The hidden secrets of writing with Redi Tlhabi

 In Creative Writing Courses, The secrets behind the practice of good writing, Tips for Writers

Broadcaster and news anchor, Redi Tlhabi joined our Creative Writing Course in All About Writing’s early years, when she recognised her need and desire to write her memoir.

That memoir, Endings and Beginnings: A Story of Healing (Jacana Media) went on to win the 2013 Alan Paton Award and Redi has subsequently produced another work of non-fiction, Khwezi: The remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo.

In her memoir, Redi explores two traumatic deaths she experienced during her childhood. One was the death of her father, the second of a handsome, charming – but dangerous – gangster, Mabegzo, who befriended and protected her after her father’s death:

I’m standing at the street corner and, for the second time in my short life, looking down on a dead body. I mustn’t go crazy this time. There’s blood coming out of his mouth, just like with Papa two years ago. But unlike Papa, his eye isn’t hanging out of its socket. It still looks weird, though, like he’s winking at me. Papa also winked at me.

A gentle spring rain is washing the blood from Mabegzo’s face. His family aren’t here yet. I’m the only one here who cares about him, and I’m powerless to fend off the human vultures circling his body, eager to kill him again and again. Silently I whisper the Catholic prayer for the dead. ‘Moya wa hae, le bohle ba falletseng, e phomole ka kgotso ka mohau wa Modimo. May his soul and the souls of all of the departed rest in peace, in God’s mercy. Let it be.’

I say it three times, just as our priest does, hoping he won’t be in pain for long.

Since my father died two years ago, I’ve often wondered whether my prayers helped him survive in purgatory, and if he’s still there. The nuns who taught Sunday school made purgatory sound horrific, a place where people cry and scream in preparation for heaven. But if anyone could survive it, Papa could. He was big and strong and never cried, so I knew that this place of suffering wouldn’t break my father. I knew it.

But Mabegzo? I’m not sure he’ll be okay. So, standing at the corner – our corner – I pray and pray and pray. He was very sad lately, and cried a lot when we spoke. Since he killed his friends two months ago, he came to me and cried a lot. And now he’s dead like them. I need to pray faster and harder to help him. More people are gathering around his body. There’s a lot of singing and dancing. Some are even ululating. If Mabegzo were alive he would beat them all up and demand, ‘Leshebile eng? What are you staring at? Voetsek!’

The onlookers are feasting their eyes just like they did with my father – poking him a bit, swinging his legs, wanting to see if he’s really dead. But with Papa there was sorrow and shock, and neighbours and friends tried to keep order and control the crowd. They covered his face with newspapers out of respect. But still there were people who turned my father’s death into a circus, lifting the newspaper and exclaiming, Tjo, tjo, tjo! Bamulimazile. They’ve really mutilated him.’

He was an ugly corpse, my father, because of that eye. But Mabegzo, his face is still fine. I’m glad about that. A mother drags her son to the scene and forces him to take a long, hard look at Mabegzo.

‘Look at this dog,’ she admonishes. ‘Look. This is how you’ll end up if you don’t clean up your act! I’ll have to pick you up off the street, too. Botsotsi ba shwa ba sa le banyane. Criminals die young.’

Stupid woman. My father wasn’t a tsotsi. Someone just stabbed him, pushed the knife straight into his heart and then dug it into his eye, gouging it out and leaving it hanging on his cheek. And Mabegzo? Well, he may have been a criminal, but that’s not all he was. And I know. Better than all of them.

An elderly woman starts to pray, but it’s not a prayer of sorrow or gratitude for the life that was. She’s thanking God for hearing her prayers to remove this menace from society. A stray dog is now licking the blood from Mabegzo’s face. It horrifies me that no one intervenes. ‘Ja, khotha le nja.’ It should be funny that a grown man is cheering on the dog, begging it to lick the ‘dog’ lying dead on the street. But it’s not funny. It’s the ultimate insult to a young man who never harmed me when he could have. I want to tell them all how loving and kind he was, how he could switch on the lights of my heart with a smile and a wink. He had so many opportunities to hurt and defile me, but he never did.

But who here cares? There are no ears for my story right now. The world has snuffed him out and for them it’s time to celebrate. So I lock the words deep inside the dispirited crevices of my soul, and continue to pray silently.

An old woman comes forward, bends over his body and gently strokes his forehead. Then she steps back sadly. She must be his grandmother. ‘Haai,’ says a woman, ‘this granny is strong to stand here and see her child like this.’

A police van pulls up. Very soon it will disappear around the corner with Mabegzo in it. Finally, the tsotsi who has eluded the police for so long will be in police custody.

Just a few weeks ago he told me he’d never be caught dead in a police van; that only cowards get caught or killed by the police.

His nemeses, the men in uniform, are now hard at work cordoning off the area and asking questions – very few – about him. They, too, are keen to know who the heroes are who slaughtered the ‘dog’.

There will be no investigation into this murder, unless it’s to reward those responsible. Finally, they’re ready to load him into the back of the blue and yellow police car, to remove him at last from the streets he thought he owned. An officer kicks his lifeless body and the crowd erupts in jubilation and applause. I look to his grandmother to intervene and defend him. But she stands by in silence as the police assault a lifeless man before throwing him clumsily into the back of the van.

Even in death they’re determined to punish him. I look away. I mustn’t go crazy again.

I find this scene horrifying in its intense and vivid detail. Redi explains very little, yet we learn so much – about the society she grew up in, about her as a person, about her state of mind in the moment. It’s all there in the observational specificity of it. She has written a fully immersive scene, in which we feel the emotion, along with her.

Writing tips:

  • Use specific detail to carry us into a moment: what people say and do, what you can see, hear, smell and feel.
  • Just because you’re writing memoir, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write in fully immersive scenes, recreated from the past to the best of your ability.
  • Carry us into your inner life, so that we feel the emotion of the moment with you.

Buy Endings and Beginning here and if you’d like to become a better writer, whether you’re a complete beginner, or have some experience and would like to up your game, our Creative Writing Course will teach you you need, with personal feedback.


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