Friday, March 13, 2009

Meeting Don Mattera

Yesterday I attended a writer's conference here in Kimberley for the sole purpose of meeting Don Mattera.

If you do not know who Don Mattera is you should find out!

I remember when I first started reading Mattera's 1987 book, "Sophiatown: Coming of Age in South Africa", I could not put it down.

I started reading Sophiatown in the early nineties. It was the time before the era of Mandela's presidency and I was commuting back and forth between Howard University in Washington DC and my Fells Point residence in downtown Baltimore.

During my long daily commute I would often think through passages of Sophiatown.

What struck me most about Mattera's writing in Sophiatown was his ability to write humanely about a time that was anything but humane.

So there I was yesterday staring at a man I have wanted to meet for so long. He was part of a roundtable of panelists who were asked to speak about their reason for writing.

Matterra spoke first. He was annoyed because the facilitator seemed to think that the audience was there to hear his thoughts. Twenty minutes after the start time the facilitator was still wanking on and Mattera motioned to someone in the audience to intervene.

The man stood up and told the facilitator to let the panel speak.

Mattera then said to the facilitator, "Sir, your job is to facilitate and ours to amplify".

There was no arguing with the power and presence of Don Mattera as he began to talk about his life and family in the style of Sophiatown.

"I write because I must", he said and I was drawn in, again.

It struck me that his spoken words were as powerful as the ones he put to paper.

Throughout the two hours of riveting discussion I held on tightly to my copy of Sophiatown. The same copy I read and re-read 17 years ago.

When the panel concluded I walked over to Mattera and he looked at my hands and said, "Where did you get that copy of my book? It must be overseas because that edition was banned in South Africa."

I explained and he took the book from my hands. "Come, come sit here with me", he beckoned.

I walked over to where he was standing as other audience members approached him for photo opportunities. He told me to wait while he eagerly posed for photos.

He then sat down and beckoned for me to sit next to him. He asked me what my name was and he said, "Ahhhh Ridwan you are a Muslim like me, you know I am a Muslim right? I became a Muslim in 1974."

"What is your surname Ridwan?" he asked. I said "Laher" and he immediately said, "Oh you are an Aliporian just like me. I know that Lahers come from Alipore in India."

I said my father's people were from Alipore and he asked who my father was. I told him and he said, "I know your father".

I nodded choking back tears and he started to write in my book.

He signed his name after writing two beautiful passages I need to think through just like before, only this time the passages are written directly to me.

When Mattera was done he looked at me closely and spoke quietly about coming to terms with the struggle that is life.

He then closed my book and stood up. I thanked him for his time and he put his arms around me and told me to remember him and this time.

"I have cancer Ridwan", he said. "Remember me in your duas (prayers)", he asked sincerely as he held onto my hands.

He then turned to talk to the many other folk who wanted to meet him.

I walked from his presence and glanced back with appreciation at the man who pressed me to think about truth and forgiveness more than any other literary figure from South Africa.

In all those many miles between DC and Baltimore and yesterday I often wished that our paths would cross.

I am now ever so grateful to have met Don Mattera and I am still in awe of his literary and poetic genius and his humane brilliance.


SIDE NOTE: Listen to a podcast entitled "Don Mattera's Living Memory" here.

Picture Credit


Luis Portugal said...

It has a nice blog.
Sorry not write more, but my English is bad writing.
A hug from my country, Portugal

Ridwan said...

Thank you kindly Luis. Your English is just fine and I hope you will look in again.

Thanks for the hug too.

Peace to you!

Anonymous said...

yes, he's such a mensch. and a fortuitous meeting for you at this time too.. funny how the wheel turns, then suddenly makes one sit up & take note. i like those reminders that maybe there's more going on than what we think we know. either way, thanks for the blog, i enjoyed it, and again, peace & strength to you Ridwan

Ridwan said...

You are absolutely right my sista. It was a "fortuitous meeting" and I am so grateful for the "wheel" that "turns" ...

At the beginning of his address Mattera said that the conference indicated that the "intellectual drought in the Northern Cape had been broken."

I understood what he meant. Kimberley, in fact the whole Northern Cape, is such a forgotten corner of SAfrica.

Yet there is so much "going on" here and there are folks reaching out with ideas and thinking that speak of an untapped vitality.

I was so happy to also meet some of the living relatives of Sol Plaatjie at the conference.

The afternoon turned out to be so much more than I expected and it brought me hope and strength.

Niteflyer thank you kindly for your words of support and your friendship. I am deeply touched and trust that all is well with you my friend.

I hope to catch up soon hey. In the meantime keep writing and stay well my sista.

Peace to you,

Dade said...

Wow, Ridwan. You were truly blessed. What a gift God has given you by bringing you together with a man you greatly admire so soon after your father's passing.

God is great, my friend. Your post is just more evidence of it.



Ridwan said...

Thank you my brother Dade. I do feel blessed and I agree that God is indeed great.

I trust you are well my friend.

Peace brother!


Anonymous said...

Don Mattera!!
Lovely post, ridwan:)

I can imagine your unalloyed joy at the meeting. It's a memory to cherish. One that will keep you warm when you sometimes wonder at the coldness inside and from above.
(if you do.)

This reminds me of the time a prominent Muslim writer stayed at my house. I had grown up reading his articles. The entire magazine- and I would only read his articles.
(I was a silly child.)

So when he slept under our roof-
it was something that I still...marvel over. The sheer serendipity of it.
I only exchanged greetings with him- i belong to a pretty conservative family, so i couldnt gush and flap my hands in happy hysterics. besides, wasn't seemly- was. just. amazing.

i'm glad you had so much more interaction:)


Ridwan said...

Pserean thank you for bringing me back to this post.

I remain in awe of Materra and his genius.

His writing and his persona reach out and grab unlike many other writers I have encountered.

I appreciate your retelling of the writer in your house.

When I read you over at your spot I feel your words press beyond being contained or defined.

There is a lot of power in your words and the experiences you relate.

Get that book contract ;0) your voice is important.

Thank you for writing there and thank you for writing here too.

Peace to you!