I think it’s important to start by explaining that the book that is the subject of this review is not the novel Mhudi written by Sol Plaatjie, but rather a compilation of commemorative texts written by South African academics, writers and poets, edited by Sabata-Mpho Mokae and Brian Willan.
I was educated in an English first language school, so as you would expect I never read Mhudi in high school and have never come across the text in my tertiary years. Despite the fact that I consider myself an enthusiast of African literature, it shames me to admit that it somehow never occurred to me to read the book till now.
So, the week leading up to the arrival of this compilation I thought I would do myself the service of going ahead and reading Mhudi, so as to not be disappointed by any inevitable spoilers. On another occasion maybe I will get the opportunity to muse about how much I enjoyed Mhudi, but I would like to extend a note of appreciation to Sabatha-Mpho Mokae and Brian Willan for having directed my attention to the novel.
The collection opens with a heartfelt Zulu poem by Siza Nkosi-Mokhele titled, Bra Sol, Othandekayo and contains a notable cameo by South African man of letters Zakes Mda with an essay titled, ‘On writing historical fiction vs fictionalized history: lessons from Sol Plaatjies Mhudi.
I particularly enjoyed the essay by Lesego Malepe titled, ‘Sol Plaatjie’s Mhudi and the issue of Land in Southern Africa: Past, Present and Future. Malepe speaks candidly about the history of dispossession of land in South African and how the novel was written years after the 1913 Land Act predicted what was to come. She reminds readers of the famous quote by Plaajie. In his book Native Life in South Africa, “Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African Native found himself not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.”
There is no shortage of neat insightful literary anecdotes sprinkled generously throughout the book along with a full serving of thorough academic research on the history of the novel and the great man Sol Plaatjie. A project such of this one enhances our appreciation of African literature and this collection of essays, poems and short stories is a fitting tribute to one of the most important literary texts to come out of Southern African.
It’s no wonder Sol Plaatjie’s Mhudi is the first full-length novel written in English by a black South African. It’s a very important bit of historical fiction, one that still rings true almost a century later.
I think it is important that we write stories about our history in our own voices, but it is equally important that we remember those stories and keep telling them to different generations.
Sabatha-Mpho Mokae, Brian Willan and the collection of writers who paid tribute to this great text, have done a great service to South African literature.