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We need to make it fashionable to write in our own languages: Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho reports from the launch of two Xitsonga books in Giyani

By Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho

The fragrance of new books permeated the air inside Giyani Multipurpose Hall during the recent launch of two Xitsonga books, Ntsena Loko Mpfula A Yo Sewula and Mpimavayeni.

nullNtsena Loko Mpfula A Yo Sewula is a poetry anthology, featuring 10 poets and edited by Moses Mtileni (left). The title can be translated as “If Only it Could Rain”.

Mpimavayeni is a novel, authored by Mtileni. Both books have been published by Nhlalala Books, a publishing initiative that aims to produce books that tell interesting and ignored stories to bolster South Africa’s reading level in African languages.

Speaking about the making of Ntsena Loko Mpfula A Yo Sewula, Mtileni says that the poets are young writers whose paths have crossed his at different times during the past five years.

“These are writers who presented to me complete manuscripts they had attempted to have published before, in full or in parts, and whose work I fell in love with,” he says. “They write differently from much of what existed in Xitsonga poetry and from each other, in concern and in style, and I felt they needed to be heard.”

nullnullnullPoets featured in the anthology are Basani Petronella Mathye, Hitekani Ian Ndlozi (left), Thymon Rivisi, Mkhongelo Prayers Chabalala, Onassis Mathebula (middle), Enock Dlayani Shishenge (right), Shikhumbuza Shadrack Vutlharimuni Mavasa, Khanyisa Vista Chauke, Nzam Noel Mathebula and Moses Nzama Khaizen Mtileni.

Mtileni says there is hope in the fact that these young people have chosen to write, and to do so in their own language. He believes publishers should give more time to books that transcend the education market.

“It is said that the levels of reading in African languages are very low,” he says. “As a result, much of what is published is aimed at the education market and not at general readership. The material published, both on language and fiction, is tailored in design, content and packaging to meet requirements outlined in bulky guidelines issued by the Department of Basic Education.”

Mtileni says that the criteria put in place by the Education Department do not allow much space for experimentation and innovation between and within genres.

“It limits writing for enriching the language and the cultures they embody,” he points out. “It limits the infinite possibilities language, writing and literature present for cultural preservation, sustenance and growth.”

Mtileni also notes that because much of the writing material developed for education is produced within very tight deadlines, there is limited time to hunt for new talent, new voices, new publishers, new writers, and by extension new stories and experiments.

“Many publishers confine themselves to this space, because it promises guaranteed purchase of books, it guarantees a market, an audience,” he says. “And emerging publishers who do not immediately penetrate this market battle for survival, the numbers they reach are too few to generate sufficient profits.

“Then there are the libraries, under the Department of Arts and Culture, which do not procure sufficient African language titles, especially in the cities.”

The answer, Mtileni says, is to try harder to cultivate a culture of reading and writing.

“We need to have as many book clubs and writing workshops and competitions as possible,” he says. “We need to make it fashionable to read and write in our own languages, because they allow us to speak more deeply about ourselves and for ourselves and with ourselves, and in doing so, to speak better to the world.”

Mtileni says writers writing in African languages need to engage with other languages and cultures from a position of authority, and to allow for richer cross-pollination of cultures and wisdoms embodied in their writing.

“And so we must find ways of opening up processes of book selection for education and for libraries and for archivism,” he says. “Having said all these things, I must qualify that I speak solely from my own experiences as a Xitsonga writer, translator and publisher and I do not assume that these challenges I cite apply across the board.

“Through concerted collective effort, it is possible to enrich our own languages, and to be enriched by them.”

nullProud poet Basani Mathye says: “I’m honoured to be featured in Ntsena Loko Mpfula A Yo Sewula. I am excited to be part of a group of young writers who are passionate about writing and preserving our mother tongue. We need to make reading fashionable, and especially books in our own languages.”

Mathye sees a bright future for herself as a writer. “I’m looking into writing Xitsonga children’s books and also working on a book about my family history. I hope to publish a collection of my poetry as well in the future.”

Everyone who attended the launch were offered free copies of both Ntsena Loko Mpfula A Yo Sewula and Mpimavayeni.

The launch has opened more doors for more books to be written and published, and for more literary activities to happen in and around Limpopo.

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Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho is the author of A Traumatic Revenge and The Violent Gestures of Life:
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