I was sad to hear of the recent passing of South Africa’s first black woman novelist, Miriam Tlali. A loss for the country, I also felt it personally. Because I once met this world-famous author and spent a few days in her company.
Unfortunately, I now realise, I failed to make the most of this experience. I have, belatedly, figured out why. At the time I met Tlali, long ago, I was young and she was nearly twice my age.
Older People can be Invisible
I have learned, as I have aged, that older people can be invisible to the youth – and older women even more so. Older black women can be most invisible of all. I mean that as women grow older they tend to be ignored and unseen. An exacerbating factor is the common view that as women grow older they are less worth looking at.
Tlali was the author of two novels published in the 1980s, Between Two Worlds (initially entitled Muriel at Metropolitan), on the indignities of petty apartheid, and Amandla, on the 1976 Soweto uprising.
I am ashamed to admit that My Old Young Self did not pay enough attention when I had the good fortune to spend some time with Tlali. For obscure logistical reasons relating to my possession of a valid driver’s license, I had the privilege of travelling in a kombi full of writers from Staffrider magazine on a road trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town and back in 1979. My role was partly as a fellow writer and journalist, but mainly as a back-up driver.
A Long Slow Drive with Ma Miriam
That was the year that that South Africa’s speed limit went as low as 70 kph on rural roads, you may recall. If you don’t, Google “South African fuel crisis 1979” and you’ll learn that the toppling of the Shah of Iran threatened the fuel supply to the tip of Africa. Which meant that a round trip by car from Johannesburg to Cape Town took a lot longer than it does today. So I had a lot of time with Ma Miriam, as she was called then by us youngsters.
When we finally arrived at the University of Cape Town – all-white in those days of apartheid – the writers, all black, tumbled out of the kombi and made their entry to the cultural conference, late and loudly. They proceeded to read their works, in a manner that is now labelled “disruptive”.
Poetry Readings – Spoken Word
Those writers made a strong impression on me when they took the stage to perform what is now known as Spoken Word. Poets like Ingoapele Madingoane commanded attention as he recited his poems in a rich, booming baritone. It was in a smaller, lighter voice that Miriam Tlali read her work. Just as I failed to “see” her, I must have failed to “hear” her too.
I talked about these concerns with one of the writers who had been on on that memorable trip, Mtutuzeli Matshoba, whose debut work, Call Me Not a Man, was published by Ravan Press in 1979. He told me that he too reproached himself for not sufficiently valuing Tlali.
“Older women like Ma Miriam tend to retire into their own space. So if you want to find them you’ve got to go and look for them.”
– writer Mtutuzeli Matshoba
Matshoba’s collection of stories was launched at Thali’s house in Soweto after she encouraged him to hold the event in the township. He worries that she was ignored while still alive and only remembered with her passing.
“The Department of Arts and Culture is now the Department of Condolences,” lamented Matshoba. He wishes he had spent more time with Tlali “to gain more of her wisdom”.
A Female Writer’s Perspective
I sought out another friend from those days, a woman writer who knew Tlali from when she was growing up in Soweto. Nomavenda Mathiane, author of the recent Zulu historical novel, Eyes in the Night, once traveled with Tlali as a group of South African women writers to the UK.
Mathiane agrees that Tlali didn’t get the attention she deserved, considering the obstacles she had to overcome to succeed – as a black under apartheid, and as a woman.
“Miriam taught us that writing a book is doable by us. She was generous to fellow writers, she would pester me to write. For me, she was a trailblazer.”
– writer Nomavenda Mathiane
I confided to Mathiane my regrets about that time I spent with Tlali and that group of writers. I confessed to having focused on the fellow 20-somethings, who were all male – and not on this much older person, the only female in the group.
“You were probably overwhelmed by those suave black men from the township who knew it all,” Nomavenda consoled me.
“Look at how young people today can marginalise us. Even me, I am seen as a gogo (granny) who goes about with her grandchildren, rather than as a writer. One day the young ones will get to where we are, and then they will have their regrets.”
– Nomavenda Mathiane