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Last Sunday Times Column: RIP South African Literature

By Ben Williams for the Sunday Times

Ben Williams_smIf you happened to be visiting the Sorbonne in Paris in late October, you would have come across a conference on literature’s future in the digital age.

Africa was represented in the form of a single person: a white, middle-aged man originally from a small town in the Rocky Mountains of the United States. Namely, me.

I was there to discuss my theory of the “mobile griot”, which is about how African writers are using digital platforms like Facebook to create a new storytelling tradition that, oddly enough, relies on ephemerality for its permanence. Ja, my eyes glaze over, too.

But at the last moment I decided to talk about something else – something that had been weighing on my mind for months, but that I hadn’t quite put into words.

I worked all night in my hotel room in the fifth arrondissment. (Meanwhile, somewhere nearby, the final touches were being applied to a plan to attack the city. It makes me shudder.) Just as birds began to announce the Parisian dawn, I arrived at the crux of the matter: I would be talking about the end of South African literature.

Like many institutions today, our tradition of letters faces an existential crisis. The reason is because we who hold books dear have not properly addressed the rupture that happened when, at the Franschhoek Literary Festival in May, the novelist Thando Mgqolozana announced his disengagement with the White Literary System.

(In case you need a refresher on this system: with few exceptions, our publishers are white, our editors are white, our distributors are white and our booksellers are white, same as during the bad old days. )

There has been hand-wringing since, and a few critical discussions – plus welcome hints at new books initiatives – but fundamentally we remain where we were before Mgqolozana’s move.

That is, we remain with books – fiction and non-fiction alike – whose imaginative territory, what I call the “archive of democracy”, which includes the memory of colonialism and apartheid, is coupled to an untenable economic reality, which is that the books are, down to their last pages, and in spite of their internal brilliance, objects afloat in a sea of white privilege.

On the other hand, we have writers like Mgqolozana who have taken on the business of fostering black literary self-determination without money or infrastructure – indeed, with very little but words, and, crucially, the power that attaches to them. Writers who, in short, are trying to de-couple literary imagination from apartheid economics.

As a case in point, take the the Soweto Abantu Books Festival, a blacks-only event that happens each December. It’s wholly made up; it is a fiction; it exists only as a post on Facebook. But because of the political agency of the person who dreamed it – the excitement that simply saying it out loud it caused – the imagined festival is almost as destabilising to the establishment as a real one would be. It’s a glorious J’accuse.

In South Africa, then, the power of words is increasingly located outside of our books. And if we don’t talk more about this, if we don’t recognise the urgency of the decolonising project, help spur it on, and allow it to change us – we, the white publishers, distributors, booksellers and editors – then we’ll be left with ghost-books, published by money for those with it, whose contents are mere rumour, and Facebook posts as our new, collective imagination frontier.

Maybe my mobile griot theory has some jazz to it after all.

Either way, it’s the end of South African literature as we know it.

  • Ben Williams is the outgoing Sunday Times books editor
  • This column was published in tandem with Thando Mgqolozana’s new short story, “An Xmas wish: stay woke”

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