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.
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...
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