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How to Hack the “Colonial Literary System” in South Africa

Guests at the debate on decolonising the literary system

 
The initial reaction to Thando Mgqolozana’s plan to “quit the white literary system” has died down, and the conversation seems to be heading in a more practical direction. In that spirit, some advice put forward by Mofenyi Malepe – author of the self-published book, 283: The Bad Sex Bet – may offer some direction.

At a recent discussion on the topic of “decolonising the literary landscape”, held at Wits University, chaired by Eusebius McKaiser and featuring Mgqolozana himself, Sunday Times books editor (and founder of Books LIVE) Ben Williams called attention to a few black authors who have managed to “hack the system”.

“There’s not a lot of wiggle room for people inside the white literary system to crack the problem,” he said, “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.”

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A Hustler’s Bible has lifetime sales of over 14 000 copies, and is still number six on the top 10 best selling biographies/autobiographies in the country – despite being published in 2013 – while according to reports Leadership 2020 is selling well, occupying a top spot in one of South Africa’s most-contested publishing genres, self-help.

After the formal debate was over, Malepe took the opportunity to comment, beginning, much to the audience’s amusement, with: “My name is Mofenyi Malepe, the author of the controversial book 283: The Bad Sex Bet.

“Already, with what I just did right now, I marketed myself.”

But despite the audience’s laughter Malepe’s message was a serious one. He stressed the importance of authors taking on the marketing – and publishing – of their books themselves; of abandoning the colonial literary system completely.

“Thando, I just want to know from you, how many more books do you have for Jacana, so that you can walk out?” he asked. “That way, we would be able to have this debate as black authors and black writers, we would be able to … not even complain about whiteness this, whiteness that.

“I’m saying this because the other day I was driving in Braamfontein – and after this incident I almost dug myself a grave – I sold a book to an award winning author – Sihle [Khumalo, author of the bestselling Dark Continent My Black Arse], he’s sitting that side [and indeed had a valuable comment of his own to make after the event - ed]. He saw my book on my car, on this thing we stick on the car door. He stopped me because I’ve been making a noise everywhere else.

“I’m self-published, by the way, and I’ve managed to sell 4 300 copies in five months.

“I’m not saying this because I’m too conceited. I’m saying this because we are busy complaining about white publishers and everybody else, but what are you doing?

“I have a feeling that you [Mgqolozana] still owe Jacana two more books, or one more book, before your contract expires. I could be wrong. But we cannot complain about the same people that we keep going to.

“We will never get to that point where we don’t have this discussion anymore if we are forever going to run to them and come back and complain.”

Thabiso Mahlape, a publisher at Jacana Media, repudiated Malepe’s claim that Jacana tie authors down to a contract, saying: “Publishing is a highly emotional process. The last thing you want is people that you hate working with you – it’s hard enough working with people who like you.”

However, during the event Mgqolozana did concede that there is a “flaw” in his argument, saying: “I wish I was taking a stand in which I was jumping completely out of the colonial literary system in South Africa. But I still do want to be published.”

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian on Friday, he clarified his stance further, saying that he will only feel “at home” in the South African literary space when “my publisher, editor, proofreader, graphic designer, layout person, printer, publicist, distributor, bookseller and most readers are black – reading my work in their preferred languages.”

He added: “But I’m not going to wake up tomorrow to a decolonised country, am I? So I have two choices: to write – because I can’t not write – and never publish, or to write and publish but stand my ground where I can.”

To find out more about 283: The Bad Sex Bet, email mofenyi@thebadsexbet.co.za

 

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