Writer Peter Abrahams, who has died aged 97 in Jamaica, lived only the first 20 years of his very long life in South Africa, the land of his birth. Born in Vrededorp, Johannesburg, in 1919, he left in 1939 as a stoker aboard a merchant ship.
After almost two years at sea, he settled in England and began a productive career as a journalist and a prodigious one as a writer. His literary debut had come in 1940 with the publication in Durban of a poetry collection, A Blackman Speaks of Freedom!
In England, his output was notable, comprising journalism, autobiographical sketches, short stories, novels and an autobiography. In a decade and a half, he published among others Dark Testament (1942), Mine Boy (1946), The Path of Thunder (1948), Wild Conquest (1951), Tell Freedom (1954) and A Wreath for Udomo (1956).
His importance in South African letters is perhaps nowhere more emphasised than in Michael Chapman’s Southern African Literatures (Longman, 1996; University of Natal Press, 2003), chapter 4, “Identity and the Apartheid State 1948-1970”, a sub-section of which is headed, significantly: “Novels against apartheid. Abrahams, Paton”.
Mine Boy, which tells the life of Xuma, a diamond miner working under inhumane conditions, led to a burgeoning political awareness. As Chapman points out: “In 1946 Mine Boy was described by Faber and Faber (London) as one of the first books to draw attention to the lives of black South Africans in a white-controlled country.”
Turning to Abrahams’s autobiography, Chapman notes: “In Tell Freedom (1954) Abrahams performed his most daring autobiographical manouevre. His name was actually Lee de Ras (literally, ‘of the Race’), he was Afrikaans-speaking, and when a teenager he had indulged in racist behaviour and petty crime. But this youthful personality is effaced in favour of the romance that presumably became a reality: the boy from the wrong side of the tracks who took the name Peter Abrahams … [who] leaves South Africa far behind in his ambitions to be a successful author.”
Race was something that Abrahams could never leave behind. The son of an Ethiopian father and a French-African mother, in the terminology of his time Abrahams was coloured.
His restless examinations of identity were spurred by becoming acquainted at the Bantu Men’s Social Club in Johannesburg with the works of such black American writers as Langston Hughes and WEB du Bois.
Trained as a teacher, Abrahams taught in Cape Town before moving along the coast to write for a magazine in Durban. It was from there that he was able to secure his cherished ambiton of leaving the country.
His sojourn in England was followed by a stint in France, where he met and had collegial friendships with the American expatriate writers James Baldwin and Richard Wright.
Then, in the mid-1950s, a commission to write a book about Jamaica lured Abrahams to the Caribbean. He was to spend the next six decades there, before his death on January 18 at home in St Andrew Parish.