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Writer gives voice to the dead

From South Africa to Ottawa

AN AFRICAN VOICE. Novelist Kagiso Lesego Molope writes about the experiences of Africans in the time of AIDS. Credit: Christina Reiley

For South African-born writer Kagiso Lesego Molope, the spread of AIDS in her homeland has deeply informed her writing.

“I’ve lost an entire community,” she says. “Whenever I visit the community I grew up in in South Africa, there are very few people I know who are still alive. That’s why I wanted to write a book about it because it’s my way, I think, of keeping their memory alive. And it’s in the spirit of being a responsible survivor.

“I do believe that if we survive, we have a huge responsibility to give the dead a voice,” Molope says.

Molope is penning a 500-page manuscript exploring the relationship of a heterosexual couple during the era of AIDS. Every morning and evening, the articulate author hammers away at her novel in the Sandy Hill apartment she shares with her girlfriend of nine and a half years.

“I want to talk about how it’s supposed to be this age of freedom and exploring ways of living and about being glad to be South African,” Molope says. “It’s become this period of fear again. Now it’s very tricky. There’s no cure for AIDS. It’s very discouraging, because it’s supposed to be a time when we’re growing, but we’re losing a generation.

“I feel really frustrated about it and we’re losing more people.”

Molope, who was born in North Pretoria, left South Africa several years ago, although she still visits often. She was completing the last year of her undergraduate degree at the University Of Capetown when she met a woman completing a junior year abroad in Women’s Studies.

“How we met is pretty easy,” Molope says, referring to her girlfriend with a wide grin. She is sitting in a cafĂ©, a snow-strewn street outside the large window behind her. Molope is tall and slender, with large dark eyes that focus as she reminisces. “It’s where we’ve been that’s pretty confusing.”

Molope’s new girlfriend stayed for another year. Together, they left for upstate New York. Her partner finished her undergraduate degree. After living in Montreal and Hamilton, the couple landed in Ottawa when her partner got a job here.

Having lived in various cities, Molope is still exploring Ottawa’s queer community.

She attended last summer’s Dyke March, which she considered a success because of a strong turn-out of about 200, including queer women of colour such as the new group, Agitate! Apart from that event, however, Molope is still searching for her place in Ottawa.

“I think I find it very lacking in diversity,” Molope says. “It seems to be a gay white man’s scene. I do find it a little bit cold. I think I’ve found it a little lonely because I haven’t found a queer community of colour. There are people of colour here. I’m just wondering — are they not out?”

Molope spends most of her time working on her books.

“My best friend is my computer,” Molope says with a laugh. “I’m always writing. I really need to get out more. I think I tried getting out more when I first got here, my first year and then I just became sort of reclusive.”

Seclusion seems to be Molope’s way of producing books. Although Molope worked in the human rights field in Ottawa, as well as for the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre, she has now turned to writing full-time.

Molope has two other novels under her belt, entitled Dancing In The Dust and The Mending Season.

Mending concerns Tshidiso, a 15-year-old black girl who attends an all-white school in 1990, during Nelson Mandela’s time, something that Molope experienced herself. At school, Tshidiso’s peers and teachers, mainly white and middle-class, consider Mandela a threat to the country. At home, Tshidiso’s family and friends consider him a hero who will change the country. Audiences and critics have praised Mending for reflecting an on-going cultural dilemma in mixed schools, some of which are attempting to be more progressive.

Unfortunately, because Oxford University Press published Mending for teachers and students to use in South African classrooms, Molope does not yet have a Canadian publisher. The book is available only on-line.

“I’m still looking for a publisher here in Canada,” Molope says. “I haven’t found one yet. I guess because I wrote it very specifically for South African schools, I wonder who exactly would be interested in publishing it here in Canada.”

Meanwhile, Dancing is scheduled to be made into a film by South African producer Moonyeenn Lee and director Damien O’Donnell, who directed East Is East. They plan to shoot the movie next spring.

“A producer just fell in love with the book,” Molope says. “I was really surprised. I’ve never written a feature-length film before. But they didn’t think it needed much work.”

Molope also likes to read what she likes to write — coming-of-age stories about young teenage African girls. Her influences include feminist fiction writers like Haiti’s Edwige Dandicat and Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga.

While Molope is writing, however, she reads material quite different from her own, such as Snow Falling On Cedars by David Guterson, about the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII and an interracial love affair. This novel was one of Molope’s favourite reads last year because of how the author portrays the community in the book and the relations between white people and people of colour.

But this year Molope wants to tear herself away from her computer and her books and get out and meet more people. But her novel-in-progress has a deadline of May, as does another, longer-term project.

“I’m kind of rushing through a book that I shouldn’t rush through,” Molope says. “I’m having a baby in May and trying to wrap up the book before the baby comes.”

Now in her second trimester, Molope is experiencing a new phase in her sex life.

“I’m just gonna say it feels good,” Molope says. “Some women, including myself, have more of a sex drive. But you have to work out some things because, obviously, your body is very different.”