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. Read More