THE recent passing of Omaruddin ‘Don’ Mattera, a giant in the African and South African literary worlds, leaves us with a legacy we must celebrate. His death also leaves a gap that is almost impossible to fill, writes YUNUS OMAR.
MANY fine tributes have been written in the days and weeks since his death, and more will follow as the reality of his passing becomes more apparent with the passage of time. As those tributes have shown, he contributed to a wide variety of important projects and programmes throughout his life. This short piece reflects on what is lost when a writer like Omaruddin ‘Don’ Mattera dies.
At the outset, it is necessary to point out that every human life is important. When we pay tribute, as is done here, to a group of people we call ‘writers’, it is not to belittle the work of anyone who is ‘not a writer’. Rather, the point here is to think through what writers may contribute, and what we would want them to do if we were able to speak to them ourselves.
One of the basic insights about writers is that they record their thoughts. They think, but they go one step further. They turn their thoughts into poems, newspaper and magazine articles, short stories, novels, works of non-fiction, letters to editors, and so on. In this way, their private thoughts are made public. Once private thoughts are made public, they can be read by others, and so the private thoughts become shared moments between human beings. Those who read the writing of other people may know the writer, or may not know the writer at all. In a sense, writing makes it possible for strangers to ‘meet’ through writing and reading. It is a meeting of minds.
Those of us who have been lucky enough to have access to good public libraries will be among the first to pay tribute to the writers whose books they have been able to read over many years.
The benefits of having access to books can be many. Access to books gives each of us the opportunity to be introduced to the thoughts of others. As stated earlier in this article, many of these authors will never be known to us personally. Their painstaking research, writing, editing, rewriting and finalising their books make it possible for us to be drawn into their worlds through their words. As the late South American educator, Paulo Freire, taught us, we read the word and the world. Words give us access to new ways of thinking about things. They teach us what we do not know. They provide comfort in loneliness, and so much more besides.
When a writer dies, the stream of thinking stops. We are no longer able to benefit from newer ways of thinking that these departed writers may have been working on or developing at the time of their deaths. In a sense, the ‘conversation’ between us, as readers, and the deceased writer, ends.
In another way, though, the death of a writer very often makes us return to their earlier works as we seek comfort from their writing as we mourn their passing. We thus renew our earlier ‘conversations’ with the writer. In the meantime, however, we have also developed and broadened our own worldviews and thinking.
In this ‘new conversation’ with a departed writer’s work, we quite often begin to understand more of what we might have missed in earlier readings. This is one of the many wonders of the written word. We are able to return to the same words many times over, and each time the same words can stimulate our thinking in new ways. We are therefore ‘renewed’ each time we start re-reading the same books or articles by writers who have passed on.
Cape Town (and other places in the country) once boasted of a number of reading circles and cultural clubs. Each week, or each month, people would get together to discuss and debate the writings of authors from the city, the country, the continent, and the world. During the apartheid period, when books were banned by the Nationalist Party, these reading and cultural clubs obtained scarce copies of many of these banned books, and read and discussed these books under the threat of arrest, torture and imprisonment.
Omaruddin ‘Don’ Mattera famously taught us, through the title of one of his many excellent works, that ‘Memory is the Weapon’.
Reading is not just for the wealthy. One of our daily responsibilities is to ensure that every person in the world is able to read for pleasure, for being able to join the workforce, for moving through the bureaucracy of daily life, for accessing information that will ensure healthy living, and for deepening the conversations with writers and thinking from across the world.
- Yunus Omar (PhD) lectures in the School of Education at the University of Cape Town. He writes in his personal capacity.