Book Review: Bury me at the market place

2011-02-05 12:20

Bury Me At The Marketplace: Es’kia Mphahlele and Company, Letters 1943-2006, is an expanded edition of NC Manganyi’s Bury Me At The Marketplace: Selected Letters of Es’Kia Mphahlele, 1943-1980, a companion volume to his ­Exiles And Homecomings: A ­Biography Of Es’Kia Mphahlele.

This volume includes letters to Mphahlele (the first collection only had letters from Mphahlele to others) and his correspondence with Wole Soyinka, Kofi Awoonor, the Reverend Arthur Blaxall and poet Sonia Sanchez.

It covers the period November 1943 to February 2006 and includes letters to Nadine Gordimer, Lionel Abrahams, Chinua Achebe, Dennis Brutus and Langston Hughes, whose Harlem Renaissance impacted on Mphahlele’s Drum magazine writings in the 1950s.

It opens with his letters to his mentor and benefactor, Norah Taylor.

Enriching this collection is a preface by Manganyi, David Attwell’s introductory essay and Manganyi’s ­interviews with Mphahlele.

Manganyi offers a broad sweep on Mphahlele’s life, analysing his views on the craft of writing autobiographies, and focusing on his works – The Wanderers, his two biographies, Down Second Avenue and Africa My Music, and his novel, Chirundu.

These letters illustrate his African humanism, reaching out to others emotionally, intellectually, showing compassion, and the networks that shaped his personal and intellectual life.

A discerning feature of his letters is the tyranny of place and the insecurities of exile – more so from 1973 ­onwards – and wanting to return home and teach his own people.

The tensions of the black-white South African literary world are ­revealed in the exchanges between Mphahlele, Guy Butler and Dennis Brutus regarding Butler’s invitation to join his board of advisory editors for the ISEA series on South Africa.

Here, he writes to Butler, asking: “What is in it for blacks to be on the boards of a publication controlled by those who have the money and power ... unless the institution that it is in is determined to acknowledge the banned and the exiled.”

Attwell traces his wanderings in ­exile in Nigeria, Paris, Kenya, Zambia and the US, where he taught at and completed his PhD at Denver University, and also taught at the University of Pennsylvania.

It was in these countries that he flowered as editor of Black Orpheus and as cultural organiser (arranging the famous conference of writers at Makerere University in 1962), participated as founder of the Nigerian Mbari Writers’ and Artists’ Club and completed his first autobiography (Down Second Avenue).

He rubbed shoulders with literary greats such as Wole Soyinka and brought Alex la Guma and Dennis Brutus to international readership.

Mphahlele moved to Paris in 1961 as director of African programmes at the Congress for Cultural Freedom. He then moved to Nairobi in 1963 and founded Chemchemi, a cultural centre modelled on Mbari and funded by the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

Not realising at that time that the congress was a CIA front, a furious Mphahlele wrote in Transition magazine that “the CIA stinks”.

Writing to Makhudu Rammopo from Zambia while lecturing in English at the University of Zambia, he asserts: “White retreads in African universities are ­always going to set the pace.”

In 1976 Mphahlele returned to South Africa on a temporary visa to attend a conference of the Black Studies Institute and then permanently in 1977 after 19 years in exile.

This section outlines the political and academic intrigues of not being appointed as professor of English at the University of the North, and the vindictiveness of the apartheid regime and the Transkei government in ­instructing the University of Transkei not to appoint him.

He accepted ­employment as inspector of education in Lebowa and in 1979 was appointed senior research fellow at the African Studies Institute of Wits University.

This is a must-read for scholars of literature.

» Abdul S Bemath compiled The Mazruiana ­Collection Revisited

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