Between Two Worlds: Literary Pioneer

Miriam Tlali, Grant Awarded 1998

The first black woman to publish a novel in South Africa is now 81 and still living in the same house in Soweto. Human Rights Watch went to visit:

Miriam Tlali in Johannesburg in 2014, for photographer Adrian Steirn’s 21 Icons project. Photo by Gary Van Wyk
Miriam Tlali in Johannesburg in 2014, for photographer Adrian Steirn’s 21 Icons project. Photo by Gary Van Wyk

You say in the introduction to Between Two Worlds that had you not started writing in 1964, you would have lost your senses. Why?

I was suffering. And I was angry. But I was also trying to satisfy my mother. She had struggled hard to educate us as a widow and I dared not disappoint her. So I was studying and reading books all the time. I could not stay away from books. That is the only thing that kept me sane.

You finished the manuscript in 1969. It collected dust for six years. Did you ever think you would find a publisher?

No, never! My mother used to carry a copy of the manuscript around, wrapped in a cloth. There were quite a number [of publishers] whom I tried and they all turned it down. Finally, the system gradually changed, and in 1974 somebody told me about Raven Press. However, they changed the title to Muriel at Metropolitan and took out words and whole passages. They said it would be banned otherwise and they would not be making any money off it.

I refused for a year to give my permission to publish. “Not under that title,” I said. But my mother started complaining: “I am getting old and I shall die without seeing your book. Let them publish it.” And so it was published [and almost immediately banned].

What did you feel when you finally held a copy of your novel in your hand?

I felt like I had won some kind of battle against the system. I knew at least my words would be read somewhere in this world. But at the same time I felt ashamed about the title and the fact that they had taken so much out of the manuscript.

You once said that a book can remake a person. How did this book remake you?

It brought me up. It made me meet a lot people from all over the world. By the time I had gone through all the [book] tours, I was a different person altogether. The fact that my mother died a few months after the book was published contributed to my desire to go on fighting the system. Now I was going to fight them as a writer.

Now that South Africa has become a democracy, is there anything left to write about as a “struggle” writer?

I think the situation now is so different from what we looked forward to. You cannot say we are totally free. Seeing people living without toilets or jobs in a so-called free country, it’s debilitating. But at least what it has done, this freedom of ours, it has made our women become more confident and trust in themselves.

What did you spend the Hellman-Hammett grant on?

I built my study. Something my husband never thought could happen. He wanted me to build it upstairs, a double-story. I refused. I said, “You must improve the house, not me” [laughs]. There it is, outside, this place I am so proud of. Two rooms with a small kitchen, so that I did not have to move up and down all the time while writing, and a bathroom. I used to live in it. Sometimes I even slept in it. And all the letters I exchanged with the grantmakers are still there, on the shelves.

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