Dispatch from Tenerife: Achmat Dangor’s “Literature and Revolt”, the Digital Frontier and Thursdays in Nairobi
The highlight of Friday’s proceedings at the Castillo de San Felipe was undoubtedly Achmat Dangor’s SILA 2010 keynote address, entitled “Literature and Revolt”.
The castle’s intimate main hall was packed to capacity, the crowd expectant. Dangor opened his remarks with a word that South Africans and the Spanish have very much in common: “Hola!” The ice was broken, the room breathed.
Dangor is in Tenerife as a guest of Casa Africa, Spain’s Africa outreach organisation, which has brought out a Spanish edition of his Z Town Trilogy. The novel was presented to the public after Dangor’s speech.
By “literature and revolt”, Dangor is referring, in the main, to the black South African makers thereof, and the problematic influence that the SA tradition of protest (“revolt”) has on our letters. Dangor is a writer who takes his fellows and their work seriously: listening to him speak in such considered terms about SA Lit, one was reminded that writing is an avocation, and we sometimes wear its mantle too lightly. Dangor himself can’t be accused of this.
In essence, the author called for a sea change – a disconnect and reconfiguration – in the elemental cycle of South African literary production. During the struggle, Dangor, who was banned in 1973, affiliated with the Black Consciousness movement – he was one of its leading lights – and he remains concerned with black writing, which of necessity takes its nourishment from black education. Considering the latter’s fraught heritage – a smouldering mixture of Bantu education and youths whose battle cry was “liberation before education” – this can be characterised as poor sustenance indeed. Dangor lamented that we haven’t yet escaped the negative pull of gravity exerted by Bantu education and the revolt against it: it robs youth, even today, of interior development; our culture of resistance has become a slave of its own noble purpose.
Despite the temptation to be pessimistic about the situation, however, Dangor didn’t paint a gloomy picture of SA. Instead, he sketched the outline of what he considers to be a period of transition, which includes, of course, many elements from which one can take encouragement. He singled out Kopano Matlwa as one writer among a generous handful who is able to reach an audience “that we ‘establishment’ writers have been trying to get to for years”. Matlwa’s writing points us toward a “struggle for the New South Africa”, leading the way to a space where the effort to build, rather than the disposition to revolt, is the default position.
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Meanwhile, earlier in the day, I sat on a panel to talk about the directions that digital publishing is taking in Africa. I won’t go into the discussion here, as many BOOK SA readers will be familiar with the ferment back home. Suffice to say it was an invigorating back and forth between the people on either side of the table!
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Finally, participants at SILA yesterday met Diego Gomez Pickering, a Mexican writer and diplomat who lived for a time in Nairobi, Kenya. His book, Los jueves en Nairobi (“Thursdays in Nairobi”), has just been published – and will come out in Kiswahili next year from Kwani?. “Nairobi embraces, asphyxiates, blinds you,” said Pickering. “It’s overwhelming, you get drunk on it, it creates and reinvents.” I asked, “Why ‘Thursdays’ – ?” He said, “It could have been any day, really, but on Thursdays Nairobi starts its transition from the working week to the weekend – it’s the day when the city begins to wax.” Jueves will be published in English in America, and should be available to South African readers next year.