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The Late Bloomer

by Boitshepo Mvulane

I’m here to brag, but let me start by embarrassing myself.

I recently fell in love with African Literature. I’ve been a reader for a while but my appreciation of African Literature was limited to what was accessible in mainstream circulation: titles like I Write What I Like by Steve Biko and Down 2nd Avenue by Es’kia Mphahlele, but not much more. That was until I encountered Kgauhelo Dube’s Long Story SHORT, a project that promotes African Literature through live readings, where famous personalities read short stories or excerpts by African writers.

The readings are packaged into literary podcasts for mobile and online platforms.

I was invited to one of these when I encountered the people’s bookseller, African Flavour Books, where for the first time I saw books I’d only read about in newspapers. I’m talking Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, K. Sello Duiker, NoViolet Bulawayo, all lying supine, under the sun, in their gorgeous dust jackets.

Impulse got the better of me, my tight fist loosened, and when I left the place I no longer had a budget.

There’d also been an enlightening panel discussion concerning access to books -a topic I could go on and on about- but none of that felt so important anymore, now I was mesmerized, it had been love at first sight, and I was determined to find all African authors that my typical bookstore at the mall doesn’t want to tell me about.

Let me give you a taste of some recent jewels I found this year:

When a movie is as successful as Happiness Is A Four-Letter Word, you want to find the book that was so good someone thought it deserved to be a Box Office blockbuster. So you search for the book, find it, read it, and it turns out to be the classic case of the book being better than its adaptation.

Cynthia Jele: When is next book coming out?

Way Back Home by Niq Mhlongo is a melodious, funny, grave story with an unforgettable plot. Yes, books can be melodious, and in this gem Niq Mhlongo will introduce you to singers you’ve never heard of. You’ll be reading and you’ll find you can’t help but pause to Google the song. He will have you teary with those heart-wrenching struggle songs. The book will haunt you, it’ll make you laugh till you cry, and you’ll be angry.

Rehana Rossouw’s title, What Will People Say, is inviting. I loved it. Not because it was shortlisted for the 2015 Etisalat Prize. Not because it gives the reader a vivid tour of the violent life in Hanover Park. But because Rehana Rossouw paints a family life that could well have been yours.

Then there’s Tumelo Moleleki, who in the last five years, has self-published three books: The Dry Tears of a Bleeding Child; Her Heart; and His Joy. Tumelo is easily reachable, always ready to engage, and she makes you appreciate the effort that goes into birthing a book and then also be responsible for its growth because when you are self-published, it’s up to you to market your work. She also reminds you of the joy in reading South African authors, who are mostly responsive and easy to engage with.

I’ve heard it said many times that parents should love their children equally in spite of their differences. Zukiswa Wanner gives you a great lesson in this through her Men Of The South and Maid In SA. Read both, one after another, and try to choose a favourite between these very different babies.

Good luck to you.

People say:

A Man Who Is Not A Man is still a man,” or “I thought the author is a woman, how can A Man Who Is Not A Man be a man?”

These are some of the funniest things I’ve heard about this poignant book. I still struggle to talk about it except to quote the author, Thando Mgqolozana’s own epigraph, “There’s no longer any such thing as fiction and non-fiction, there’s only narrative.” – E. L. Doctorow

Me: Have you read Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle?

Them: No! Sounds like a dangerous pastime!

I’m still laughing at this accurate observation about the title from one of the best books I’ve read this year. Other than that, the title I mean, you’ll love it for its flamboyant display of the beauty of isiXhosa language. I don’t speak isiXhosa but at no point did I feel left out when the author, Sindiwe Magona, went to her mother tongue to borrow descriptions. Everyone deserves to meet Jojo, this feminist father from the 1940s in rural Eastern Cape.

Mhudi by Sol T. Plaatje is the first published South African English novel by a black writer. Plaatje skilfully combines the politics of the day between Batswana and Amazulu amidst shady Boer settlement, with a beautiful romance.

I started with Under The Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta followed immediately by The Hairdresser Of Harare by Tendai Huchu. In the former, the protagonist is lesbian in Nigeria, in the ‘70s, a time where you could be burnt alive for being a homosexual and no one would care. The religious fanaticism is so deep you want to laugh but the sadness won’t let you. The Hairdresser Of Harare, on the other hand, is a story of how Vimbai, an average Christian woman trying her best to secure a good future for her daughter, meets Dumi, a young gay man who can’t openly be himself because, well, Zimbabwe. And family. Great pair, these books, on awareness of just how hard it is to be yourself when what you do in the privacy of your own space is regarded so unacceptable it’ll have you killed.

Whether you’ve read bra’Zakes Mda before or not, his memoirs, Sometimes There Is A Void, is one book you will enjoy. I like to say that the bravest truths are told through fiction, but here the author strips himself of all inhibition and from the bottom of his heart, pours out the story of his life with all its colours of emotions.

You know how there is this attitude among Africans of regarding our siblings born or raised outside Africa as not African enough? Well, I found it in Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi; a beautifully written, thought provoking conversation starter spanning 250 years and seven generations.

In a country where rape statistics are already beyond don’t-walk-in-the-street kind of scary, Pumla Dineo Gqola’s book, Rape: A South African Nightmare, should be in every household. The author manages to take what could easily have been laden with dizzying academic jargon, and explains it in a way that is accessible to the lay reader. She touches on blind spots that even the most sensitive or ‘informed’ person could have missed.

In February, when all things are red and heart-shaped, Gcina Mhlophe’s Love Child is probably the best gift for bae. Better still, read it to each other every night. These are poems and short stories; a balanced mix of laughter, melancholy and reminiscence.


I’m running out of breath.

A parting shot:

Thabiso Mahlape’s Blackbird Books has new, exciting titles, including Unathi Magubeni’s poetic Nwelezelanga; Panashe Chigumadzi’s sweet, Sweet Medicine; and Piggy Boy’s Blues by our dancing author, Nakhane Touré. I’ve read them, loved them, and will write more about them in another entry.


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