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 Island.

"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 to do."

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 citytype@globe.com.

 
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