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Soweto Stories by Miriam Tlali

“Do you think you can build an island of comfort and safety around you when everyone else is oppressed?”



It’s a new year and that means I have a new reading list on the cards. My priority this year is to read at least one book representing each African country. Let’s call it reading Africa. I am excited for what that the year has in store for me. My first book of the year is ‘Soweto Stories’ by Miriam Tlali published in 1989 by Pandora Press. This collection of stories was published in South Africa as ‘Footsteps in the Quag: Stories and Dialogues from Soweto.’ Miriam Tlali is an important writer in the history of South African literature, she is known as the first black woman writer to have published a book in South Africa. Knowing the history of South Africa and the censorship that came with apartheid, her work is very important. This collection of short stories centres on the struggle against apartheid, liberation and its meaning to different people. Lauretta Ngcobo’s introduction does a good job in bringing the reader and the writer together. From the first sentence the reader is made to understand that, ‘A South African woman writer in the 1980s is a rare find,’ and after reading this collection I wanted to find out more about Miriam Tlali. Some of her work was banned from publication and the culmination of these stories into a book is evidence of the many layers of fighting, contributing to the fight against apartheid and the erasure of the realities of black people in an apartheid state. Reading this book reminded me to a greater extent of Ellen Kuzwayo’s ‘Call Me Woman’ a non fiction book that I read last year (you can read my review here). While ‘Soweto Stories’ is a fictional book, it aptly mirrors most of the realities of the apartheid era enunciated in ‘Call Me Woman.’ Reading such kind of works always has me asking just how divorced is fiction from reality.

‘Soweto Stories’ consists of ten stories that show the nature and effect of the struggle against apartheid for the people of Soweto. Some of the themes in the book are unity, liberation, womanhood, the place of religion in the face of apartheid, community, storytelling, racism and resistance. Storytelling is a very important tool in ensuring that in the future history is not rewritten to serve the interests of those who have been known to be perpetrators of injustice. In ‘Fud-u-u-a!’ it is the chanting of the distressed commuters in the crowded trains and train centres that puts the emphasis on the discomfort caused by the crowding. The stirring of the pot. The commuters compete to get on the crowded trains to go to work or to find their way back home where they live in ‘matchboxes,’ crowded still in small houses built closely together. The chant highlights to the reader the discomfort in fighting for space and the need for a release. During this era, there was competition for space, in the locations, in the trains, land and jobs. The fight for space to breathe and to be free. The shuffling, brushing and bumping against one another is a reflection of the fight in the daily lives of the oppressed. In ‘The Point of No Return,’ the power of storytelling is shown through the use of song. Song has been known to unite people during the good and bad times to put the feelings into words. Think of the miners who are said to have sung for long hours as the dug the earth for its minerals, to make the task bearable. The freedom fighters who are said to have made up war songs to help them to soldier on, singing unto freedom.

Unity is an important theme in most of the short stories. In ‘Metamorphosis,’ (which is one of my favourite stories from the collection Mavis asks her husband Velaphi, why he thinks he can run away from the struggle by changing location. Mavis’s consciousness to the struggle and its importance is crucial because from the collection, in the middle of the fight against apartheid, it is one of the most forthright stances by a woman. “Do you think you can build an island of comfort and safety around you when everyone else is oppressed?” (Page 87) What Tlali emphasizes is, unless the people are one/united, the war cannot be won. For the battle to be won one has to take solidarity seriously, ‘“Injury to one oppressed is injury to all,” they say. We all have to change.’ (Page 92) The reader sees this in action in ‘The Point of No Return,’ where Mojalefa and some men take it upon themselves to make sacrifices leaving their families to fight for freedom. All the people are disadvantaged to various degrees because of the oppression but coming together to tackle it is what makes freedom a possibility. It is in ‘Dimomona,’ that the reader is made to realize that the various degrees of oppression just show that everyone has to take charge in whatever capacity that they can to contribute to the freedom of the collective. The contrast between Boitumelo being the ‘boss-boy’ which makes him feel some power over his subordinates and the Boitumelo who is still rendered powerless outside his boss’s gates because the bottom line is he is a black man who is subject to the apartheid regime’s laws and is disposable. The little comforts that some who ought to reason and fight with their oppressed kins are offered by the oppressors are nothing but just that, little personal comforts that can be snatched on a whim and do nothing to serve the bigger battle for freedom. This is true for any fight.

I enjoyed this collection because of Tlali’s descriptive power, the historical importance and current relevance of the themes explored. There are pockets of humor here and there, that was refreshing because the overarching mood of the book is heavy, which is expected because of the setting and period of the stories. It is clear to see that Tlali had a deep knowledge of Soweto and writes from a place of knowledge, honesty, care and more importantly resistance. This collection had me thinking of individual and collective oppression, individual and collective resistance and the meaning of freedom. This was my first time reading Tlali and this will not be my last!


Book Details

Title: Soweto Stories

Author: Miriam Tlali

Genre: Short stories anthology

Pages: 140

Publisher: Pandora List (1989)

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