Books – A different kind of revolution

2010-10-09 16:47

He spent most of his life ­engaged in a revolution to overthrow the apartheid regime, but now, Letlapa Mphahlele, author of the highly successful autobiography Child of this Soil – My life as a Freedom Fighter, is engaged in a revolution of a different kind.

Mphahlele has just reprinted 10?000 copies of the book through his ­publishing company, Mwalimu Books, ­after parting ways with his publisher, Kwela Books, under which Child of this Soil sold an impressive 7?000 copies.

As part of his grand plan to ensure that Child of this Soil reaches even more ­children of this soil and those across the seas, Mphahlele will ­soon relaunch the book – which is currently being ­translated into more than 10 African languages, including Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, Kiswahili, and all of South Africa’s official languages, excluding the San ­languages – in Mokopane in Limpopo.

“We will be cautious with the numbers we print in indigenous languages, ­especially in South Africa, because people here just don’t read and it is even worse when it comes to indigenous languages,” he says.

Mphahlele advises that writers need to take charge of their works beyond the writing process, hence he decided to go the self-publishing route through ­Mwalimu Books.

“Self-publishing is the best way to go. I realise that these people we call publishers do nothing. They are just brokers, middlemen,” he says.

“I regard myself as a writer when I’m writing, but once that is done, I become a sales person. Whenever I travel – at the airport, taxi rank, everywhere – I carry copies to sell because, you never know, you may meet someone in the toilet who is interested in buying a copy.

“In fact, I have made more money from personal sales of the book than I have made from royalties. People write a book, and then fold their arms and they are content that they’ve written a book, but honestly speaking, being a writer won’t put a plate of pap on the table. Writers must learn to take charge of their work beyond the writing,” he says.

Mphahlele is also president of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) and a member of Parliament.

Child of this Soil was first published in September 2002 with a print run of 3?500 and went for another print run two months later. It became Kwela’s best ­seller that year and was nominated for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction Award.

In 2003 it was prescribed for third-year literature students at Vista ­University in the Free State and was ­voted by readers in that province as one of the top 20 books that changed their ­understanding of history.

The book is a gripping tale of ­Mphahlele’s life – from his humble ­beginnings in a rural Limpopo village to his wanderings across several African countries where he lived as and trained as an exiled member of the PAC’s ­military wing, the Azanian People’s ­Liberation Army (Apla).

It also covers his return home as Apla’s director of operations in the ­early 1990s and his role in the bloody massacres ­carried out by the organisation on white civilians as retaliation for the third force-fuelled violence on black South ­Africans at the time.

“Although the book has not won any literary awards, I believe that by selling 7 000 copies, it has won 7 000 awards ­because reaching a reader is an award in itself to me,” he says.

Mphahlele believes writers need to help create a culture of reading among the youth by donating books to schools and helping to establish book clubs. In this way, we create a generation of readers.

“Look, this is probably not a very good example, but drug peddlers depend on addiction for their business to boom. In the same way, writers must help create a culture of reading to create future ­readers. We must start when they are young.”

Perhaps that way, more South Africans will embrace the wonderful hobby of reading and get to sample some ­orgasmic writing, as displayed in this ­passage from Child of this Soil where Mphahlele wrote about life in Dukwe ­refugee camp in Botswana: “The Basotho men lifted this song, their bodies soaked in the sweat of a dance they learnt in South African mines in days gone by.

I joined them because music is infectious: it both begs for and demands your ears.

 It wounds when it’s summoned to heal. It urges us to forget at the same time that it tickles the ­memory awake.

It fills the air, flows through the bloodstream and carries the singer and his audience to the edge of the universe, where only imagination can reach.

It abandons them there, lost and enjoying their new state. We sang after every football match, whether we had won or lost.”

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