Academic journal article Tydskrif vir Letterkunde

The Intersection of Experience, Imaginative Writing and Meaning-Making in Es'kia Mphahlele

Academic journal article Tydskrif vir Letterkunde

The Intersection of Experience, Imaginative Writing and Meaning-Making in Es'kia Mphahlele

Article excerpt

After his birth in Pretoria on 17 December 1919 followed by the formative years of his cognition at the Maupaneng village of GaMphahlele in Limpopo-- as both expository and fictive writings by and on him reveal--Es'kia Mphahlele's cultural and political activism saw him grappling with identity formation as an African, including at the time he was traversing exile territories in a number of African states, in France and in America. (1) What I state here points to the three axes of experience, imaginative writing and meaning making on which Mphahlele's mission revolves as he acts it out in specific environments. That place or environment plays a major role in Mphahlele's attempts to negotiate personhood and Africanness is attested to by his description of Maupaneng times as "those highly impressionable years as a herdboy" (Mphahlele 1984: 11).

The environment in which Mphahlele lived, wrote and philosophised consists of apartheid South Africa from 1919 until 1957 when he went into exile in Nigeria; of France from 1961 to 1963; of Kenya from 1963 to 1966 when "he took up a teaching fellowship" until 1968 and began "a Ph.D. in creative writing at the University of Denver, Colorado" (Woeber and Read 1989); of Zambia from 1968 to 1970; of the 1970 to 1974 return to Denver; of continued involvement in academia at the University of Pennsylvania from 1974 to 1977; and of post-1976 apartheid South Africa since his permanent return to South Africa in August 1977.

In order to preserve the act of living and add value to it, human beings of all identity clusters act out their lives in a manner that testifies to implied meaning-making of the environment in which they live. Without making meaning of their habitat, humanity would not have survived contingent threats that accompany living. Yet a certain sector of the human population goes further than living out such apportioning of meaning to various spheres of life; they express their coherent grappling with reality in researched expressions. In Njabulo Ndebele's (1991) theory, human beings in the former category are "actors," while those not satisfied with a mere living out of the meaning they give to reality are "interpreters." Mphahlele, as is expected of the research community the world, over including the HSRC community present here, falls in the category of "interpreters."

Researchers such as James Ogude (see Mphahlele 2002), demonstrate that aspects of Mphahlele's biography permeate his fiction of all genres. Mphahlele believes in distinctive qualities of the broad cultural cluster of humanity called Africans, whose consciousness as shaped by the uniquely African historical experience defies racial barriers and includes diasporic inhabitants of the world transplanted from the African continent by cataclysmic historical incidents, if not accidents, such as slavery (Rafapa 2006). This means that his exploration of life in the macro world is repeated from the same Africanist perspective in the micro world of his fiction that pursues, within the matrix of artistic devices, the same concerns he regards as his and his people's in today's world. Such a description of Mphahlele's imaginative writing is important as it spells out the researched nature even of his fiction, emanating from his arriving at the meaning of Africanness through a process of systematic enquiry. For this reason, Mphahlele's philosophical position can be traced successfully in his fiction. This is why Rafapa (2006: 375) comes to the conclusion that Mphahlele exemplifies and clarifies further his concept of Afrikan Humanism "in the content of his narrative writings".

Mphahlele's poems written since as far back as 1960, such as "Exile in Nigeria," right through to his March 1977 poem on the Soweto uprisings "Fathers and Sons," are testimonials to the composite soul of the man who gallantly challenged a white ruling class that wanted to alienate his fellow Africans due to what he sees as the conflict relationship between European and Afrikan humanisms. …

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