Book Review | Remnants of Miriam Tlali

BARBARA BOSWELL

EDITED by esteemed feminist literary critic Pumla Dineo Gqola, Miriam Tlali: Writing Freedom presents a kaleidoscopic view of Miriam Tlali’s life and writing. 

The book’s most significant contribution may be that it renders into print, for the first time, a previously unpublished play by the pioneering writer. The text of the play, Crimen Injuria, landed fortuitously with Gqola after a chance encounter at the State Theatre in Pretoria, where a stranger offered it to her, having found it at the theatre. 

Understanding Writing Freedom’s significance hinges on understanding the significance of Tlali in South African literature. Born in 1933 in Doornfontein, Johannesburg, Tlali was one of the country’s most prolific and important yet under-recognised writers, carving out a career as a novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist and playwright despite oppressive apartheid laws.

Known for being the first Black South African woman to publish a novel in English inside the country, Muriel at Metropolitan in 1975, Tlali was also the first writer within its borders to render, in a nuanced and sensitive way, the subjectivity of an African woman as she battled against the constraints of apartheid. Her novel marks the first instance of a Black South African woman’s consciousness being vocalised through first-person narration, rendering the “I” for the first time in South African history from the point-of-view of a Black woman.

The significance of this mode of representation cannot be understated in a literary tradition in which African women were portrayed in stultifying stereotype as either mothers, sex objects or victims. 

Consider, for example, the lauded Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country, which established for him a lasting global legacy. In this 1948 novel, Paton describes one of the few Black women depicted in the novel, Ma Kumalo, as “silent, with the patient suffering of black women, with the suffering of oxen, with the suffering of any that are mute”.

It is against such ossifying tropes of African womanhood that Tlali blazed her writing trail.

Through Tlali’s texts

Her protagonist, Muriel, is an educated Black woman working in a furniture store in downtown Johannesburg during the height of apartheid. Through Muriel’s eyes, the reader navigates the store, experiencing along with her the countless indignities of moving through its space, a “whites only” enclave. She also provides a politically astute narration of the pass laws, labour laws and other apartheid atrocities affecting her life. 

The novel brought Tlali both international acclaim and violence from the apartheid regime. In this overview of Tlali’s life, along with excerpts of her contributions, Gqola details how the writer was harassed by the police’s Special Branch after Muriel at Metropolitan was banned. So bad was this persecution that Tlali resorted to burying her work-in-progress in plastic bags in her backyard after every writing day, in an attempt to prevent its destruction.

Tlali went on to publish a second novel, Amandla, in 1980, which detailed the 1976 uprising in Soweto from the perspective of a number of young students engaged in the struggle. This was followed by an essay and short story collection, Mihloti, published in 1984, and in 1989, a collection of short stories called Footprints in the Quag (also published as Soweto Stories).

While during her lifetime Tlali suffered a lack of critical attention to her work, often derided as stenographic or mere reportage by critics such as Lewis Nkosi, her literary legacy has burgeoned since her death in 2017. This is partly owing to the effort of a small number of feminist literary critics who have steadily engaged with and reappraised her work, and also because of the insistence on decolonising university curricula by the student movements Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall.

Tlali’s renewed prominence as the “first” Black South African woman to publish a novel in English is thus rising. However, Gqola cautions against this tendency to valorise Tlali for her number of “firsts”. 

“Being ‘the first’ appears celebratory but the label actually hides the violence that erases lineage as well as the brutality the pioneer herself is subjected to in the process of being cast as ‘the first’ Black woman to publish in an English language novel inside the country. It is a ‘burden designed as an honour’,’’ writes Gqola. She says this idea of Tlali’s significance is reductive, as it glosses over her aesthetic and political contributions as a writer.

Moving away from the painful designation of “first” Black woman writer, Gqola, in Writing Freedom, reframes Tlali’s contribution. The wealth of her literary contribution lies also in her depiction of Black women: “Everywhere in Tlali’s work, Black women are rendered as complex characters with rich interior lives. The author returns to layered relationships between different generations of Black women and antagonistic relationships between women across race,” writes Gqola.

Reframing Tlali

In her critical assessment of Tlali’s contribution, Gqola conceptualises Tlali as a Black feminist who was a key thinker on feminist community, on Black subjectivity, and an important theorist on race and rape. 

Gqola includes in the collection, in full, the play Crimen Injuria, as it had been “lost” until now, and because of its complexity in treating rape. The play was written while Tlali was in residency in Leiden in the Netherlands in 1986, and was performed in the city and at Yale University.

Whereas Black male writers created a trope about the rape of Black women that located the “harm” caused and the rage produced by rape as belonging to Black men (for having “their” women raped), for Gqola, Tlali reversed this trope: “Tlali returns the relationships Black women have with rape to what I have dubbed the ‘manufacture of female fear’ elsewhere, across her prose in ways that radically differ from the writing of her peers. The rage belongs to Black women characters and readers in Tlali’s work.”

It is a bitter irony that despite the renaissance of Tlali’s writing, her most important works of fiction remain out of print in South Africa and the rest of the world. This volume thus does the important work of gathering excerpts of her writing in one compendium that offers readers a broad sampling of her styles and genres. 

Writing Freedom contains a number of interviews with Tlali as well as her interviews with prominent political figures such as Lilian Ngoyi. As a founder member and regular contributor to the Black Consciousness journal Staffrider, Tlali offered space to other Black women, as she understood well the pain of erasure from South African literary criticism.

Gqola draws on the concept of the “scattered archive” – a phrase coined by artist Nontobeko Ntombela – to make meaning of Tlali’s legacy. Noting how Tlali’s work was stolen by researchers and how the manuscript for Crimen Injuria was lost for decades, Gqola notes that “even when everything is pulled together, the scattered-ness remains”. Tlali’s work, buried physically and metaphorically, is an incomplete oeuvre, one that as a literary contribution “cannot be brought together fully”. Because of apartheid, sexism, police harassment and blatant theft, we might never know what remains missing, or where these remains of a literary life are located. Writing Freedom goes some way towards gathering this fragmented archive.

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