Miriam Tlali was born in Doornfontein, Johannesburg, in 1933 and grew up in Sophiatown. Tlali enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand, but was not admitted owing to the reservation of positions for white students. She later went to the University of Lesotho (then called Pius the XII University), at Roma, but could not complete her studies owing to financial difficulties.
It was her employment as a bookkeeper at a Johannesburg furniture store that prompted her to write her first novel, Muriel at Metropolitan. Completed in 1969, the book was only published in 1975, and subsequently banned in 1979. An international version, published by Longman African Classics, was based on her original manuscript titled Between Two Worlds. Tlali was co-founder and a contributor of Staffrider magazine, which was aimed at providing an outlet for anti-apartheid creative writing by black peoplple, and penned a regular column “Soweto Speaking”.
In 1978, Tlali was invited to an international writing programme at Iowa State University and gave lectures in San Francisco, Atlanta, Washington DC and New York. Amandla, a novel based on the 1976 Soweto riots, was published in 1980. It was well received and sold a remarkably successful 5 000 copies in a few weeks, but was banned immediately thereafter. Both novels were translated into several languages, including Dutch, Japanese, Polish and German. They were unbanned in 1986.
Tlali wrote a play, Crimen Injuria, while on scholarship in the Netherlands, and it was presented both in Holland and the United States of America. Mihloti is a collection of short stories, interviews and non-fiction and was published in 1984 by Skotaville Press, a black publishing house of which Tlali was the founding member. Footprints in the Quag was published initially as Soweto Stories by Pandora Press in 1989.
Tlali was a visiting scholar at the Southern African Research Programme at Yale University between 1989 and 1990. In 2001, she was honoured by the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology as the first African woman to publish a novel in South Africa. In 2005, she was again honoured by the department as a recipient of the Literary Lifetime Achievement Award. As a member of the Women’s National Coalition, she assisted in drafting the Preamble to the South African Women’s Charter.
Tlali has played a pivotal role in the literary world and has travelled the world over to highlight the difficulties of being an African woman and writer. She is currently working on a multi-generation novel, Bleeding Shoulders, which represents the lives of black South African women during apartheid and the transition to democracy.