With the benefit of hindsight, the late Phaswane Mpe's first and only controversial novel Welcome To Our Hillbrow (University of Natal Press) becomes an intriguing book worthy of seven reviews. Not only because he uses 'our' as in 'our Hillbow' as an armour against any accusation of hypocrisy but also the ironies and paradoxes become too alarming. Mpe loves to use the phrase 'brood', as in clouds gathering, moods escalating, feelings worsening and emotions building. No wonder his first short story in 1993 was called Brooding Clouds and went on to be published as Clouds.
However, it becomes apparent that Mpe's book is not wholly about the literal Hillbrow suburb that is massaged between Berea, Yeoville, Braamfontein and Jeppe but an imaginary Hillbrow as well, though both synonymous with the same rot that has engulfed the literal Hillbrow. In Mpe's interpretation, Hillbrow is a metaphor for many things that had gone wrong with the world's collective consience. It has become an excuse for all scapegoats that are used to shift human responsibility from accounting for the witchcraft, AIDS, xenophobia, ethnicity, promiscuity, lack of understanding and progress apathy.
Mpe's characters are undoubtedly mostly embodiments of the author's own personality, each carrying his weaknesses and strengths like a trophy. He created a highly intelligent character named Refentse who ended up committing suicide after he found his best friend Sammy between the thighs of his Alexanda bred 'Bone of his Heart', Lerato. Mpe told Guardian journalist Liz McGregor that before he wrote the book friends had talked him out of suicide, "But I had to do something, if only to reassure myself that my life was worth living", he said.
He created a character named Refilwe who went on to study at Wits and Oxford Brookes in England. Mpe the intellectual had studied at these prestigious institutions and had majored in the courses th
at Refilwe majors in on the book. He made Refilwe a woman who is known for her promiscuity and who once went out with Refentse until he discovered he was boyfriend number five.
Mpe passed on to his imaginary heaven very shortly after his wife and to paraphrase Siphiwo Mahala in Words Gone Two Soon (Ungangatho Media & Communication) , for which he was also paraphrasing Mpe's post-mortem of one of his Johnny-come-late characters, "He died poor chap; of what precisely, no one knew". Mpe wrote about how strange illnesses courted Hillbrow, mostly sucked out of greedy anuses by equally greedy penises. It becomes another stark irony that Mpe was once a 'Hillbrowan', to the point that in the book he draws the map of the delapilating suburb with an artistic imagination that would shame Leonardo Da Vinci. In Mpe's figurative oil painting Hillbrow becomes more vivid and multi-textured than the Mona Lisa and Last Supper.
There are more paradoxes in this book to make an observant reader question what journalist Rachel Donadio wrote in Times Book Review (December 3, 2006) that, "Phaswane Mpe died at 34, probably of AIDS". She's the only one to have made such an allegation or observation. She performed her own autopsy and did not want to remain guessing, as Mpe subjected us in the case of one of his characters. That has come to be part of the new code of collective silence in the literary world. 'No one is allowed to discuss or even speculate on what might have extinguished such an young flame' while we got away with giving 'foulplay' a name, 'SUICIDE' when Kabelo Sello Duiker equally passed on.
However, Mpe the gifted writer had a way with words. In the novel he writes about how Refilwe, who he earlier 'accused' of being loose-thighed went to Oxford, missed 'the taste that stood the test of time' and ended up hooking up with a Nigerian brother who resembled Refentse and later, very much later ended up discovering that they were both HIV positive.
Mpe tackles the issue of AIDS and stigmatisation in a way that makes a reviewer, but Donadio, feel guilty about trying to investigate what might have taken his life. Refilwe was skeletal and tongues wagged. Refilwe, the one who hated 'foreigners' due to their messing up Hillbrow , her love life and Johannesburg ended up messing up the life of a Nigerian she met at Oxford. The morale of the story, AIDS is not a inter-continental problem but worldwide. He wrote about how Refilwe was not checked for diseases when she came through Heathrow but everybody else from Africa. He wrote about how in the vocabulary of the English there was always Africa and South Africa, about how they acted as if South Africa was some island off the coast of Africa.
However, this book is also the best encyclopaedia to understanding the politics of book publishing in South Africa. There are numerous mentions of the nitty gritties of the industry, like the excuses why indigenous language writers are not allowed to call genitals by their African names while Europeans and other nationalities can openely call woman genitalia a vagina. Mpe's argument is that it is legislated by the language police to make it a crime to call the same nnyo or nywana in Sepedi.
He makes mention of some of the awards that African writers look forward to winning like the Herman Charles Bosman Prize for English Literature, CNA etc, which I figured was motivation for aspiring writers to know that all is not lost at the shelves.
The biggest mystery about this novel is a quote he used in the earlier pages which informs the reader that Welcome To Our Hillbrow gase nonwane (is not fiction). Word on the street is that it is Mpe's biography with a few frills.
When I met him for the first and last time in Port Elizabeth (2003) Mpe spoke fondly about the book, about the contrasts contained in it, about how it was not wholly a book about Mapolantane and Makwerekwere but more deep themes that continue to dog society today. He loved its defining power and he knew he had written a benchmark. He died in 2004 but the book remains relevant today, six years later.
He touched on a challenge which he later articulates quite well in the book; which is about why are there so few literature coming out of Hillbrow or about Hillbrow? It is a question I posed, with the benefit of hindsight to a man who answered that call by writing his own book about Hillbrow, Room 207 (Kwela), Kgebetli Moele. He responded that one has to live in Hillbrow and be observant to write about life there. One has to be part of the nucleus and not just go there to research as if s/he was working on their thesis or a report on the impact of urban renewal. "If you go there to do research you are only going to see the things you want to see. You come with themes and you work around them and that's all you'll observe", Moele said.
He added that the most popular theme is prostitution, which is what Hillbrow is known for, apart from its drugs and corrupt police officers.
True, my argument, directed to Mpe and him was that if you live in Hillbrow you might not make it out to write a book about it, or you'll end up being a character in someone else's book - a character in Mpe's book, maybe Sammy who slept with Lerato,triggering Refentse's suicide and Lerato's pill-popping suicide and later going bonkers.
Everybody in Hillbrow is a character in a Phaswane Mpe novel titled, Welcome To Our Hillbrow. Look out for his take on witchcraft and you'll love the Limpopo bred son who took over the world and died, of what precisely, three years later, still nobody really knows, but Donadio.
I'm left believing like he did, that he's in that imaginary heaven shaking his head at this review and thinking, 'I should have known he was an inquisitive scribe when I met him'. But then, people in that imaginary heaven can not control what happens down here.
Welcome To Our Hillbrow
is still available at all good book stores.
Below is a poem by the late Phaswane Mpe
HIV Nights
we called them gumbas
our friday night parties
we ate & drank with our mouths
& bottoms too
the beers the brandies the food
then in the early hours of the morning
we carried the gumbas to our student rooms
where we gulped
steaming semen & vaginal juices
thus we killed friday nights
& our dreams
we drowned our dreams
in oceans of alcohol
& baked them away
in the heat of the mornings
there could be no cooler breaks
from the burden of books
the disappointing grades
the markers' corrosive comments
until the doctors looked us gravely in the eye
& said
but children it's too late now
we still do not have a cure

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