October 22, 2012
The suggestions for the small southern African Kingdom of Lesotho were a bit thin on the ground. The two authors who had been recommended, Thomas Mofolo and AS Mopeli-Paulus, were both long-dead, pre-independence writers whose books came out in the early 20th century.
I was sure there had to be more some more recent Lesothan literature available in English. But it wasn’t until I got talking to people at the recent, excellent International Translation Day event in London, that another lead emerged. There, a world-literature fan told me that her book group had read and enjoyed How We Buried Puso by Morabo Morojele, a contemporary Lesothan author.
Heartened by this news of a recently published book in English by a writer from Lesotho, I returned to my search refreshed. It was then that I stumbled on a surprising statistic: according to the CIA World Factbook, female literacy in Lesotho is unusually high for the region (estimated to be around 95.6 percent in 2010). It’s so widespread in fact that it outstrips male literacy by quite a long way – only 83.3 percent of men in the country can read.
If I found a book by a Lesothan author, then, it might well turn out to be by a woman. And so it proved: a few searches for ‘Lesotho women writers’ later, I was ordering a copy of Basali! – a collection of short stories by Lesothan women, edited by K Limakatso Kendall.
The product of her two-year Fulbright Scholarship in Lesotho, the anthology grew out of work Limakatso Kendall did with students at the National University of Lesotho, who gathered, transcribed, translated and even wrote the stories in the book. Many of the tales were told originally in Basotho and consist largely of episodes from the storytellers’ lives. These range from accounts of what led the narrators into particular vocations, including health work and life in a convent, to stories of overcoming hardships and challenges, such as Tembela Seleke’s memory of her return to South Africa years after the assassination of her husband there and ‘M’amoroosi ‘M’aseele Qacha’s tale of a woman’s reaction to the discovery that her schoolboy son has brought home a wife. There are also celebratory pieces, such as ‘The Universe’ – the only poem in the book – which is a sort of hymn to the beauty of the natural world.
Discrimination underscores many of the stories. Published in 1995, only a few years after the collapse of apartheid in neighbouring South Africa, the collection reveals the legacy of widespread racial persecution in many of the narrator’s lives. We see it in the terror of Usiwe as she contemplates a trip back across the border in ‘The Lost Sheep is Found’, as well as in the first story ‘Three Moments in a Marriage’ by Mpho ‘M’atsepo Nthunya, in which Agnes remembers her family’s mistreatment at the hands of the Boer police.
The gender discrimination that has limited many of the women’s choices also drives a lot of the stories. Although Lesotho traditions mean that, in many areas, girls are better educated than boys because boys are taken off to be trained for farming, physical labour and other traditionally masculine pursuits at a young age, the strongly patriarchal structure of society there dictates that decision-making rests entirely with the men, leaving women at the mercy of their male relatives.
This power imbalance manifests itself in many ways, such as the extreme domestic violence depicted in ‘M’atseleng Lentsoenyane’s ‘Why Blame Her?’, in which a wife is beaten because of her inability to bear children. However, it is also a spur to great courage and ingenuity. In Mzamane Nhlapo’s ‘Give Me a Chance’, for example, we hear the story of Mama KaZili, who refuses to let her children starve because of her husband’s irresponsible behaviour and trudges through the snow to confront his indignant relatives with a speech that deserves a place among the great feminist manifestos:
‘”Yes I know the Bible,” she answered. “It says women should keep silent: ‘they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law’. Customary laws also treat women as children who are supposed to be under the man’s guidance and protection. Women are considered weak and naive. They have to seek permission even for little things like visiting friends and parents; in looking for employment; when they want to go to school, or ask for a scholarship or a loan; in applying for a site… Name them all.” [...]
‘”All these forms of gender inequalities and injustices take place in a government that repeatedly points out with pride that it has been elected by women because men, who are predominantly away in the South African mines, are mostly pro-BCP. Society and government don’t want to give women a chance. Women have to seek permission for everything that can improve their lives. Before I pass away in this world I want to have had a chance to improve my life and the lives of my children.”‘
Such words are very inspiring, particularly when accompanied by the celebration of women’s friendships and relationships that runs throughout the book. From the ‘Letter to ‘M’e', in which a daughter praises her mother, to the intriguing description of the motsoalle (best friend) celebration in ‘Three Moments in a Marriage’, there is a strong sense of camaraderie and sisterhood between Lesothan women as they struggle in the face of hardships and discrimination, and seize the chance for education, described by Julia ‘M’amatseliso Khabane as ‘a weapon to fight life’.
The result is a stirring and memorable collection. While the anecdotal quality of the stories can mean that a few of them lack polish and impact, the overall effect is striking. I was inspired and moved. Great stuff.
Basali!: Stories by and about women in Lesotho edited by K Limakatso Kendall (University of Natal Press, 1995)
December 22, 2011
It seemed so simple: read one book from every country in the world in 2012. What could possibly be confusing about that?
But as soon as I started to plan the project in earnest, the questions started coming in. Was I including poetry? What about plays? And memoirs? Where did I stand on biographies? Did journalism count? Did the books have to be contemporary?
I realised I was going to have to define my terms a little more carefully.
A lot of the people I spoke to about this project felt that I should stick to prose fiction. This was my first instinct too. After all, novels, novellas and short stories are the main media for storytelling, aren’t they? Surely I should keep a level playing field between all countries by reading only one particular kind of book?
But as time went on, I got more and more recommendations for intriguing books that wouldn’t fit that mould and found myself getting frustrated. I heard of literary award-winning journalism that had led to bounties being placed on writers’ heads and biographies detailing extraordinary lives, and I wanted to read them.
There were also books that straddled several genres. Dr Ruth Martin, who recommended Elias Canetti’s autobiographical work The Torch in My Ear for Austria, for example, wrote in her comment that ‘the writing is wonderfully literary and he does “embellish” the truth a little’. One man’s memoir might just be another man’s fairytale…
I also realised that, while prose fiction may be fairly ubiquitous, it’s by no means native to every culture. In fact, in places where stories tend to be passed on verbally, narrative poems may be much truer reflections of literature there.
The question of contemporaneity also gave me a dilemma or two. Much like M Lynx Qualey, who very kindly wrote a blog post setting out her recommendations for Arabic literature in translation, I was tempted to keep to recent texts. But when Dr Valerie Henitiuk of the British Centre for Literary Translation told me that her all-time favourite translation was Sonja Arntzen’s rendering of the 10th century Japanese Kagero Diary, there was no way I was going to bar it from the list.
So, after chewing it over for a while, I decided that I would count all narratives that could be read to full effect by one reader on their own. This means memoirs, novels, short stories, novellas, biographies, narrative poems and reportage are in and, with regret, non-narrative poetry and plays are out.
I also decided that while I would stick to mainly contemporary stories, I wanted to leave the door open for fantastic blasts from the past. The one condition is that the works have to have been created when the country was in existence in something like its modern-day form.
So if you know of an outstanding eighth century Swedish epic, or an intriguing narrative poem from Tuvalu, now’s your chance to tell the world (well, me, at least) about it. Keep the suggestions coming in – there are still quite a few gaps on that there list…