It is hard to write about loss, and even harder when that loss is of a literary giant. It is a tall order, this. What can I say about Keorapetse William “Bra Willie” Kgositsile that the history books have not said?
Bra Willie’s creativity struggled through the savagery of apartheid. And, because the ability to adapt is the paramount measure of intelligence, he continued to produce seamlessly after apartheid. Bra Willie’s accolades and achievements speak for themselves: living in exile for 29 years; MA from Columbia University; Harlem Cultural Council Poetry Award; national endowment for the Arts Poetry Award; founder of the Black Arts Theatre in Harlem, while teaching at Columbia University; founder of the ANC’s department of education in 1977 and its department of arts and culture in 1983, becoming deputy secretary in 1987. And more awards for his poetry: the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, the Herman Charles Bosman Prize, and the Order of Ikhamanga Silver for using “exceptional talents to expose the evils of the system of apartheid to the world”.
Yebo (yes), that’s Bra Willie for you!
I remember him pleasantly amused by us arguing in a session during National Book Week. For Bra Willie would always be there at literary festivals, just listening. Somehow, the discussion had digressed to an argument about comparisons in South African literature: the old white guard versus the new generation of young black writers. Lack of book sales was also part of the discussion/argument. He offered his opinion as we were brilliantly losing the plot.
“We must be careful that we don’t compare. This is art; just write. Refine your craft. I just worry that you guys are looking outward too soon. The artist looks inward; the artist digs deeper. If you dig deep, readers will gravitate to that,” said Bra Willie.
We all got his drift.
I got to spend the most time with Bra Willie at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2013. He attended every session that featured a South African writer. Bra Willie was the first to come up to you after a session and compliment you on how wonderful it was. I remember him smiling with pride while Henrietta Rose-Innes was reading a passage from her book. Bra Willie had the same smile as I began to read a passage from my book. It was a fatherly, I’m-so-proud-of-you smile. And all South African writers witnessed it if they read from their work while Bra Willie was in the room. Bra Willie was so proud of us. Prof loved us, man!
I was sitting next to him at the writer’s tent in Edinburgh, complaining about the slow sales of my book and how I was thinking of going pure genre and conforming. He smiled, looked away, looked back at me, smiled and said, “Mzobe, be the writer you want to be!”
I am thankful to have met Bra Willie. I am thankful that we were on the same flight back to South Africa from Edinburgh. We talked. He told me about his time in exile – tales dripping with more suspense than a thriller. He taught me about integrity. He schooled me in politics. He reminisced about a few of his friends: John, Nina, Malcolm. That’s John Coltrane, Nina Simone and Malcolm X to you and me. But, to Bra Willie, it was just John, Nina and Malcolm.
We salute you, Bra Willie! You were a great seeker of knowledge. With your words, you went toe to toe with apartheid. You walked stride by stride with giants. And, when the time came, you returned to us, held our hands and helped us take baby steps.
Hamba kahle, Qhawelesizwe! (Go well, hero of the nation!)
"He lived as if he was a reed for the tunes and the rhythms and the winds of his time, and in that he was the reed of our turbulent passage on earth, perhaps transmitting a very ancient song to us."