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Three South African Writers Who Almost Didn’t Make It

For many of us, it can be difficult to name South African authors off the top of our heads. Our local literary awareness tends to be somewhat lacking, even though our writing is rich. Because of set works in schools and international ‘bestseller’ lists, it’s often much easier to name famous American or European writers, than it is to name local authors.

In reality, we have many prolific and noteworthy writers to be proud of. What’s alarming is that we may well have never known their names or their work if a few things had been different - and that would have been a major loss! We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again - the literary archives of South Africa are rich with history and meaning. Local is lekker, after all!

So, here are three South African writers who almost didn’t get their chance to publish their written words, but we’re so glad they did!

Tlali is renowned as the first Black woman to publish a book written in English in South Africa and one of the first writers to discuss Soweto. Her famous first book, Muriel at Metropolitan, was rejected by publishers who refused to take a chance on it many times and was only officially published six years after it was written. Thereafter, she went on to write about the Soweto uprising and even produced a few short story collections, although most of her work was banned by the apartheid regime. We’re very lucky to have her words on our shelves and it’s devastating to think we almost might’ve missed them!

As household names go, this is it! Athol Fugard is well-known for his opposition to apartheid and his politically charged plays. However, what you may not know is that a few of his written works were also banned due to their outright rejection of apartheid. It would ultimately take many years for his work to be performed legally in and around South Africa, and for him to gain the recognition he deserved. And today, we’re glad that his legacy continues with all of his writing available for reading and performance in stores and theatres nationwide.

A relatively new name in South African literature, but one that is quickly gaining recognition! Karen Jennings’, An Island, was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2021, alongside the other great South African author, Damon Galgut. With no agent, countless rejections and an uphill battle to find a publisher, the risk of missing out on her incredible book was bigger than we dare admit! Karen herself notes that she was quite poor and only able to complete the book due to the Miles Morland Foundation writing scholarship she eventually obtained, which is as much a stroke of good fortune for us as it was for her!

With many different challenges facing writers locally and abroad, it is certainly not easy to become a famous writer in South Africa. But just like these noteworthy writers who pushed through their struggles to get their words in print, you can do it too. And maybe one day you’ll be on a list like this!

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