“You Speak So Well” – HJ Golakai Appraises South Africa’s “White Literary System” and Shares Her Memories of the FLF
HJ Golakai (The Lazarus Effect) has shared her thoughts on the debate that flared up last week around South Africa’s “white literary system”, after Thando Mgqolozana’s pronouncements at the Franschhoek Literary Festival.
Mgqolozana, whose most recent novel is Unimportance, announced that FLF 2015 would be his last literary festival, saying: “It is upsetting for me to jump out of literary festivals like this, and I’m upset that I’ve had to make this kind of decision, but I think it’s a necessity, because I want to be able to sleep at night, I want to be able to honour myself.”
Golakai’s debut novel, The Lazarus Effect, was shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Debut Prize and the Sunday Times Fiction Prize in 2012. In this piece she shares her experience of the FLF, and asserts that she doesn’t believe last week’s incident will “stay isolated”.
Soooo. Franschhoek Literary Festival 2015.
In Monrovia, I’m stuffing my face with mango (popcorn and chocolate are more expensive out here than fruit; we’re all healthy by force), watching from the sidelines as the drama unspools. All this “Thisness” effected by the daring Thando Mgqolozana for “standing in his truth”, rallying for change, then dropping the mic and walking off, all at the white pipo dem festival. Abeg o. This chap has a lot of bloody nerve. Yes, like almost literally. He saw a gaping, ever-widening wound, reached in it, yanked out a handful of raw nerve endings and squeezed. And the shrieking and squirming has begun. How dare he.
Before I shoot off at the mouth, let’s make a couple of things clear. First, this is not a new-rectum-ripping. Thando, hereafter dubbed HRT (His Royal Thisness, not the drug therapy) is a friend and comrade in words. Yeah, okay, a virtual buddy – we chat online and haven’t actually met in person but he’s my friend if I say he is. I’m too old to be asking people’s permission first. Second, the following needs mentioning in the wake of the recent xenophobic hullabaloo. For they who may glance at my “alien” name and grouch “Well she’s not one of us, how dare she put her mouth in our business”, the answer is: 1. I lived in Cape Town for a solid decade. Yip. The city with the demographic that’s almost like someone held South Africa like a rag and shook it, and all the white people tumbled and pooled in one breathtaking spot while the “Others” with more melanin managed to hang on. 2. I’m an exceptionally skilled (Home Affairs’ phrase, not mine! Though I can’t claim not to love it!) permanent resident. Basically, a superhero that can’t vote. 3. My publisher of the past five years is lekkerly local.
Nuff said? Let’s jolly along.
I’ve been following the frenzy of Facebook posts and retweeted Twitter comments with relish. Now, I’m a veteran of what I delightfully term zoo syndrome, feeling like caged entertainment, or what HRT describes as being treated as “an anthropological subject”. But I’m not at all being facetious when I say the uproar leaves me feeling … amused. Now hang on, don’t get ahead of me. Nothing about the stance HRT’s taken is at all gimmicky. Like all writers who frolic on SA’s writing scene, especially us “black writers”, I feel equally saddened and excited that it took something this drastic to get this much press. No, I’m amused because this was always obvious. Are we, en masse, actually shocked that an author of the Negroid persuasion feels so frustrated by how much of a performing monkey he’s been made to feel at literary festivals that he’s forced to decline ever attending again? REALLY? In South Africa?
Okay. Whooo-saaa. We “North Africans” can get shrill. I’ll turn it down a few notches but please allow me to be the bad guy for a minute here. Maybe with a bit of context provided by chronicling some of my own FLF gems, the witch-burners’ cries of “That talentless grandstander went too far!” or the naysayers’ “But it doesn’t solve anything!” will die down.
2012 saw my first and only FLF attendance. I’d only ever been to Franschhoek to knock back good vino, but this time I was an invited guest! Girlishly excited, I replied yes in a heartbeat. It wasn’t exactly my neck of the woods; getting there cost me a small fortune by taxi and ended with a quasi-ghetto shout match with the driver on the quaint oak-lined streets. The perks were worth it though. I checked into a lovely room overlooking rolling hills, where I was treated every morning to the noisy jackassery of speckled lawn birds and a breakfast so obscene in variety it was surely the entire GDP of Polynesia. Best of all, it was there announced that my debut made the Sunday Times fiction shortlist. I was overcome.
My blushes faded fast. I’d attended thinking I was finally home among my tribe of scribes, being embraced at a time when kudos for me was few and far between. Having naïvely forgotten myself I was soon reminded, in the manner that only Mzansi highlights pedigree. You see, added to my ethnicity are other odd variables – femaleness, the biomedical profession I’m in, hailing from a faraway country that few know much about besides war, and being unflinchingly proud of my chosen, male-dominated genre of crime fiction. Yeah, I haven’t made small talk easy on myself. The kindest folks I met grinned and called me “laiyk, hectic, yoh” or “supercool”. Others, well … naturally I encountered the inescapable gold standard, where everyone goes overboard to applaud you for “speaking so well!” A lady petted my earrings and haaytah (or doek, which follows the same rules: never touch a black woman round the head area) and cooed at my “exoticness”. A friend pinched me before I could retort that in Africa, it’s in fact I that am the norm and she the rare bird.
A prominent figure on the lit scene threw me an invite to participate in a popular annual event in Joburg. Before I could explain why attending wasn’t likely (I was moving countries and starting a new job), I was shushed and told that if it was a question of money or “getting my papers sorted legally” she could fix me up in a snap. Another festival guest pulled me aside after an event and asked if I’d escaped Liberia running through the bushes from rebels until I reached SA, and asserted that I must truly be grateful for everything her great country had done, like educating me to the level where I could write whole novels unaided. I SHIT YOU NOT. There was a point in this black comedy where the ridiculousness hit laugh-or-cry levels, and I found myself floored with giggles in a ladies bathroom stall. Best. Fest. Ever.
What struck me most was that when I retold these stories people, regardless of race, replied with “Ah, but by now you should be used to it. Like, you know this country.” There’s my point. Y’all know your country. The problem isn’t blindness to the scourge of racial inequality but that deeper, more insidious undercurrent: apathy. In fairyland where the vino is always flowing and ice-cream frosty and sushi sustainable, pale is standard. The “haves” have little idea how much the outlier experience can grate. Is this their headache? To be fair, probably not. But when we make it their headache, the sitch gets … iffy.
Siphiwo Mahala, Zukiswa Wanner and other mavericks have kicked up similar fusses and dust about the problems surrounding accessibility and book-buying audiences. Yet, had HRT not acted as the equivalent of the guileless child calling out the emperor for parading his beef and two veg, the status quo would saunter along unchecked. Take it from an outsider who’s come to know and love y’all like the village cousin come to stay; who observes, learns and even blends in to some degree but remains behind the glass. The race topic in Mzansi is much like the HIV one, a manageable affliction. Mention it and eyes glaze over – yes, yes we know, but shhhh, we’re not so crass as to openly speak of it!
Now someone’s broke through the ranks of politeness and gone rogue. While eyes are bulging and jaws are running a-slack, Thando appears calm and collected. Before divorcing himself from what came across to him as an insulting, unsatisfying and – let’s face it – somewhat creepy relationship, he has put out some compelling thoughts. As artists we all need to eat – and even so most of us don’t achieve full bellies on writing alone. But however meagre our scraps we need to be aware that we’re also being consumed, and it says a lot when the communities we are part of, that we represent and write about, cannot even access or afford our work. The man asked some questions. The industry can pull together and come up with some workable solutions. Or, play this on loop for a while like a bad episode of Deluded Housewives of Something, and then sweep it back under the rug.
Because while it can be written off as “that mortifying FLF 2015 incident”, I don’t believe it will stay isolated. It simply can’t.
- “The Violence of the White Audience” – Malaika Wa Azania and TO Molefe Add to the White Literary System Debate
- “Can the Twain Meet?” Karin Schimke Gives her Take on Thando Mgqolozana’s White Literary System Debate
- “Look at Yourselves – It’s Very Abnormal”: Thando Mgqolozana Quits South Africa’s “White Literary System”
- Karabo Kgoleng Weighs in on the “White Literary System” Debate: “We are Lazy with Our Analysis of this Issue”
- Thando Mgqolozana Outlines 21 Suggestions for the Decolonisation of the South African Literary Scene
- Siphiwo Mahala and Eusebius McKaiser Comment on Thando Mgqolozana’s Decision to Opt Out of South African Literary Festivals
Image courtesy of Brittlepaper and Victor Ehikhamenor