Foremost South African female novelist, scholar, and activist Mariam Tlali recently died at the age of 83 at a nursing home in Parktown, Johannesburg.
Tlali, who died on Friday, February 24th, became the first Black female writer to have a novel published in Apartheid South Africa with the release of her first novel, entitled “Muriel at Metropolitan,” in 1975, which was semi-autobiographical and inspired by her experiences as a Black female bookkeeper and administrative assistant at a furniture shop in a heavily racially segregated Johannesburg. The novel was completed in 1969, but it was not published until 1975.
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In graphic detail, the novel described the humiliation suffered by Black South Africans under the Apartheid regime and painted a vivid picture of the degrading conditions under which African women labored during segregation.
“Muriel and the Metropolitan” was originally titled “Between Two Worlds” by Tlali, but her publishers changed it, fearing that the book would be banned by South Africa’s Apartheid government.
“They told me that the book would be banned because my preferred title was too political, but Muriel at Metropolitan didn’t capture the weight of the novel and the message it conveys. Muriel sounded like a corruption of Miriam but they had a final say,” Tlali explained in an interview.
Tlali eventually gave in to her publisher’s demands because she wanted the book published just in time for her terminally sick Mother to see it before she died.
At least five chapters were removed from the book, including several paragraphs, sentences, and phrases. However, notwithstanding, the book went on to become a global success. And just like her publishers feared, the South African authorities banned “Muriel and the Metropolitan” for a seven-year period between 1979 and 1986.
Tlali’s life as a Black, female writer living under Apartheid was punctuated by persecution by the Special Branch police, but she refused to be silenced.
She published other works, including essays, interviews, and short stories. In 1980, she published “Amandla,” a novel based on the Soweto Uprising of 1976. It was also banned in South Africa.
Her many writings about segregation made her an enemy of the Apartheid state and a target of constant harassment and intimidation.
Born on November 11, 1933, in Doornfontein, Tlali was raised in Sophiatown and went to school in the neighbouring Western Native Township. For her life’s work as an author, she was a recipient of several awards and honors, including the prestigious Order of Ikhamanga.
Tlali was laid to rest at Westpark Cemetery in Johannesburg amid eulogies and encomiums from the South African literary community, with South African President Jacob Zuma expressing his grief at the loss of the literary icon with the following statement:
We have learned with deep sadness of the passing of one of the country’s internationally celebrated black female authors, Ms. Tlali, who played a critical role during the liberation struggle by telling a true South African story through her anti-apartheid novels, amongst other writings.
We wish to convey our deepest condolences to her family, relatives and all in the arts and culture industry. May her soul rest in peace.
Watch Tlali discuss her life and work here: