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.