November 16, 2003
One Writer's Long Journey
Is everyone in Boston a writer? Everywhere I picture people hunched
over paper-strewn desks, at laptops in coffee shops, on park benches,
at kitchen tables, the ones whose names adorn spines on library
shelves and leap from bookstore windows, and those who hardly dare
whisper the words, "I am a writer."
Lesego Malepe has done her share of writing in restaurants and libraries,
on the T and standing in lines. She says she wrote her first novel
in public, at every place but a desk.
"I can write at a rock concert," she says. But now she
doesn"t have to. These days Malepe does her writing at the
Writers" Room, a hushed space on State Street in downtown Boston
that is home to a community of writers. Malepe has always thought
of herself as a writer, but the journey to writing fulltime has
taken her across years and miles.
When Malepe was growing up in Pretoria, language was her "plaything."
Her father, a University of South Africa professor whose specialty
was the African language Setswana, helped nurture her love of language.
She laughingly recalls how life with four brothers spurred her to
use words as a weapon: she wrote short stories in which she was
the heroine and the villain was whichever brother was torturing
her most at the moment. Later, in her novel Matters of Life and
Death, she would sharpen that weapon and turn it against the political
system that imprisoned one brother at the age of 18 on a charge
of high treason and held him for 22 years on the infamous Robben
"To cope, you make order out of the life you are presented
with and the people and places around you," she says. She put
her world into a novel because, "you can get at deeper fundamental
truth through fiction."
At first Malepe tried to make sense of her world by studying political
science. She came to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar in
1978, got her Ph.D. at Boston University, then taught political
science at Wheaton College until 2001. She wrote op-ed pieces that
appeared in major newspapers and wrote short stories, as she says,
"to entertain myself." But the deaths of her parents in
the late 1990s, and of a brother in 2000, changed everything.
"I realized I could die any time and I thought if I"m
going to die, I want to make sure my book is published. I took stock
of my life and decided I wanted to do only what I felt I was meant
She gave herself two years to see if she could make her living as
a writer. She gathered her savings, knowing she had the fallback
position of teaching political science in South Africa; rearranged
her life; applied to the Writers" Room; and started writing
five hours a day.
Malepe"s first name means "you are blessed" in Setswana,
and she feels she has had blessing with her writing. When she finished
writing Matters of Life and Death, she decided against all advice,
to publish it through iUniverse. ("I just wanted the book to
be out there.") It sold so well that it is being reissued by
Genesis Press and an agent offered to represent her. She has just
completed her second novel, Truth and Reconciliation and is working
on a memoir, My Father"s Language. She is a writer.
"Even when I am tired my soul and my mind feel so fresh, so
alive. Some days are hard, some are easy. Sometimes chapters just
pour out. Those are the times that I live for. Some days every word
is a drop of blood. But I"ve trained myself to sit there anyway.
This is my writing time."
City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If
you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at email@example.com.