Born in Doornfontein, Johannesburg on this day in 1933, Miriam Tlali was raised in Sophiatown, a black cultural hub that was demolished by the South African government in the 1950s, forcing residents to relocate to Soweto. Tlali was inspired to write by her experiences as a black woman in South Africa during the apartheid regime. She was also encouraged by the example of her father’s family, who owned a printing press in Lesotho and published a newspaper for many years.
Tlali was a gifted student but struggled to afford her education. Finding work as a bookkeeper and typist in a furniture store, she drew on her experiences to write the novel Muriel at Metropolitan, published in 1975. Although she was unhappy with the title (she intended her book to be called Between Two Worlds)and with the fact that her publisher deleted several chapters from her manuscript, the novel made history as Tlali became the first black South African woman to publish a novel.
Despite the fact that her first book was banned in South Africa, Tlali returned in 1980 with Amandla, which focused on a young activist named Pholoso, inspired by the example of Steve Biko to rally a youth movement against the racial divisions of the apartheid regime. Courageously speaking out against injustice made her a target of government-backed forces that harassed and arrested Tlali in an attempt to intimidate her. She would sometimes bury her manuscripts underground to avoid having them confiscated, but she never backed down.
Tlali helped establish Skotaville Press, which published her 1984 collection of stories and essays Mihotli. She was also co-founder of Staffrider, a black literary journal for which she wrote the column “Soweto Speaking.” Life in the black township was an ongoing interest for Tlali, who published a collection of short stories called Footprints in the Quag: Stories and Dialogues from Soweto in 1989, when she also worked as a visiting scholar at Yale University’s Southern African Research Program.
By the early 1990s apartheid legislation was repealed and South Africa had its first multiracial democratic elections in 1994. In 1995 Tlali was honoured by the South African government's Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology with a Literary Lifetime Achievement Award, and received the Order of Ikhamanga from the President of South Africa in 2008.
Happy Birthday, Miriam Tlali