pathetically neglected and disorganized—voiceless, oppressed, restless, confused and unarmed—a world in transition, irrevocably weaned from all tribal ties.” Set at Metropolitan Radio, a busy furniture and electric-goods store in Johannesburg, Muriel at Metropolitan depicts the collision of these two worlds. It is narrated by one of the white-owned store’s black employees, a typist named Muriel, who recounts, in dogged, meticulous detail, the reality of life in the “black world,” the residents of which live on “shifting sands” as every parliamentary session brings in “fresh, more oppressive laws” that seek to dehumanize nonwhite South Africans while maintaining the power and privilege of their oppressors. The book is fictionalized autobiography, the verisimilitude of which can be traced to Tlali’s own experience working as a clerk-typist in a Johannesburg store. “The sunny Republic of South Africa,” Muriel notes derisively, “the white man’s paradise.”
Such truth-telling was radical at the time Tlali was writing, but she was a trailblazer. She was the first black woman to publish a novel written in English in South Africa, and her work was at the forefront of the new protest writing movement that emerged at the beginning of the seventies. For Tlali, writing was activism. She wrote in order to raise political consciousness and expose the evils of apartheid, both across South Africa and internationally.
“For the first time literary expression in our writing took on a completely political perspective,” explains the activist and author Lauretta Ngcobo in her introduction to the Pandora Press edition of Tlali’s 1989 short story collection, Soweto Stories (published in South Africa as Footprints in the Quag: Stories and Dialogues from Soweto). A contemporary of Tlali’s, Ngcobo was forced to flee South Africa in 1963, and lived in exile for the next three decades. “Protest writing had arrived, to the virtual exclusion of anything else that might engage the literary mind,” Ngcobo continues. Both Muriel at Metropolitan and Tlali’s second book, Amandla (1980)—about a young freedom fighter involved in the 1976 Soweto uprising and the underground resistance—deliberately subvert certain novelistic traditions. Exposition, for example, something often frowned on in literary fiction, is absolutely integral to Tlali’s writing, while plot and character development cease to function in the ways we might expect. “The force of her work,” fellow South African writer Richard Rive explains, “was its honest attention to detail and its complete lack of histrionic gestures.” Tlali herself had this to say in a paper given in Amsterdam to the Committee against Censorship in 1984—a full decade before the end of apartheid— addressing her comments to “the Philistines, the banners of books, [and] the critics”:
We black South African writers (who are faced with the task of conscientising ourselves and our people) are writing for those whom we know are the relevant audience. We are not going to write in order to qualify or fit into your definition of what you describe as “true art.” Our main objective is not to receive ballyhoo comments on our works. What is more important to us is that we should be allowed to reach our audiences. Our duty is to write for our people and about them.
Considering the importance of Tlali’s work, the fact that none of her four published volumes are currently in print is really quite astonishing. It’s all the more unforgivable given that both Muriel at Metropolitan and Amandla were immediately banned upon their initial publication in South Africa. This alone is evidence of their significance, for, as Tlali asks her persecutors in the closing comments of her 1984 paper, “If we write what you so readily describe as ‘devoid of any artistic value,’ ‘too obsessed with politics’ then why are you afraid to let our people read the books? Why do you bury them? Why does the truth hurt you?” I could make a strong argument for republishing all her books, but it’s the revolutionary Muriel at Metropolitan that I think most warrants the rediscovery.
As the academic Barbara Boswell astutely points out, Metropolitan Radio “functions as a microcosm for apartheid South Africa.” It’s a workplace where the segregation laws of the land are played out in miniature, from the “whites only” coatrack to the organization of the filing system. “I had seen apartheid applied in many spheres in the Republic,” Miriam observes early on, “but never before had I seen it applied to a ledger or record cards!” European cards go in one section, non-European cards in another: “It was all very confusing for a person who did not know the different Coloured townships because that was the only clue to where the card could be filed or found,” Muriel explains. “The Coloured names were the same as the European ones. Inevitably a lot of misfiling occurred.” As an isolated anecdote, it verges on the absurd—Tlali possesses the fine ability to write about discrimination in a way that reveals it to be as ridiculous as it is cruel—but none of what Muriel describes exists in isolation. Indeed, the power of the novel’s political message comes from Tlali’s exhaustive detailing of the minutiae of everyday life, and with it the thousands of ways in which apartheid denied the humanity of nonwhite South Africans. As Rive points out, the tone of the book is “subdued by comparison with the anger of earlier Protest Writers”; this isn’t a story that relies on a “major calamity.” What Tlali’s documenting here is a steady war of attrition.
Shortly after she begins working at Metropolitan Radio, Muriel finds herself in trouble for using the ladies’ bathroom. There’s only one bathroom for all the store’s female employees, but by law white and black employees aren’t allowed to use the same facilities, and thus the white women have been complaining. They expect her to use a “filthy” facility that’s “open to anybody from the street,” reeking with the “heavy stench” of “stagnant urine on the floor.” Understandably, this is too much to bear, so she’s forced to leave the store and walk two blocks to the public facilities in the park every time she needs to avail herself, and pay two cents for the privilege. Her boss is pathetically compliant—“I am sorry about this, Muriel,” he tells her, “but you see, we are not all alike. I don’t mind, but some people do, you see.” He’s no Good Samaritan, his fangs come out when he wants to extract as much money as possible from his poorest customers, but as soon as he realizes that Muriel is not just a reliable worker but a well-educated and highly trained one at that, he increases her responsibilities, which in turn angers her white colleagues. Following an argument with one of them, she’s convinced she’s about to be fired. It’s a depressingly familiar fear, we learn, one that “hangs like a dark cloud over the head of every non-white worker.”
It is like that with everything you try to build up in every sphere of your life—your home, your work, your future, the future of your children—everything hangs on a thread. At any moment everything about you can be snapped off just like that. Your fate depends entirely on the whims of the white masters!
Muriel becomes increasingly frustrated by the way she’s treated, but even more agonizingly, she’s plagued by a “gnawing feeling of guilt” about her complicity in the system responsible for such oppression and persecution. Early on, a black colleague explains to her that the high interest rate the shop charges its black customers is “killing our people.” Every time he brings in a new client he feels terrible, he explains, “like I’ve brought him to be slaughtered.” It’s a confession that leaves Muriel feeling completely hopeless. “How was I going to work with people who were not even prepared to give me a chance and who were squeezing as much money as they could out of my own black fellow workers?” she wonders. Each time her boss asks her to be “loyal to the firm,” she feels sick. “Every time I asked for a customer’s pass book,” she explains—identity cards that had to be carried by all nonwhite citizens, restricting where they went—“I would feel like a policeman, who, in this country, is the symbol of oppression. I would continue to feel like a traitor, part of a conspiracy, a machinery deliberately designed to crush the soul of a people.” When, on the final page, she finally decides that she can no longer “continue to be part of the web that has been woven to entangle a people whom I love and am part of,” the penning of her resignation letter brings a rare moment of transcendence. Instead of typing it, she decides to write it in her own hand. Looking down at the finished work she experiences a revelation: “My handwriting had never looked so beautiful. I had at last decided to free myself of the shackles which had bound not only my hands but also my soul.”
Muriel at Metropolitan’s publication was a hard-won struggle and the celebration of its appearance was both tainted and short-lived. Tlali finished writing the novel in 1969, but it took six long years to find a South African publisher. Raven Press took it on, but with a caveat—they insisted on removing passages from the text that they thought would offend the country’s literary watchdog, the Censorship Board. The title Tlali had proposed and preferred, Between Two Worlds, was vetoed by Raven Press. When the book was reissued in 2004 under its original title, Tlali recalled in the preface just how disheartening the first publication had actually been. “I returned to my matchbox house in Soweto, locked myself in my little bedroom and cried,” she wrote. “Five whole chapters had been removed; also paragraphs, phrases, and sentences. It was devastating, to say the least.” Even more distressingly, this already drastic censorship didn’t satisfy the Censorship Board. They took umbrage with the redacted text and the novel was swiftly banned in South Africa. Tlali—who was born in Doornfontein, Johannesburg, in 1933 and studied at the University of the Witwatersrand (until it was closed to black students) and afterward at Roma University in Lesotho—was often harassed by the secret police. Boswell writes that when she interviewed Tlali in 2006, the latter described being “brutally beaten in her home in Soweto by police on several occasions.” Tlali also told Boswell how during these years she got into the habit of wrapping her manuscripts-in-progress in “plastic shopping bags at the end of each day, and bury[ing] them in her back yard to avoid police confiscating them during [the] raids” they made on her home, as well as being forced to find ways of smuggling them back into the country after traveling abroad. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Tlali refused to go into exile. Instead, she kept writing—“fighting the system with my pen—the only way I could.” She helped establish Skotaville Press (which published her third book, Mihloti, in1984), and Staffrider, the only literary journal in South Africa that published the work of nonwhite writers during apartheid, and to which she was also a regular contributor. She was a fierce advocate for women’s rights—central to her work is the demonstration of how the black woman is doubly oppressed, by the racial discrimination of apartheid and by the inequalities of the patriarchal society in which she lives.
Although the significance of Tlali’s work is increasingly being acknowledged within academic circles—especially since her death, two years ago, in 2017—wider readership is what had always really mattered to her. Tlali fought passionately for her own voice and that of other South African women writers to be heard—“We must bring back living memories of our noble past (and true past) which have nearly been eradicated from our minds by the hatred, strife, and greed of others” she argued in Amsterdam in 1984—it behooves us to do the same for her now.
Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for the NYR Daily, the Financial Times,The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications.