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In conversation with Omoseye Bolaji

In the Free State, local black literature is thriving as never before, with many popular writers emerging from the grassroots with startling regularity. Although the process started about ten years ago over fifty poplar books penned by local authors have been published with thousands of copies distributed in the many libraries that throng the Free State. The process has been referred to as the “renaissance of Free State Black Writing”. The most important and pivotal figure in this literature has been Omoseye Bolaji who apart from publishing over fifteen popular books, has also helped to encourage, nurture, and discover other budding authors in the province. Recognition for Bolaji’s awesome contributions to Free State Black writing has been growing in leaps and bounds. This year (2011) alone, he was given a “Lifetime Achievement Award” by the Free State Dept of Sport, Arts Culture, and the University of Free State also decided to give him a “Chancellor’s Medal” for the first time ever. Pule Lechesa spoke to Omoseye Bolaji about his awards, general grassroots writing in the Free State, and Black Writing in general…

PULE LECHESA: Within months you were given a Lifetime Achievement award, and also the Chancellor’s Medal from the University for your contributions to writing. How do you feel about this?

BOLAJI: Naturally I feel delighted. When the process started about ten years ago, we used to hear many people telling us that they did not even believe that black people could write books, and that the few local black journalists were already celebrities! But over the years the Free State Provincial libraries system was magnificent, buying hundreds and thousands of books published locally, and the feedback was that countless people especially in the local libraries loved these books; after all literature is about many people writing; writing should not just be confined to a few academics. So, because the library system was already aware of the many books I wrote and published, the other writers I encouraged etc, it was easy for them to give me a Lifetime Achievement Award. As for the “Chancellor’s Medal” from the University of Free State it pleases me no end as we now come to the lofty academics, including professors, who read my books and decided I had made substantial contributions. So, I am very pleased.

LECHESA: You have done so well, contributed a lot, considering you are not even a literary academic. Who were your literary influences?

BOLAJI: Well, I began to read many books since I was a child growing up abroad, and looking back I can say that my tastes have always been eclectic. I loved comics a lot whilst I was young, Beano, Sparky, Ritchie Rich, the Marvel comics etc. then there were the Enid Blyton books which I loved a lot; hence I can understand the Harry Potter mania now! I was still quite young, maybe 11 12, when I was already reading the James Hadley Chases, Nick carter series and many others. Around the same time, I was reading the African writers like Achebe, Soyinka, Ngugi, JP Clark, Bessie Head… memorising many parts which I was too immature to understand then! But I loved them too. I love Sidney Sheldon no matter how much the critics might despise him. I also love many of the English classics, Shakespeare, Austen, the Bronte sisters, DH Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, TS Eliot, even Mark Twain…the list might be endless as literature keeps on growing by leaps and bounds!

LECHESA: Of course, in the FS, quite a number of local black authors have contributed a lot to writing in the province. Who do you admire most?

BOLAJI: Well, it must be admitted that we have not pulled up too many trees locally but that is not to say that some individuals have not made their mark. Flaxman Qoopane is a name that springs to mind, a black Free State writer who was abroad, made his name internationally, came back home to publish many books too, most of them autobiographical. Job Mzamo is acknowledged as a polished poet, and so he is. Thabo Mafike has done very well too writing in his mother tongue, Sesotho, and also in English. His book, Thje bo Bophelo, stands out. You – (Lechesa) are already making a name for yourself in writing, but as you are interviewing me now, maybe we should not go there!

LECHESA: You have published many books, about ten of them fiction, mostly novels, or short novels. Why is it that virtually all readers at grassroots level are crazy over your books?

BOLAJI: The reason is simple: I essentially write for black readers and I know what most of them want. I have been reading books – some very good, good or average, or even bad for decades. I discuss these things with “experts” regularly and I know that for most black readers the type of fiction they want to read should not be too long and should have local colour. Most of my fiction are by international standards “novelettes” but to most readers they are full length books. Many of them after reading my books are so delighted, saying “Oh I enjoyed your book so much and read them again and again!” Others refer to the “realistic scenes” – the shebeens, the poverty, the grimness, etc. Those are the type of things I write about, culled from real life. Take Impossible Love for example – many University students have come to me and said: “This cannot be fiction – it must have happened!” That is the type of thing that makes an author happy. I have also published books on well-known Free State personalities, like Gilbert Modise, Collins Mokhoto, Alitta Mokhuoa…so people enjoy reading these books. It’s all about local colour and simplicity

LECHESA: Yet even important white writers and critics have favourably reviewed your works

BOLAJI: I am happy about this too. Although the books I write are not of the highest standard, many whites see a lot of merit in them. In fact, there are so many books, so many articles, published on my literary works, even on the internet. These things serve as a fillip to me.

LECHESA: On a national level, as regards black writing over the years, decades, what do you think?

BOLAJI: Oh, I have great, great respect for black writers who have been holding sway over the decades. Peter Abrahams – as a pioneer, he inspired so many African writers, actually all over the continent. Ntate Es’kia Mphahlele – a magnificent, world class writer, yet everybody can enjoy his Down Second Avenue. The academics like Zakes Mda and Njabulo Ndebele continue to do the country proud. Mda has a zany sense of humour, best seen in The Madonna of Excelsior. Njabulo’s Fools remains memorable and indelible. Gomolemo Mokae has done well to publish books like the secret in my bosom, which so many readers at grassroots level can enjoy. Vonani Bila is a formidable literary activist, a great lover of poetry. Lewis Nkosi is a great writer, one of the pioneers of black African literature. His mating Birds is loved by many. Phaswane Mpe published only one novel (Welcome to Hillbrow) much loved by both the critics, and the ordinary people. I have never believed, though, that ordinary readers care about virulent literary criticism by the experts and pundits. I think many black people will continue to appreciate reading, especially if they can identify with it. To be honest African giants like Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o are more celebrated than South African writers now, but remember they had a good head start!

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