From South Africa to Canada: The writer’s journey of Ottawa’s Kagiso Lesego Molope

Kagiso Lesego Molope won the Ottawa Book Award for her novel This Book Betrays My Brother.

As a student of English Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Cape Town in the 1990s, Kagiso Lesego Molope was living in a country emerging into a new democracy in the years after the end of the apartheid regime.

She had come from a home in Atteridgeville, in the townships north of Pretoria, where her parents had worked hard and risked their lives for the day Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and into the presidency of South Africa. But while others were still celebrating their new freedoms, Kagiso was seeking the right to be herself fully.

Her personal quest made her interested in other similar stories.

“I was at university in the 1990s. I grew up in a township and I went to historically white schools. Because I come from so many different cultures in South Africa, I got to know all of South Africa. I got to understand that the lines that were drawn under apartheid were blurred when it came to some communities.

“I was really interested in exploring how these lines were blurred. In particular I was interested in how the gay black community survived in that environment. I wrote a paper on these places that were actually kind of desegregated under apartheid. My interest in this sort of story started then.”

Eventually she would write a novel about it called Such a Lonely, Lovely Road. It’s her fourth and it will be launched Nov. 13 in the National Arts Centre’s Rossy Pavilion. It tells the story of two men, Kabelo, the privileged son of a doctor, his lover Sediba and their relationship in post-apartheid South Africa.

The story has been with her for awhile, but writing it proved difficult.

First, she wanted to get her own life properly situated.

“When I wrote the thesis, I was asked by some people if I was interested in having it published but I was in the middle of emigrating. I was leaving the country,” she said in an interview.

And then she wrestled with the characters. She had found Sediba right away but the novel didn’t click.

“I didn’t quite know what to do with him. I wrote an entire novel around him and it didn’t work. Eventually Kabelo came and I wrote it.”

Sometimes in the journey of a writer, a good idea needs to wait.

“What kept happening to me was that I was reading novels about gay men that ended quite tragically. I was longing to read a love story that ended not tragically, maybe not the ideal ending, but not tragic.

“That is a big part of what inspired me to write this book. I am very aware that being gay and white in South Africa and being gay and black are very different things,” she said.

“It has been decriminalized, but there is this cultural hangover. There is this idea that you can’t be black and gay because it is un-African. It goes against African norms and traditions and principles. That is a big struggle for a lot of gay men in South Africa.”

Ironically, she said, according to her research the only place where gay black men are out and expressing themselves freely are places where there are people who aren’t black and who don’t subscribe to those rules and traditions, she said.

Molope is interested in such questions of identity and freedom.

An important book for her is The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai. His novel talks very clearly about identities and the complexities of them, she said.

“I have been interested in that because I have so many different identities and I have never actually found a place where I can be fully myself. It started from there.

“Sometimes, for a writer, you get a character who decides to be with you for a while and you explore what this person is about. I was really wanting to talk about the idea of how to be who you are at home, in a place where you feel most at home, and the discrimination you face when you are in a place where you are able to express this very important part of yourself. So that would be a black gay man in white places.

She also wanted to write a novel that was more loving.

“I had for many years been exploring issues of violent masculinities in South Africa. That had been my life for a really long time. For me, for my soul, for my moving forward, I wanted to talk about a more tender, gentle way of loving.”

Such a Lonely, Lovely Road deals with the story of a privileged black man who can do what he wants and live where he wants. She said she wanted to know what would make such a man vulnerable.

“What would happen to him and his world if he had to defy the rules that keep him privileged.” Being gay, she said, means the man can’t fully be the man he is raised to be. He has to figure out who he is.

Molope herself has been on the same journey.

“In terms of being an immigrant yes. In terms of having been, in the past, in a relationship with a woman yes. And I think there are a lot of issues of family and belonging that are very similar to mine.”

She left South Africa at 21 because “I was in a relationship with a woman and I didn’t think the country was working for me, even though it was working toward this great freedom.

“I did not feel South Africa was safe or comfortable for me because I was in relationship with a woman. And I wasn’t able to come to terms with the violence towards women’s bodies.”

She needed to feel safe. She came to Canada because it was far away from her home and relatively safe. She’s been here now for 21 years. These days in addition to writing, she is in grad school at Carleton University working on a Masters in Film Studies. She does go home occasionally to visit her mother. Her father has passed away. In fact she will be there next month at a writers festival.

In Canada, though, she has found that, “there is a lot of discrimination here that you face here being an African and an immigrant. But, at the same time, I can go for a run early in the morning and not be so worried about my safety.”

Ironically, having left South Africa so long ago, her novels have all been about the country of her birth, and she is much better known there than here. Her first, Dancing in the Dust, was on the International Board on Books for Young People honour list for 2006. Her second novel, The Mending Season, is part of the school curriculum in South Africa. Her third, This Book Betrays My Brother won the Percy Fitzpatrick Prize awarded by the English Academy of Southern Africa, where it was first published.

“I haven’t found ways to talk about what is happening in Canada in ways that are comfortable for me.” She says that writing about her home nation is partly a way to cope and understand her time there.

It turns out you can’t avoid yourself, no matter how far you travel.

Such a Lonely, Lovely Road (Mawenzi House)
Kagiso Lesego Molope
In town: The author will launch her novel Such a Lonely, Lovely Road Nov.13 at 7:30 p.m. at the NAC’s Rossy Pavilion at 7:30 p.m. For more information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.