Sat | Sep 23, 2017

Annie Paul | A wreath for Peter Abrahams

Published:Wednesday | January 25, 2017 | 1:00 AM
Annie Paul

For me, the unfortunate demise of the renowned writer Peter Abrahams trumps all other stories this week. As he was 97 when he died, I can't very well use the term 'untimely', for Peter had had much more than the three score and ten the Bible prescribes. But his sudden death in ambiguous circumstances does make one uneasy, confirming the fact that the very old, like the very young, cannot ought not to be allowed to live alone.

I only knew of Abrahams as a radio commentator and journalist until some years ago when a South African magazine called Chimurenga asked if I would be willing to go and interview him for the inaugural edition of their new publication, the Chronic. It was only then that I found out about his stellar career as a novelist, one of the first native writers in English to appear on the African continent.

In the 1950s and '60s, South Africa-born Peter Abrahams was an internationally celebrated writer, the first major African writer to be published in the mainstream British and American circuits. In the UK, his publisher was the fabled Faber and Faber, T.S. Eliot's publisher as well, and in the USA he was represented by Alfred A. Knopf Inc. The Path of Thunder, published in 1948, was on the New York Times bestseller list for a week before it was superseded by Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country.

The five or six novels Peter Abrahams wrote in the '50s and '60s earned enough royalties for him and his wife, Daphne, to live on their own terms, beholden to no one, forgotten by the world on top of the Jamaican hill he bought in the '50s, and named Coyaba. In exile from South Africa, Abrahams had met Norman Manley in London and been invited to come and help build the soon-to-be-independent nation of Jamaica.

Abrahams accepted with alacrity and made Jamaica his permanent home, never writing another novel but throwing himself into political education and radio broadcasting.

"In Jamaica, for the first time in my life I didn't have to be against, I could be FOR, and do things for what I was interested in. Also, Jamaica became a crucial element in the setting up of this Non-Aligned Movement, an anti-imperialist, anti-South African scene, because when I came here, they knew NOTHING about South Africa. The colonial government here, even the self-governing government, got its information on Africa from the Colonial Office, which demonised Kenyatta and the Mau Mau. I was appalled at a man like Norman Manley not knowing what was behind all this.

"And so I began a quiet thing here talking to the leaders, and once the leaders got the hang ... emotionally they knew but they didn't have the facts, you see ... so I had to tell them about Kenyatta, just as Mandela wasn't a wild, communist terrorist and things like that. So Jamaica was the first to line up behind India in the boycott of South African goods. India was the inspiration for the boycott of trade, with South Africa and Jamaica following close behind, even before it became independent, when it was still self-governing."

Coyaba wasn't an easy place to get to, a house on an isolated hill, with an almost perpendicular winding road leading to it. It was an interview I'll never forget, Peter occasionally chewing a clove of raw garlic, a lifetime habit to which he attributed his good health.

In his 90s, Abrahams had lost none of his feistiness and interest in the world. New technologies were something he kept up with, subscribing to Al Jazeera long before it was available on cable TV here.

Peter's independence of mind was exemplary. A couple of years ago, a South African teacher-film-maker contacted me to ask if I could get in touch with Abrahams, as she wanted to buy the film rights to his novel A Wreath for Udomo. I phoned him to relay the news, thinking he would be excited by this, as most novelists I know would give anything to see their books made into films.

But not Peter Abrahams. He had been approached many times, he said, once even by the producers of the South African series Generations, to get him to allow them to turn Mine Boy into a series. Once he realised he wouldn't have any editorial control over the project, he lost interest. He intended to leave the rights to all his novels to his heirs, he said.

"In short, I'm just not hungry enough, Annie," said Peter, concluding the conversation, leaving me to shake my head at the indomitable nature of this tough old man. I don't know if we'll see the likes of him anytime soon.

- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com or tweet @anniepaul.