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“It is Nonsensical to say Black People Don’t Read” – Highlights from the #LitApartheid Debate (Plus: Podcast)

Corina van der Spoel, Thando Mgqolozana, Eusebius McKaiser, Ben Williams and Siphiwo Mahala

 
Eusebius McKaiser led a panel discussion last night at the University of the Witwatersrand entitled Decolonising the Literary Landscape, organised by Jacana Media, with authors Thando Mgqolozana and Siphiwo Mahala, as well as Ben Williams, Sunday Times books editor and founder of Books LIVE, and Corina van der Spoel, festival organiser, book facilitator and former manager of Die Boekehuis.

UnimportanceCould I Vote DA?A Man Who is Not a ManDA of nie?
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McKaiser made some introductory remarks, before each panelist spoke their piece, followed by questions and comments, and closing remarks.

We’ve transcribed some soundbites below, but to get the full feel of the debate, listen to the podcast here:

* * * * * * * *

Eusebius McKaiser

Eusebius McKaiser

“White, unearned privilege extends to every part of society, and I’m afraid South African literature and the literary landscape are no exception.

“There are many white writers, festival organisers, book editors and reviewers, awards committees – not least the Media24 one, after that awkward picture over the weekend of about seven or eight white people winning awards – who are highly unaware of the unearned privileges that come with writing if you are white in South Africa.

“You have a ready audience – a small one, to be fair, in total, regardless of whether you’re black or white – for your work.

“And sometimes book festival organisers respond too quickly and too anxiously – what on earth was Kenny Kunene doing at the Franschhoek Literary Festival? It was a gimmick. It screamed white liberal angst about how to attract black audiences. All that happened in the end is that the event sold out very quickly because white middle class South Africans were anxious to know from him whether Julius Malema will come after their bottles of Chardonnay. That’s not the way to deal with deconstructing the literary landscape.

“You need to engage your audiences critically.

“It’s interesting which books are punted by book editors, by publications. In non-fiction it’s always works that either tell white readers that the country is on the brink of rescue or collapse – like The Fall of the ANC, I love the dudes who wrote it but it wasn’t particularly great. Of course it sold millions. Because the prospect of the fall of the ANC is music to the ears of people who don’t want to leave for Perth.

“When you do find works that are genuinely brilliant and deserving of a Sunday Times Literary Award, it will be a book like Askari, or like Redi Tlhabi’s, both of those books are excellent, as well as Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s A Human Being Died that Night. They’re excellent. But of course they also had something in common: they are books that tell white people what black people are like. Or, in Pumla’s case, oh my God! A black woman is humanising a white monster. The chances of an Andile Mngxitama book telling white people about their unearned privileges bluntly ever getting that kind of exposition, let along getting onto a shortlist, is almost none, because that kind of messaging is not loved.

“We need to stop thinking that there’s some sort of objective process by which we decide which books we punt, which authors we punt, and that there’s something self-explanatory about a book like Endings and Beginnings selling 10 or 20 thousand copies. No it’s not. Just like Native Nostalgia by Jacob Dlamini, it stops a white person from actually having to bother going into a township.

“If you had to get a book that says racism is alive and well, it will be quietly ignored. That is something that white liberals have to confront themselves with. A failure to do so puts you on a continuum with Steve Hofmeyr.”

Ben Williams and Siphiwo MahalaBen Williams

“In 1976 the worm turned on apartheid. In 2015 I feel like the worm may have started to turn on the white literary system.

At the Franschhoek Literary Festival, Thando said he’s angry: ‘I’m angry at the people and our friends who think this situation is okay.’ Thando, I’m one of those friends, and I apologise. I don’t know if you’ve had an apology yet, but I apologise.

“In Askari, Jacob Dlamini poses the question of whether we should broaden or widen the definition of the word askari. And I think we have to ask the question, just as apartheid was supported by collaborators, black and white, might we argue that the white literary system is sustained by literary askaris.”

Williams tweeted some follow-up points on that this morning:


 

 
 
“In trade publishing, in terms of the formal economy, you’ve got one million people spending R2 billion.

“What sells? International bestseller fiction. James Patterson. Afrikaans literature sells. The number one work of fiction right now in the country is by Deon Meyer and it’s called Ikarus. Local popular non-fiction sells, cookbooks or sports biographies, or occasionally politics.

“The only black writer on the list right now, of the top 88 books in the country, is Khaya Dlanga’s To Quote Myself. He is number 87 out of 88.

“And the last thing that sells is Christian titles.

“Here’s what doesn’t sell: local English fiction. Publishers publish it at a loss because they believe in the work. And poetry, and you won’t find many publishers of poetry in this country as a result.

“So almost all publishers have to bring in big international bestsellers. But it remains a fundamentally untransformed industry.

“I think, and I stand to be corrected by any publishers in this room, that apart from Jacana Media there are no formal trade publishers with black editors in the country.

“There’s not a lot of wiggle room for people inside the white literary system to crack the problem, and it’s not going to happen unless it’s forced.

“But there are one or two black writers who have hacked the system. Gayton McKenzie’s A Hustler’s Bible, which he produced and sold outside of the white literary system. And DJ Sbu’s Leadership 2020. They figured out that you can strategically publish something, and make money.”

Siphiwo MahalaSiphiwo Mahala

“If you want to understand the disparity that exists in the publishing sector or the book sector, you should visit Books LIVE today. There’s a picture of the Media24 Literary Awards, which is all white, and the latest post is of the Indigenous Languages Publishing Programme Awards, which is all black. So that says something about our industry.

“I must say, I was quite challenged when Thando decided to accept the invite to Franschhoek, because personally I thought he shouldn’t. It sounded more like accepting a dinner invite, and then once you’re at the table you’re telling the host what to cook.

“However, this moral reasoning of mine, versus his consternation – I think he came out tops. Because him being there gave him a platform to raise the issues that he raised, and that’s why we are here today.

“But I do not believe that white extremism can be counteracted with black extremism.

“We all know by now that the Franschhoek Literary Festival is the embodiment of all that is wrong with this white literary system we are talking about. And my decision, back in 2011, was to remove myself from that; not to be part of it.

“Much as I took that decision, I do not stand for a total boycott of any festival. I do not hold views as held by Andile Mngxitama, who is calling for a blacks-only festival. To do that is to emulate the very people you are criticising. But my rejection of the white literary system does not mean I will embrace black mediocrity.

“Franschhoek is the embodiment of all that is white. It is a private initiative. They created that festival for themselves. And after they created it, they thought, ‘Ha, so we will also need maybe some black monkeys to come and entertain us’. And then they extend invites to us. So it was on those grounds that I declined the invite in 2011. But the circus will not stop because of the absence of one monkey.”

Corina van der Spoel and Thando MgqolozanaCorina van der Spoel

“I think the debate should be welcomed and is necessary to encourage and to stimulate. It allows us to think anew about the role of culture. I think this is a necessary phase of transformation that some of us might have thought was over.

“This debate is emphasising that everybody feels uncomfortable. Blacks are uncomfortable because they have political power but not economic power and cultural power. Whites might still dominate cultural expression, but there is a discomfort of what this could mean in a world where the majority really rules.

“I believe that white people need reminding of the easy trap of complacency and thinking that everything is alright, that everyone is settled in post-apartheid comfort. Everything is not alright, as Thando says. The society is still in the making.

“But I also think Thando’s decision to opt out of South African literary festivals and his lashing out at the so-called white literary system is racialising the debate and polarising people in ways that they never were before. It’s a pernicious kind of racism. It’s a blame culture which shifts responsibility and shouting that detracts from the real issues in South Africa, namely that our education system is failing both black and white learners.

“It also detracts from questions such as: ‘Are black parents buying books for their children?’”

Thando Mngqolozana

“This is why Rhodes must fall.

“We need an alternative to the existing literary system. And I believe the system will be changed by readers, and in South Africa that’s black readers and black book buyers.

“There’s a distinction between black people who buy books and those who read them. Black households have the phenomenon of the travelling book. A book will be read until it has lost all its pages. Which is why it is nonsensical to say black people don’t read.

“The readers are missing because they do not have access to literature.

“I’m reluctant to call this thing a white literary system. It’s a colonial literary system. It’s a colonial construction that didn’t change when there came a thing called democracy. Which is why we’re talking about decolonisation and not transformation. An opportunity for the colonised to imagine something new. We haven’t had that.

“Thando jumping out of the colonial literary festival, Rhodes Must Fall, Open Stellenbosch, Transform Wits are not coincidences. They are indicators that black people have come to the realisation that we have been through a false transformation process and we have to do something about it – starting now.

“I feel horrible that for the last seven years or so I have been begging to be integrated into this system in a more comfortable way. What the fuck was that about? I’m horrified!”

 

* * * * * * * *

 
See a Twitter timeline of the #LitApartheid hashtag:
 


 

 

Flickr album from the event:
 

 

 
Book details

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    June 11th, 2015 @07:45 #
     
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    This is very interesting discussion. I am glad it happened.

    I am, however, disturbed that there is a glaring absence of black women voices on this panel. Out of the entire panel, in fact, there is only a single white woman. I am glad she was there. Nor am I suggesting that any of the men on the panel should not have been there. But another seat could have been added to that table. Should have been added to the table. Heck, even two. Because South Africa not only made up of black / white, but women and men writers from a whole host of backgrounds and cultures. I know, because I've been watching. I know this, because I read South African and African literature and there are some amazing under-read women out there who probably have an interesting perspective on this debate. I, would very much, like to hear their thoughts. I doubt I am the only one.

    But yes, organising things is difficult, tricky and people are busy. As somebody who has to get judges and other favours, I am well aware that one can ask a plethora of people to please judge or help and the only people come forward end up being from same gender / country / culture. It happens. Because a comet passed by Mars and...I don't know. It just happens. I know. Next time, please, however, widen the table.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    June 11th, 2015 @08:17 #
     
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    Typos. Apologies. I need a life editor.

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    June 17th, 2015 @14:34 #
     
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    Last figures I saw say 14% of South Africans are active readers. It is no longer a colour issue, if it ever was. "Today one does not see the role of literature in developing writers and educating our people because it has been neglected from lower levels. In certain schools and provinces literature has become anathema to learners." - Mzi Mahola, quoted in Mphutlane wa Bofelo's essay in Biko Lives!

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    June 18th, 2015 @00:38 #
     
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    Tiah, yes yes yes. And that's a valid point by Mahola. Although it may be a circular one: are learners included/made welcome in literature? I've been travelling around the UK, walking into scenes I literally recognise from the reading I did as a child. But I'm South African. How many SA learners have the same kind of intimacy with their landscapes, lifestyles, lived reality via books?

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    June 19th, 2015 @12:40 #
     
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    What? One of the things Mahola is doing (Biko Lives, p. 202) is comparing the lack of reading now with the vigorous reading and debating of the generation of black writers who became part of BC in the 1970s. So it's not a circular argument. What IS circling at the moment is this argument in SA lit about who should write/speak .... i.e. the other part of the question of 'who should be invited into literature?', is 'who should speak for/on behalf of' whom? And it's been a debate going on for a good 35 - 40 years, and includes critical scrutiny of specific texts. And what is more, along with race and gender, it includes the question of class. Authors, by authoring, create author-ity for themselves. Is this authority valid? It depends. There's lots of work on this in SA lit crit too.

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    June 19th, 2015 @12:59 #
     
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    I think one of the things I am finding troubling about this whole debate is that some of those involved in it, think they are outing newly found "dirty literary linen", but these debates have been going on for a long time. There is something in the way the current shaking of this newly found dirty linen is happening that is polarising. And doesn't acknowledge the long debate, or the way a range of people across race, class and other divides have been working tirelessly and often thanklessly to try to make a difference.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    June 19th, 2015 @14:21 #
     
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    I should have clarified (I thought the dodgy word "learners" wd do it) that in terms of readers, I'm thinking of SA children. We need to support reading cultures in childhood. I was completely at home in a library before I hit double figures. By ten, I had the Dewey decimal system at my fingertips. (Have had this debate elsewhere, about the multiple literacies children need to develop to make reading part of their lives.) But I still read mostly British texts as a kid.There are so few texts written for SA children that reflect the world they live in (ask any of those who work on/in/for children's book projects, Puku, Book Dash, Nali'bali etc). And Colleen, agreed.

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  • <a href="http://www.nadiadavids.com" rel="nofollow">NadiaDavids1</a>
    NadiaDavids1
    June 19th, 2015 @21:43 #
     
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    Kelwyn-thanks for the Mahola ref (both about the plummeting stats and the -relatively newfound-hostility to literature). Can you say a bit more about that hostility? I've been thinking lately that it's a global phenomenon- the assault on literature, the understandable suspicion of intellectual work in certain spaces, all tied up, terrifyingly, with late capitalism: the way in which reading is valued, the kind of attention it's accorded, what sorts of books are produced, how they are produced, who is doing the writing etc. All the old questions dressed up in neo-liberalism.

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    June 20th, 2015 @11:51 #
     
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    That's more tricky, Nadia .... I have mainly thought about this from my own perspective, in terms of what angles of focalisation I feel comfortable with assuming, and what not in my own writing, and in other's writing (race, class and gender, of course: but I guess when an author is writing one's always assuming an angle of focalisation/ artifice too, even if one's writing about oneself). I think the present disinclination to read outside of the charmed circle of intellectuals is palpable: but then, I guess the spread of reading in SA has always been small, and has been linked to intellectual traditions/circles before it's been linked to creative writing (and it's often where one doesn't expect it - cf Archie Dick's book). As far as the current SA hoo-hah is concerned, my own position is that there are voices who have been muttering about the choice of subject matter, the general ambience, the superficiality of intellectual debates around literature: and the way this reflects in the attitude of some publishers, especially mainstream publishers, since liberation - witness the 'genre fiction' debate in its early stages. These voices were completely ignored. And this hegemony of attitude in literature has become reflected by the ambience at some of the book fairs - I'd call it 'suburban', before I'd use a racial term; although it does have clear effects re racial imbalance. And this has now blown up in their faces. (I'm not saying suburban readers and subject matter should be discouraged: I am saying that there's a hegemony now in place, which sees this perspective as sufficient to represent post-liberation SA. Well, clearly it isn't).

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    June 21st, 2015 @10:25 #
     
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    While I'm on the subject - if one looks at the literary scene as a commentator, the disparities are evident, racial and otherwise. Reading, of course, has had a lot to do with the educated in SA - speaking across races - and the spread elsewhere is more interesting, often surprising but, I'm sorry, limited. However, what is most discouraging is to notice that, post-liberation, what seems to have evolved is a bunch of factions, all strained for exposure, hegemony and (particularly) access to publishers. The judging panels for prizes get loaded one way, then another way. But, across time, these factions all seem to behave like each other. They all begin to look like each other, and carry their advocates, academics, reviewers, and professional bookfair panelists. Where is the consciousness that is trying to see SA literature in a broader sweep? And there's clearly still the old SA penchant for censorship, now implicit - what can and can't be talked about. e.g. Politics. e.g. Anything that's 'negative'. There's even a prize, I understand, where the judges get the contestants to edit their work, before final judging (lol). I'm sorry: as a writer, if you let anyone else, including a publisher, tell you how to write and what to write about, you deserve what you will finally get.

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  • <a href="https://www.freelancer.com/u/HRSupport.html" rel="nofollow">seo-expert</a>
    seo-expert
    June 22nd, 2015 @05:52 #
     
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    Great read.

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