The Story of a Book About a Book

In his second blog post for Proofed, Sabata-mpho Mokae discusses how Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi pays homage to one of Africa’s earliest English novels and how it is seen by many as much more than just a text. Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi holds historical significance being the first English novel to be written by a black South African and is considered a masterpiece.

To read the earlier blog post by Sabata-mpho Mokae about the Zulu poem written by Siza Nkosi-Mokhele which opens Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi click here.

January is the coldest month in England while it is one of the warmest in South Africa. Brian Willan and I have chosen the months of January and June to be in one place and work. In January, shortly after New Year’s Day and before Sol Plaatje University students returned to campus in February, I would leave behind the mercilessly hot Kimberley and go to spend time working with Willan in the cold west of England. In June, during summer holidays in the Global North, he would come to Kimberley so that we worked while students were away on winter break. This was our routine for a few years while we were working on Sol Plaatje: a life in letters, which is a compilation of Sol Plaatje’s letters in one book. The book, published by Historical Publications Southern Africa (HiPSA), is due for publication before the end of 2020.

In early 2017, while working in Willan’s study and drinking tea, we had a conversation about Mhudi, Sol Plaatje’s English novel which was written in 1920 and was only published ten years later in 1930 by Lovedale Press. We spoke about how relevant the book was, almost a century since it was written. We realised that it was taught at universities all over the world, from Cornell in the USA to Wits in South Africa. Perhaps we could use the novel’s centenary in the year 2020 as an opportunity to get scholars and writers to pay homage and reflect on the book, its themes, form, and its seemingly timelessness.

We put the wheel in motion by sending out a call for abstracts in early 2017. By March of the same year we had an interest from a publisher in South Africa, which increased interest in contributing to the volume. By mid 2017, we had the abstracts and we were starting to engage with the senders. At that time, we could see that so many scholars, mainly of literature and history, wanted to have their chapters in the volume. By the end of 2017 we had received the first drafts from luminaries such as Zakes Mda and Antjie Krog.

It was decided that the volume was going to be peer reviewed, something that scholars value the most. Once the manuscript was ready; with contributions from Mda, Krog, Shole Shole, Eileen Pooe, Bheki Peterson, Chris Thurman, Laurence Wright, Lesego Malepe, Siza Nkosi, Karen Haire, Jenny du Preez and the two editors Brian Willan and Sabata-mpho Mokae, it was taken for peer reviewing. Up to now only the publishers know who the reviewers are, even the editors do not.

Contributors have written about Mhudi from many angles; for instance Zakes Mda wrote about historical fiction vs fictionalised history, Bheki Peterson about Plaatje reasoning creatively in Mhudi, Lesego Malepe wrote about the all-important issue of land in Mhudi and in the post-apartheid South Africa, Siza Nkosi writes a poetic tribute to Plaatje in scamtho (tsotsitaal) and addresses Plaatje as Bra Sol Othandekayo, Shole Shole and Eileen Pooe make a case for the repatriation translation of the novel back into Setswana, which is the author’s mother tongue. They argue that Mhudi was written by a Motswana, set in a Setswana-speaking community and could have only been conceptualised in Setswana, and not English.

This book pays homage to one of Africa’s earliest English novels. The editors, contributors, and many others, see it as a text with which we can examine our lives and put to test assumptions about how humans relate and how the world is run. It was the first English novel to be written by a black South African, but over and above that historical significance, it is a masterpiece. Plaatje trod where Mongo Beti, Amos Tutuola, Chinua Achebe and Ngűgí wa Thiong’o later walked. The current generation of African writers have a lot to thank Plaatje, and those who came after him.

This guest post was written by Sabata Mokae, a novelist and lecturer in creative writing at Sol Plaatje University, Kimberley. He has written and lectured on Sol Plaatje, is the author of The Story of Sol Plaatje (Kimberley: Sol Plaatje Educational Trust, 2012) and is co-editor (with Brian Willan) of an edited collection of Plaatje’s letters, to be published by Historical Publications Southern Africa (formerly the Van Riebeeck Society) in 2020. Mokae is a co-editor, with Brian Willan, of “Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi: History, Criticism, Celebration”.

Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi
Edited by Sabata-mpho Mokae and Brian Willan
9781847012760, Hardback, £39 or $64.35

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