The late Miriam Tlali was the first black woman to publish a novel in South Africa. She died on 24 February 2017. Tlali was 83 years old.
In his tribute to the late renowned novelist, Miriam Tlali, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa described her as a literary legend and a trailblazer.
“Those of us who have met Mama Miriam Tlali in literary and conversational spaces have found her to be inimitable and with an indomitable spirit,” the minister said. “She also had an unflinching sense of the importance of writing on the wellbeing of society.”
Born on 11 November 1933 in Doornfontein, in Johannesburg, Tlali was the first black South African woman to have a book published in English. Called Muriel at Metropolitan, it was published in 1975, even though she had written it six years earlier.
The story is based on her own experiences as an administrative assistant in a furniture shop in Johannesburg during the apartheid years. But Tlali was not happy with the printed publication.
“I returned to my matchbox house in Soweto, locked myself in my little bedroom and cried… Five whole chapters had been removed; also paragraphs, phrases, and sentences. It was devastating, to say the least,” wrote Barbara Boswell about Tlali’s reaction on The Conversation.
Tlali also preferred the original title of the book, Between Two Worlds, because she said: “I knew it was speaking against the system, against what I saw happening. I knew it wouldn’t be accepted. But I didn’t really mind about that. At least I had vented out all that was hurting me inside.”
Apartheid authorities banned the book, but it gained traction internationally.
Boswell wrote about Tlali’s return from her residency at Iowa State University in the US, when she had to have a manuscript smuggled off the plane because police were waiting for her to confiscate political and related material.
“Tlali gave her manuscript to an American on board the flight while waiting to deplane. She quietly retrieved it from the American embassy at a later date.”
Her second book, Amandla, published in 1980, deals with the 1976 student uprising in Soweto. It too was banned.
Tlali established Skotaville Press and published a collection of interviews, essays and short stories, Mihloti, in 1984.
She assisted in the drafting of the preamble to the country’s Women’s Charter and was a member of the Women’s National Coalition.
Awards and recognition
Her excellence and commitment to her craft has been recognised numerous times. Tlali received the Lifetime Achievement award in the South African Literary Awards, and in 2008, she was given a National Order, the Order of Ikhamanga (silver).
The importance of writing
Mthethwa said Tlali remained passionate about writing. “When I recently visited her, she especially wanted to ensure that girl children and young women would be able to attain an education, especially in literature.”