Tragedy spurs poet’s journey

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Family tragedy gave birth to France-based author and poet, Rethabile Masilo

Mohalenyane Phakela

RETHABILE Masilo, who is set to release his anthology Qoaling next month, might not have become the prominent author and poet that he is today had it not been for the family tragedies he had to endure as a child.

The France-based writer was born in Morija in 1961 and his affinity for books was nurtured by his father Benjamin who worked at Morija Printing Works at the time.

A few years later, his father joined politics and this was during the state of emergency (Qomatsi) era in the country which was declared in 1970 when the then ruling Basotho National Party refused to accept the Basotho Congress Party’s election victory and proceeded to dissolve parliament and suspend the constitution. Their rule was to last until 1986 when the military took over.

And during those turbulent years, Rethabile’s brother who had undergone military training, disappeared and the family believes he was killed as people in the opposition often ‘disappeared’ those days.

In September 1981, while residing in Qoaling, Maseru, the family was attacked by unknown assailants who shot through the parents’ bedroom window and killed his then three-year-old nephew.

His father fled to South Africa seeking asylum at the French Embassy and the rest of the family joined him the following day.

While still refugees in South Africa, his father enrolled Rethabile and his sister at the University of Tennessee in the United States of America and during that period the pain and horror of the experiences at home hit him with full force. That is when Masilo the author was born, and writing was his mechanism of dealing with his grief.

“Flashbacks of what happened back home kept racing in my mind and there was too much pain that I needed to deal with,” Rethabile told Xpress People in an interview on the sidelines of his session with local wordsmiths at Rockview Beer Gardens in Khubetsoana on Thursday evening.

“I had lost a brother, a nephew and narrowly escaped death so I started writing because I found it to be the best way to tell the family tragedy to find closure.

I grew up with a love for reading and I chose poetry because it is the best form of writing where feelings and emotions can effectively be expressed.

“At university I majored in Biology and one of the subjects I did was English so the person who taught me that subject asked why I chose sciences when I was good at writing. After graduating with a degree in Genetics in 1986 I came back the following year to study literature which was a one year course.”

He said it was during this time that he met his future wife who is French and they moved permanently to France in 1987 where he worked as an English language teacher “since I could not find a job in the science field because I did not know the French language”.

Masilo did not stop writing and he had created an online blog, Poefrika for his poetry. 25 years later he got his first publishing contract and that is when Things That Are Silent was released.

“In 2012 I got an email from a London publisher who told me they had seen my material on the internet and were interested in publishing it. Things That Are Silent was then released in June the same year.

“I was excited and decided to continue writing more for I had found a platform to speak and be heard. I never rushed to publish the second book but wrote more and more poems.”

That same year (2012) his father passed on and his return home for the funeral provided the inspiration for Rethabile’s second book, Waslap (a bathing towel), which was released in 2015.

The anthology garnered Masilo more popularity and one of the poems, Swimming, won the 2015 Dalro Prize and the following year (2016) the anthology won him the Clenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry.

“In Sesotho tradition, when a man passes away his children have to share his clothes so I took the waslap my father used, took it to France and used it to bath. It brought more memories and this time I was too emotional when writing to a point where I would even cry or even call my mother then we would cry together on the phone.

“Another publisher from England was interested in publishing my anthology in 2015 and to me it was a great book as I shed tears when writing it and I always wondered if I would be able to write like that again. People often asked what the title meant and how was it associated to the emotions in the book.”

Last year saw Rethabile published Letter to My Country, a book he said was inspired by the local political landscape in 2016.

He is currently working on his forth book, Qoaling, which is due for release next month.

“I decided to call this book Qoaling because that is where the incidents (tragedy) happened. I believe that helps find closure,” he said.

Masilo said he was considering returning home “as I have fallen in love with this place again”.

“I have noticed a lot of talent in the country that needs to be groomed but I always tell poets that one cannot be a writer if they do not read. They must read a lot in order to enjoy poetry and never do it for fame but passion.

“The most disturbing thing is that our children do not have Basotho role models, which is something that needs to change for one to tell stories of his hometown he or she must be inspired by that home,” he said.

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