Authors: Ezekiel Mphahlele

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

South African novelist, short-story writer, and essayist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Wanderers, 1971

Chirundu, 1979, 1994

Father Come Home, 1984

Short Fiction:

Man Must Live, and Other Stories, 1946

The Living and Dead, and Other Stories, 1961

In Corner B, 1967

Renewal Time, 1988

Nonfiction:

Down Second Avenue, 1959 (autobiography)

The African Image, 1962, revised 1974

A Guide to Creative Writing, 1966

Voices in the Whirlwind, and Other Essays, 1972

Let’s Write a Novel, 1981

Afrika My Music: An Autobiography, 1984

Let’s Talk Writing: Prose, 1985

Let’s Talk Writing: Poetry, 1986

Poetry and Humanism, 1986

Edited Texts:

Modern African Stories, 1964 (with Ellis Ayitey Komey)

African Writing Today, 1967

Perspectives on South African English Literature, 1992 (with Michael Chapman and Colin Gardner)

Seasons Come to Pass: A Poetry Anthology for Southern African Students, 1994

Miscellaneous:

The Unbroken Song: Selected Writings of Es’kia Mphahlele, 1981

Biography

South African novelist, essayist, critic, short-story writer, editor, teacher, humanist, and poet, Ezekiel (also written Es’kia) Mphahlele (uhm-fuh-LAY-lay) is best known for his autobiography Down Second Avenue and his novel The Wanderers. Through a writing career that spanned five decades, Mphahlele was one of South Africa’s most prolific writers and provocative social critics. Because he drew heavily upon his experience of exile and alienation, critics have tended to view his writing as journalistic and autobiographical. This criticism is partially true, in that much of his fictional works and essays seem marked by the alienation and pain of being black and living in South Africa.{$I[AN]9810001734}{$I[A]Mphahlele, Ezekiel}{$I[geo]SOUTH AFRICA;Mphahlele, Ezekiel}{$I[tim]1919;Mphahlele, Ezekiel}

Three distinct periods mark his life and are reflected in his writing: his early life in South Africa until age thirty-seven; his twenty-year self-imposed exile; and his return to South Africa in 1977. Born in Pretoria in 1919 into the poverty of black townships, Mphahlele grew up under the influence of his maternal grandmother, his aunt Dora, and his mother. His experience living in the black township of Marabastad with these three strong women, to whom he credits his survival, education, and escape from the ghetto, forms the core of Down Second Avenue.

Despite the poverty and harrowing conditions of Marabastad (much of which he captured in his first collection of short stories, Man Must Live) Mphahlele nurtured a passion for reading everything from the classics to English, American, and African American literatures. Despite meager family income, he attended an academically renowned high school in Johannesburg and Adams Teachers’ Training College in Natal, graduating with a teaching degree in 1940. Because of his outspoken opposition to the government’s Bantu Education Act and total apartheid in education, however, he was banned from a teaching career in government schools in 1952. He earned a B.A. from the University of South Africa in 1949.

From 1955 to 1957, he embarked unhappily on a career as a journalist, working as reporter and editor of the journal African Drum while he studied for his M.A. from the University of South Africa. This two-year stint in journalism, though not gratifying personally, was crucial in the development of his literary career; it not only provided him the opportunity to cover major events of the period and publish the works of younger black writers, but it also provided the raw material for much of his own later writing.

Frustrated by the legal restrictions imposed on him in South Africa because of his race, Mphahlele chose self-exile, and he left South Africa with his family for Lagos, Nigeria, in 1957. Thus began a twenty-year odyssey that took him to six countries on three continents.

In addition to teaching at a grammar school and in the University of Ibadan’s Department of Extra-Mural Studies, Mphahlele completed and published Down Second Avenue in 1959. His second collection of short stories, The Living and the Dead, followed in 1961, the same year he left Nigeria for Paris to head the African Program of Congress for Cultural Freedom. The African Image is a collection of essays–an outgrowth from his M.A. thesis–in which he investigated “The African Personality” and the African image in literature. In Nairobi, Kenya, in 1963, Mphahlele founded the Chemchemi (Swahili for “fountain”) Cultural Centre, a sister institute to the Mbari Writers’ and Artists’ Club he had helped to found in Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1961.

The year 1967 found Mphahlele in the United States at the University of Denver, where he taught African, Afro-American, and Caribbean literature, edited Africa Today, and completed a Ph.D. He then returned to Africa in 1968 to lecture in the English department at the University of Zambia in Lusaka. That same year, In Corner B, a third collection of his short stories, was published, and his doctoral dissertation The Wanderers, an autobiographical novel chronicling his wandering search “for those essential roots,” was awarded the African Arts/Arts d’Afrique first prize, three years before the book’s official publication. The experiences of his stay in Zambia became the subject of Chirundu, a novel about the abuse of power–only the second of his full-length works to be published in South Africa following the lifting of a nineteen-year ban of his works.

From Zambia, Mphahlele returned to teach at the University of Denver in 1970 and, in 1974, at the University of Pennsylvania. He finally returned with his wife to South Africa in 1977.

His literary output continued, as did his professional, academic ascent at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Afrika My Music: An Autobiography, which detailed his life in exile, was published in 1984 and was followed in 1988 by Renewal Time, a fourth collection of short stories and essays. Mphahlele died in 2008 in South Africa. He was 88.

BibliographyAkosu, Tyohdzuah. The Writing of Ezekiel [Es’kia] Mphahlele, South African Writer: Literature, Culture and Politics. Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen University Press, 1995. An important overview of the critical reception of Mphahlele’s work and an assessment of his literary achievements. Akosu claims that aesthetic questions about African writing are inappropriate because they do not take into account the sociopolitical environment in which the work is created. Mphahlele’s work should be analyzed in terms of its value as protest against apartheid.Barnett, Ursula A. Ezekiel Mphahlele. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Although published before Mphahlele’s return to South Africa from exile in 1977, this volume is still the best introduction to Mphahlele’s early and middle life and work. Includes a chronology, biography, and close reading of the major writings.Egejuru, Phanuel Akubueze. Towards African Literary Independence: A Dialogue with Contemporary African Writers. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Interwoven interviews with several important writers, including Mphahlele, on the importance of African literature for Africans and for Westerners. Mphahlele discusses the challenges of being both an African and an exile, and of writing for an African audience but being published and read by Westerners.Hodge, Norman. “Dogs, Africans, and Liberals: The World of Mphahlele’s ‘Mrs Plum’.” English in Africa 8 (March, 1981): 33-43. A close reading of “Mrs. Plum,” emphasizing the indictment the story makes of white liberals in South Africa under apartheid. Hodge believes that “Mrs. Plum” is Mphahlele’s most important piece of short fiction and demonstrates his ability to depict characters in the process of intellectual and moral development.Manganyi, N. Chabani. Exiles and Homecomings: A Biography of Es’kia Mphahlele. Johannesburg, South Africa: Ravan Press, 1983. An insightful biography written by a clinical psychologist with full cooperation from Mphahlele and his family. This biography is unusual in using a first-person narrative voice.Obee, Ruth. Es’kia Mphahlele: Themes of Alienation and African Humanism. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999. Mphahlele has often discussed African Humanism, rather than European influences, as it underlies the writings of the black consciousness movement. Obee extracts the basic values that describe African humanism and traces these values as they appear in Mphahlele’s major works and in other important works of South African literature and criticism.Pitok, Todd. “An Interview with Es’kia Mphahlele.” Poets and Writers Magazine 22 (November/December, 1994): 64-71. A brief overview of Mphahlele’s life and career, important because of its glimpse of the author’s life since the end of apartheid. Pitok discusses Mphahlele’s political role in democratic South Africa, including his missed chance to help Nelson Mandela complete an autobiography.Ruth, Damian. “Through the Keyhole: Masters and Servants in the Work of Es’kia Mphahlele.” English in Africa 13 (October, 1986): 65-88. An examination of the theme of the white employer and black employee in South Africa under apartheid, as it plays out in three of Mphahlele’s short stories. In each case, the white employer is blind to the humanity of the employee, while the employee is able to see and to grow.
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