I grew up in a household where there were no shelves filled with books. My father was illiterate and my mother read Oracle and Miracle, two thin paperbacks from the United Kingdom which could hardly be considered as literature.
My schooling started at a church school – St Stephen – and moved on to Prestwich Primary. At neither school was there a library. Those who failed standard six (grade eight), and who were sturdily-built, dropped out and moved to Cape Town docks where they were employed as labourers.
Three of us were accepted as pupils at Trafalgar High School. The other two did not complete the year.
At that stage, I never thought that I would be able to place words on paper and transform it into a story.
I was almost 14 and in standard eight (grade 10) when we were asked to write a composition. It is now termed creative writing. I will never forget the name of our English teacher – Miss Meredith. She announced to the class that I had written a short story and not a composition. She marked it 21, one mark above the accepted 20 and informed the class that I was a writer.
My introduction to a library was one of wonderment. I was a messenger at the Cape Times and a reporter asked me to take her books to the library. I was confronted by row upon row of stalls stacked with books. My eyes travelled along the lines of names and titles. None of them were known to me. My reading at that stage was limited to James Hadley Chase. Tentatively I asked the reporter if I could take out a book for myself when I returned her books the following time. She agreed and a new world opened to me because public libraries were then exclusively for the benefit of whites.
Two people I must give credit to for enhancing my appreciation of the arts: Peter Clarke, who spent time at my house and, incidentally, was my daughter Terry’s godfather. He helped my understanding of art as we shared a bottle of wine in the front room while he was working on drawings. Richard Rive encouraged literature and classical music.
I read randomly at first but, because of the colour bar, I searched for books written by black people. Langston Hughes led me to other writers. My reading spread in various directions, including writers whose works were translated into English. I was reading the works of writers from different countries, a learning experience that went beyond the apartheid under which we suffered. I read the few books available written by black South Africans.
I was also drawn to writers responding to political oppression that confronted them in their countries. John Dos Passos, Ignazio Silone, George Orwell and Ariel Dorfman, who gave a talk at the Athol Fugard Theatre. I treasure a copy of his book – Heading South, Looking North – which Dorfman signed.
My first contact with Russian writers who were victims of tyranny was Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who was awarded a Nobel Prize. He suffered heavily under the despotism of Stalin. I’ve read some of Dostoyevsky as well as Chekhov. Tolstoy comes to mind, not forgetting Balzac.
Then there is Pablo Neruda, who is very special to me. He left Chile and lived in exile because of the stand that he took. He is acknowledged as the greatest poet of the 20th century. His verses are like fine wine; intoxicating. I get high reading his poems. His placement of words is incomparable, sparkling like gems.
Gabriel García Márques is another writer who, like Neruda, has the magical touch with words. Dante’s Inferno, written while he was in exile, I found equally fascinating for different reasons.
I got attached to Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. One had to be careful about a Fagin. I sold newspapers on street corners and gambled away my earnings. If I were lucky, I would offer some of the profit to my mother.
It would be absurd for me to categorise all the books that I’ve read. The books that I have mentioned are books which strengthened my resolve to transform myself into the writer that Miss Meredith predicted.
I discovered that Franz Kafka had also written short stories. A volume of Somerset Maugham’s short stories should be on the shelf of a discerning reader.
The stories by Doris Lessing I always enjoy. Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers is regarded as one of his finest stories. Works that I absorbed in my progress towards my awakening creativity. All valuable lessons towards learning to shape characters and not cardboard ones. Characters that would fit into the background of the setting created.
As head messenger at the Cape Times and my stories published in the magazine section of that newspaper and the Cape Argus, spelled out the realisation that I was working towards becoming a writer. It was ironic; except for Jack Cope, who was a sub-editor, none of the reporting staff had short stories published. I was serving them tea on night shift.
A story I sold to the Cape Argus focussed on two little boys in a corner shop and the older boy stealing a loaf of bread, which they ate after fleeing from the shop.
Chris Cavanagh, editor of the magazine section, requested an appointment to see him. I was wary because at that stage coloureds did not have stories published in the magazine section. I consulted George Manuel, a sub-editor. He advised me not to have any fears. Cavanagh stated that he wished to speak to the writer of the story because of the authenticity of its content. More and more of my stories appeared in the magazine sections of both papers.
I sold two western stories to Zonk magazine. It was not an arduous task. It was almost a case of plagiarism, extracting a scene and expanding it into a story and submitting it while using a nom de plume. The magazine wanted me to write a series. I certainly had no intention of complying with their request.
Having had stories published also brought in a scant income, but I needed to go further than stories in the Cape Times and Cape Argus – despite having been a runner-up to Richard Rive in a short story competition sponsored by the Cape Argus.
I had become politically minded. My first story in that direction was Azikwelwa, about a coloured man accepted by Africans as they walked from their township towards Johannesburg refusing to pay an increase in the bus fare.
The Park depicted those whose skin colour did not match that of the Herrenvolk and who were denied entry. It was about a 12-year-old coloured boy delivering the washing and ironing of the madam’s clothes for his mother.
Each time he passed the park, he stood yearning with a desire to join his counterparts enjoying the swings, seesaws and the merry-go-round.
One time he dared to enter the park and enviously looked at the white children enjoying themselves. The coloured park attendant urged him to leave, explaining that the park was exclusively for white people.
He made a resolution that he would enter the park. He left home without informing his parents and at evenfall he mounted the park’s fence and was delirious with delight, enjoying the experience of the white children. The coloured caretaker appeared, torch in hand, and threatened to call the police if he did not leave the park.
He swung the swing up to heaven’s height, face streaming with tears as he appealed to his mother to rescue him from his plight.
The Park was a tremendous step away from the stories published in the Cape Times and Cape Argus magazine sections.
More stories accumulated, which turned into a collection. I was working at The Muslim News, which had a printing press. We brought out the collection and sold it privately, but did not send copies to newspapers for review purposes to avoid the collection being banned by the Censor Board. The collection was also published in Germany.
I collected the German edition of Azikwelwa from the post office and went to lie down on a patch of grass, unfolding the book from its wrapper with the title and my name on the cover. I could almost smell the text printed in black. Peter Clarke had done the illustrations.
I had become a writer.
Across the road was a bottle store. I bought a bottle of beer and asked a street sweeper to join me. I showed him the book and informed him that I had written it.
His disbelief was evident until I showed him the photograph of myself inside. I placed the book in its wrapper and set it aside as we drank borrel-bek.
I am now listed in the A-Z of African Writers.
James Matthews was awarded an honorary doctorate by Rhodes University on March 31. This is an edited version of his speech at the occasion.