Reading List: Joel Marie Cabrita

Instead of listing the books that help her write 'Written Out: The Silencing of Regina Gelana Twala,' the author notes five books that shaped Regina Gelana Twala.

Image credit Safa Hovinen via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

My new biography of Regina Gelana Twala tells the story of a woman written out of history. Twala (1908-1968) was a remarkable woman—a political activist in South Africa and Eswatini, she co-founded Eswatini’s first political party and represented the country at pan-African gatherings in Nkrumah’s Ghana. She was also a literary giant, writing as many as five manuscripts (all unpublished, and all but one lost to us). Twala additionally wrote hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. However, despite her achievements, Twala is today forgotten by everyone outside her immediate family.

In Written Out: The Silencing of Regina Gelana Twala, I answer the question as to why such a talented woman has been forgotten by history. The answer is multi-faceted, invoking prejudices of both race and gender. Politicians, editors, and academics all conspired to block Twala from publishing her work and ensured that her legacy was erased after her death in 1968.

Given that my biography of Twala deals with a formidable intellectual who has consistently been denied recognition, I would like to think not about my own reading list, but rather about the books that shaped Regina Twala’s life and career. Not all of these books were positive influences. Formative books and reading experiences could constrain, silence, and side-line as well as they could emancipate and inspire. In a 1938 letter to her second husband, Dan Twala, Twala made passing reference to “that library of mine.” What might some of the books in “that library” have been?

The Bible: The Bible would undoubtedly have to be my top pick for Twala. She was born, raised, and educated in the Methodist mission station of Indaleni, near Richmond in then Natal, and she attended the Congregationalist Adams College. She would probably have read the American missionary 1883 isiZulu translation of the Bible (a revised version would only be published in the 1950s). Daily Bible reading shaped Twala’s 60 years of life. As was the case for many educated South Africans of her generation, Twala thought biblically; her language, idioms, and vocabulary were all inflected with the rhythms and resonances of the Judeo-Christian canon. We can’t understand Twala without appreciating the significance of her daily soaks in scriptural texts, and the way in which this book shaped her politics, her creativity, and even her love life.

Bantu World: Writers like Twala were often denied opportunities to publish books. Instead, their publishing outlet was in supposedly ephemeral platforms, such as newspapers. In fact, one of Twala’s most formative reading experiences was her immersion in weekly newspapers—more affordable to purchase than books. They contained new literature as serialized novels and short stories, and they offered political commentary and news. During the decades Twala lived in Natal and Johannesburg, her favorite newspaper was the popular Bantu World. Twala weekly pored over its scintillating columns, read its Women’s Pages, absorbed its news items, and stayed abreast of gossip with its Who’s Who section.  She regularly clipped out articles she found particularly interesting. By the mid-1930s, Twala had turned from reader to writer, penning a column under the pseudonym of “Mademoiselle” that would make her one of the newspaper’s most popular correspondents.

Natal Code of Native Law: This slim volume (republished in 1932 by the government printer) was unfortunately one that Twala was intimately familiar with. The Natal Code set out the legislation that governed Black Africans’ lives in the province. It established a parallel system of legislation to European law, trapping Africans in “traditional” norms and providing the legal structure that justified their subordination. Twala’s early life in South Africa was an exercise in negotiating its strictures. As a young woman she applied for “emancipation” from the Code on the grounds of her education (invoking its Section 28). While seeking her separation from her first husband, Percy Khumalo, she was governed by its draconian dictates regarding African marriage and divorce. In an argument with her lover, Dan Twala, she scathingly accused him of not grasping the legal intricacies of her unhappy predicament: “You make me sick. I am not going to send you the Natal Code because you don’t understand the technic [sic] of the law. You are a cow so far as that is concerned.”

Porgy: Twala first read the white Southerners Dorothy and DuBose Heyward’s play Porgy in the late 1930s (and the play was itself an adaption of DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel of the same name and would later become the material for George Gershwin’s famous opera, Porgy and Bess). Twala was one of many South Africans who read and admired the play in this decade. While Black Americans criticized the play’s reiteration of tropes of Black criminality, the reception was far warmer amongst South African readers who found its portrayal of urban vice and downfall resonated with many of their own concerns about cities like Johannesburg. Twala wholeheartedly empathized with its tale of doomed love, finding Bess and Porgy’s predicament a sad mirror of her own affair with Dan Twala. Throughout 1938 and 1939, Twala worked on extracting and adapting the play for performance by Dan’s Bantu Dramatic Society in Johannesburg.

An African Aristocracy: The South African anthropologist Hilda Kuper wrote An African Aristocracy: Rank Among the Swazi in 1947. The book quickly cemented Kuper’s reputation as the foremost ethnographer of the emaSwati people. Yet Twala’s changing relationship with African Aristocracy provides a microcosm of her own evolution as a scholar of Swati culture. Initially, Twala was deferential to the book’s expertise, respectfully citing Kuper in her own written work. Yet by the 1960s, Twala had no patience with white scholars who claimed expertise on African societies In 1964, she publicly dismissed Kuper’s book as “dated,”surely a swipe at the fact that Kuper had at this point not visited Eswatini in 20 years. Kuper, however, would get her revenge on her old student. After Twala’s death in 1968, Kuper refused a plea to help publish Twala’s final manuscript. Instead, Kuper buried the work in her UCLA study. I came across this manuscript a few years ago while going through Kuper’s personal papers in the UCLA archive. I would twin these two books—African Aristocracy with Twala’s final unpublished book—as an indictment of the difficulties Black female scholars like Twala faced in comparison to the acclaim that far more easily greeted their white counterparts. Even more pointedly, the reputation of a book like African Aristocracy was achieved by Hilda Kuper squashing the careers of rival scholars like Twala.

Further Reading

Reading List: Ari Gautier

Writer Ari Gautier owes his own blend of mythology, Dalit consciousness, and surrealism to literary stylists such as Amos Tutuola, Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo.

Reading List: T.J. Tallie

Among the books historian Tallie has on his reading list is one about the food of the American Old South—“… a forgotten Little Africa but nobody speaks of it that way.”