In light of the #MeToo movement, Kagiso Lesego Molope’s This Book Betrays My Brother may seem powerfully prescient to North American readers in 2018. But it was first published in South Africa in 2012.
“The story that really inspired me to write the book was something that was happening in South Africa at the time,” Molope says of the 2005 trial of politician Jacob Zuma, who was ultimately acquitted of raping a young woman from his inner circle. “Women—a lot of women—and men supported him. Because of the support that he got through the trial from the nation, she ended up being cast out, and she was banished from the country and lived overseas. [Then] she watched this man, who had raped her, become president.”
This Book Betrays My Brother is not told from the perspective of victim or perpetrator but a witness who, in a sense, becomes a bit of both: Naledi is 13 years old when she sees her beloved older brother Basimane’s violent assault of Moipone, a girl from the local township.
“It has been understood by both strangers and friends that Basi—as we affectionately call my brother—is as special as raindrops on dying crops,” Molope writes. “I say this not with jealousy but the apology, really; an honest, heartfelt, and heartbreaking apology coming from a sister’s guilt.”
As the first male scion in generations, Basimane is destined for particular greatness, and the family operates in service to his potential. (They are relatively privileged, own a successful grocery store, and live in the hills.) But Naledi cannot square her sisterly duty with what she feels on Moipone’s behalf.
“[T]here’s this...connection, this allegiance I’ve always felt with her,” she writes. “Well, it’s quite inappropriate, isn’t it? I don’t know. I think that it may be. My strongest allegiance should be to family, as my mother and all my family have reminded me many times.”
“It was very important to me that the reader feel the complexities of the story, with Naledi,” Molope says. “I just felt like they needed to feel her dilemma instead of stand outside her story and judge or be able to say what should or shouldn’t happen. It was important to me that they love the brother the way that Naledi loves him, feel loved by him in the same way that Naledi feels [loved by him], so...it’s not that you look at him and say, This guy deserves what’s coming to him.”
For its nuanced portrait of a young woman grappling with disclosure and reckoning, This Book Betrays My Brother won the South African English Academy’s prestigious Percy Fitzgerald Prize for Youth Literature. The novel ably, poignantly contends with issues of sexism, classism, racism, homophobia, and violence that should resonate with readers worldwide.
“We need to make sense of choosing to live with people who are violent,” Molope says. “Witnesses have a lot to lose—sense of safety, the friends around you, your life—[but] if people who had a lot to lose could have said anything” in the cases of powerful men like Jacob Zuma (Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and many others, she says), perhaps their abuse wouldn’t be so widespread.
“It was important for me that it be Naledi who said something,” she says. “Just to say, be brave, be an ally. Even if you have a lot to lose.”
Megan Labrise is a staff writer and the co-host of the Fully Booked podcast.