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PHASWANE MPES FIRST NOVEL (article first published : 2001-07-17)

"I never had a strong urge to write until I got so depressed that I was contemplating suicide," says Phaswane Mpe. "And then I realised I had a responsibility to myself, to show my friends and family that they didn't love and support me for nothing."

Mpe, who lectures in African literature and Publishing Studies at Wits University, was talking at the Grahamstown Festival's Wordfest where his novel Welcome to our Hillbrow was launched by the University of Natal Press. It is his first novel, following poems and short stories published in a variety of journals. Welcome to our Hillbrow also represents a new venture for the publisher. In the past, the University Press has concentrated mainly on non-fiction works and poetry, and this is the only first novel they have so far put on their list a vote of confidence in its author.

Mpe describes himself as a reader rather than a writer, who came to writing through an unusual route. As a student doing Honours at Wits, he was co-editor of a student journal. "We didn't have enough stories of the right length, so I wrote one, just to fill in the space," he says. He wrote about a student who, after completing his degree was struck by lightning, leaving his mother who died of grief.

"Then my own mother was the victim of a lightning strike. She wasn't killed, but I didn't want to publish the story after that," he says. To publish felt like tempting fate. However, funding for the journal had been granted, and there was pressure on Mpe to get it out. "I showed the story to one of my fellow students who was a poet and he said to me, 'You love your mother; you didn't wish anything to happen to her. You have to publish'."

And from there Mpe went on to write more stories, dealing with issues of the urban/rural divide, education, frustrated hopes, love and sexuality. All these topics are also dealt with in Welcome to our Hillbrow, along with AIDS and xenophobia, something Mpe sees as a very worrying trend in South Africa. "I consciously try to make the point in the novel that fear of foreigners is overstated here," he says.

"I was writing out of depression," says Mpe, talking about the novel. He is open about his suicidal feelings, describing how he called a friend and told him what he was going to do. "He told me to wait until he could get there for us to have a last drink together. I realised then how important my friends are, and I knew I wouldn't kill myself - and that I mustn't waste my life. So I made a commitment to live and be productive."

Mpe explores depression in Welcome to our Hillbrow, developing characters he first created for his shorter fiction and dealing with the subjects that are central to the lives of urban black people in South Africa today. The book is written in part as a letter to Refentse, a man from Tiragalong in the Northern Province, who comes to Hillbrow to live, and who is now dead. It is a journey through an uneasy time and place, describing shifting relationships, stresses, prejudice, tragedy and affection among a group of friends.

Mpe has written a lyrical exploration of the mean streets of Hillbrow, less mean than those who migrate there from the Northern Province village of Tiragalong imagine, but still frightening, violent and filled with tragedy and betrayal. But also filled with warmth, love and humour.

From discussing his state of mind when he began to write, Mpe goes on to talk about literature and the state of publishing in South Africa. "There has been a lot of censorship of black South African languages by publishers. Most of our publishers produce books for education departments," he says. Writers have their works rejected as school setworks because publishers' readers think the language is "vulgar". Books are either rejected or toned down by the publishers and many writers respond by censoring themselves. To be published in English - the route Mpe has gone - is easier because publishers are less concerned about bad language and robust content.

"I'm happier with rejection than with self-censorship; I care about my own integrity as a writer," he insists. He feels that, sooner or later, works which have already been published in English will be published in African languages, and if readers see they have been altered, they will come to the conclusion that publishers do not take their languages seriously. "Self-censorship is bad for the writer, or, if the censorship comes from the publisher, it's bad for the publisher," says Mpe. The kind of literary apartheid that some publishers are perpetuating angers him. "It seems to me to insult learners to suggest that they aren't intelligent enough to see the context of bad language."

The man who came to writing by accident has other fiction projects in mind, but says he is in no hurry. He has one outline of a story planned, but says that only when he starts writing will he know whether it will become a novel, a novella or a short story. He lets the process dictate the outcome.




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