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An Unnatural History: Hedley Twidle Reviews Henrietta Rose-Innes' Green Lion

Archive for the ‘Feature’ Category

“Look at Yourselves – It’s Very Abnormal”: Thando Mgqolozana Quits South Africa’s “White Literary System”

Eusebius McKaiser, Thando Mgqolozana, Marianne Thamm and Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
A Man Who is Not a ManHear Me AloneUnimportance
Could I Vote DA?Rusty BellThis One TimeTales of the Metric SystemHere I AmDare We Hope?

It’s perhaps a reflection of the nature of South African literary festivals that Thando Mgqolozana could upstage Kenny Kunene at the Franschhoek Literary Festival this year – who in his session called Julius Malema a “mixture of Hitler, Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seko”. Mgqolozana’s intentions – to opt out of literary festivals forever – caused quite a buzz, and by Sunday were even being discussed at events that did not feature him.

At one point, during an event chaired by Eusebius McKaiser, an audience member shouted out “bullshit!” while Mgqolozana was speaking, and a minor ruckus ensued. Later on that audience member stood up in tears and spoke at length about being tired of experiencing white guilt.

On the other hand, during an event on Sunday afternoon, when Imraan Coovadia asked Mgqolozana about his plans, another author on the panel, Alex van Tonder, said “I feel like I’m on the wrong panel! I feel like we came here to discuss how we found our voice” – which was the title of the event – and some members of the audience agreed vehemently.

Perhaps as reports and opinion pieces begin to emerge this week the importance of Mgqolozana’s stand – whether you agree with it or not – will begin to register.

Related news:


The origins of Mgqolozana’s discontent date from the year he was first published – 2009 – but came to a head last year at the Open Book Festival in a panel discussion entitled Writer’s Rage, with Zukiswa Wanner and festival organiser Mervyn Sloman.

Listen to a podcast of that event here:

Podcast: Writer’s Rage – Why Thando Mgqolozana and Zukiswa Wanner are Seriously Pissed Off

Mgqolozana, the author of three books, the most recent being a campus novel, Unimportance, reiterated his position at the Time of the Writer Festival in Durban, and in a recent interview with The Daily Vox:

I feel that I’m there to perform for an audience that does not treat me as a literary talent, but as an anthropological subject – as though those people are here to confirm their suspicions that somehow I am inferior to them.

The author says he would rather concentrate on his writing, and attempt to right the wrongs that exist at an infrastructural level through his work.

During the Finding Your Voice session, featuring Van Tonder, Nthikeng Mohlele and chaired by Imraan Coovadia, Mgqolozana said: “An assumption must not be made that we haven’t made attempts to change this system. A lot of us writers talk about it all the time and we try to do things.

“I’m part of a group of writers that started Read SA with Ben Williams, Zukiswa [Wanner] and others, which was because we want to encourage South Africans, especially black South Africans, to read, and particularly to read South African literature.

We come from a history where black writers were banned and the stories that would most resonate with a black audience were suppressed. There have never been as many black writers as we have now, there has never been as much diversity in terms of voices and stories.

“But that campaign fell off because the literary infrastructure at the moment is in the cities, in white set-ups, like here, for example. It systematically excludes black people. So what is needed is the establishment of that infrastructure. That’s what we need. Not just campaigns. We need to get libraries in the black communities. There are some now, built by the democratic government, but they are fake libraries. The ones that are functioning there are functioning because they are sponsored by Canadians and Australians, and they bring books from there. For example, I went to Harare Library in Khayelitsha [for a conversation with Cyril Ramaphosa about a national book club - ed.] and it’s sponsored by Carnegie. We need libraries and bookstores with relevant, affordable books in the black community.

“I don’t think private individuals can fund the kind of infrastructure that’s needed. We need the government to step up. Between festivals we need other literary activities, book launches and all the kind of things we have here. And that is a massive project, but I would rather be focusing on that than come here and say the kinds of things that I’m saying, ‘please change, please change’. I don’t think it’s going to work. We’ve tried to do it. My greatest focus is going to be writing, and I’m going to try to make this kind of change through my writing.”

Mohlele believes the problem is just one part of a much larger issue: “I don’t think it’s a problem of literary festivals, and what have you. The problems and the faultlines are much more fundamental than that.”

He illustrated his point with a story about being asked by a doctor at the emergency room at a private hospital why he hadn’t gone to the township hospital. “For me, the situation of festivals and so on are a problem, but it’s a very shallow reflection on society and its general imperfections,” he said.

An audience member asked Mgqolozana if he had considered whether a more sustained critique would be more effective than a once-off protest.

“This is not the first time,” Mgqolozana replied. “It’s the kind of thing we have been talking about for a long time.

But I don’t want this literary festival to change any more. I feel that it was wrong for me to ask of it to change in the first place.

“It’s the same argument as the Rhodes Must Fall kids are making at UCT. They are not asking the university to change, because that would mean tweaking a few things and it remains the same, fundamentally. So now they are talking about the complete decolonisation, and that means a demolishing of the entire system, which would provide us with an opportunity to imagine something new, something different. For me, that’s what I wish and hope will happen to this system. Changing this and that would still not be comfortable for any black writer, I think.

That’s like asking to be integrated into a fire.

“What I’m talking about is not just literary festivals. It’s not just literature. I’m talking about this society, the way it is. But in order to do that I focused on this small point of literary festivals, in order to be able to say: what this society needs is a complete decolonisation.”

Earlier that day, Mgqolozana took part in a panel discussion entitled Is Anger Underrated, which was a deliberate continuation of the Open Book event in 2014.

Chaired by McKaiser, and featuring award winning author Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and journalist and author Marianne Thamm, this event seemed to cause the most discomfort of the festival.

Mgqolozana began by outlining his plans, for those who had not yet heard the rumblings on the Franschhoek grapevine.

I’m quitting what I call the white literary system in South Africa.

“I was first published in 2009,” he said, “and since me and other black writers have been begging to be integrated into this white literary system in a more comfortable way, and it hasn’t happened. Whatever changes we called for has not taken place. 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 and stick to those principles.”

Addressing the audience, in which there were just two black faces, Mgqolozana said:

You can just turn around and look at yourselves – it looks very abnormal. In this country, it should never be like this.

Eusebius asked where Mgqolozana’s anger was directed, “at these wonderful people in the audience or the black people who are not here?”

“I’m very proud of the black people who are not here,” he replied, “because I don’t see why they should come here. I’m angry with the people who think this is normal. Who think the Franschhoek Literary Festival is normal, that the Open Book Festival is normal. Most people who are in charge of those things are our friends – nice people – but they think this is okay. I’m angry at those people. There is very little I can do about it, but I can remove myself.

“In this country there are certain conversations that we should be having and we are not having. One of them is this one. I don’t think it’s accidental that we have things like Rhodes Must Fall or the EFF popping up. Time has come. The black people in this country have realised, after 20 or so years, that, fuck it; we need to talk about these things. We need to be angry at Nelson Mandela. I don’t think black people are angry enough at Nelson Mandela.

I think in this country there is a moment that we missed; we should have unleashed our anger, which had been accumulating for centuries, and we didn’t.

“There were many things that we could have done but we chose to go through a Truth and Reconciliation process that didn’t work, which basically postponed the anger that people had and now they are starting to unleash. What black people are missing is that moment of victory. We didn’t have it. The elections in 1994 were not that.”

McKaiser asked: “Describe to me an alternative. Drive them into the sea?” This got a loud laugh from the audience, but Mgqolozana’s answer restored the uncomfortable silence pretty quickly.

“One of the things could have happened, which I think many of the people who got into the negotiations thought was going to happen, was that the white people in South Africa would realise ‘this was horrible, and we benefited from this’. And once they realised and made this admission, would say: ‘Okay, maybe I shouldn’t have this house. Maybe my father or my husband or me should be the last person, the last generation, to own this farm. Because I don’t really own this farm, it was theft’. And you can donate it to the next random black person that you meet. So that’s one of the things white people in South Africa could have done, and they didn’t.

“What could black people have done? I don’t know. In that moment of anger, it’s difficult to know what you can do when you’re angry.”

Mgqolozana’s next remarks were too much for certain members of the audience to take.

“One of the things I advise – when young white people come to me and say ‘what can I do’ – the first thing you can do is stop the charity work you are doing in Khayelitsha, it’s not helping anyone. Just stop it. Stop the soup kitchens and donating blankets. It’s just making people more angry, it doesn’t change anything.”

At this point an audience member shouted out “bullshit!”

Mgqolozana continued: “The problem is not the poverty that you see …”

But another audience member shouted: “That’s bullshit too!”, with others responding with: “He’s speaking”, and “Let him speak!” One woman then said firmly: “Please wait your turn” and to Mgqolozana, “We are listening, please continue”. It may be worth mentioning that this woman was of the few black people present, and mentioned in the Q&A session later that she had been politically active “in the trenches” in Durban during apartheid.

Clarifying his statement, Mgqolozana said: “The problem is not in the shacks. It’s a problem with whiteness. So if there’s anything that a young white person want to do because he/she is saying ‘I was not there’. The thing that I would advise them to do is go home – when racism is taking place there in conversations over tea or dinner, that’s your responsibility. There’s very little black people can do to stop this racism. We’ve tried for centuries. That’s what the Struggle was about. The people who can do something about it are people who belong to the same race – especially young people.

“Stop the charity work. It’s not welcome. Go home and deal with it there, at university, among your friends.”

Eusebius asked: “Do you think those are mutually exclusive? Me working privately on my damaged and stained white self, and me helping to reduce inequality?”

Mgqolozana replied: “There’s no point in doing charity work when we are not dealing with the main issues. I wouldn’t mind if a person was doing the kind of work I was referring to and at the same time doing all these other things. What I’m completely against is when you think being nice is making the world better. It’s not.”

McKaiser, referring to Rhodes academic Samantha Vice’s advice that white South Africans “work on their private selves”, said: “Even if you are not a perpetrator yourself, if you have unearned privileges – and I have them too, just because I have a penis – you need to reflect, morally, on what it means to be a beneficiary or privileges that you did not, through merit, earn. That is not done enough. But at the same time we recognise that, quite apart from what each of us need to do on a personal level, there are real macro-economic factors that correlate with the anger. We’ve got to simultaneously urge more South Africans, black and white, to work on their damaged private selves, but not to stop cross-class solidarity.”

His remarks got an enthusiastic round of applause.

Gobodo-Madikizela moderated Mgqolozana’s assertion slightly, saying:

I agree with you that these processes have to run alongside one another. And the idea of, as Thando says, feeding people in the townships as a way of cleansing one’s guilt, that has its role. And it serves an important purpose because people are hungry. But if it’s to cleanse guilt rather than to restore some dignity among people, then it becomes a challenge.

Shifting perspective slightly, Thamm asked the audience to consider what the conversation would be like if the focus was on gender rather than race.

I keep on having this image conjured in my head, imagining what it would be like as a woman to have a whole lot of empowered, possibly white, men coming to me and saying ‘we’re here to help you, we want to give you tools to unpack your life and the disadvantages you’ve encountered in your career, and I would just want to say ‘fuck off!’ That’s I think why women sometimes have spaces where they don’t want men to be, and I think that’s what black South Africans are asking us: ‘Butt out. Go work on yourself.’

“Rick Turner did this, understood that, and Steve Biko, back then. Unfortunately they’ve kind of been erased from the landscape in terms of what we need to engage with, which is not to receive Thando’s anger and dismiss it. Because it takes a lot to face yourself in the mirror as a white person. It’s not easy. In the end, you sleep with yourself at night. And as you head off towards infinity, you must make peace with yourself. Do not be afraid of it. And to be a white person standing here telling you not to be afraid of a black man’s anger is ridiculous, all of it, but it’s part of the process.”

During the Q&A session the women who had shouted out “bullshit” stood up, and said, through tears:

I don’t know when I can stop feeling guilty for being born with this skin.

She continued to explain how she had studied medicine and specialised in HIV, works at an NGO, how she would rather give money to a black beggar than a white beggar.

“But,” she added, “I need black people to understand that I’m so tired of feeling guilty. Yes, I might have inherited things that I don’t deserve, but from the age of seven in 1977, when I remember those Soweto riots, and hiding under the bed and thinking ‘this is so wrong’, and my parents thought I was wacko, being at Wits and fighting against racism, I just need to know that there is a place for me in this country where I am sometimes giving out blankets and clothes.”

Mgqolozana’s next statement stressed the importance of how the Rhodes Must Fall movement had “completely refused to be infiltrated to older people” who “come with experience and say they learnt to deal with anger”, adding: “We need urgent interventions. It’s urgent.”

As the audience began murmuring again, McKaiser interjected that Mgqolozana was responding to an earlier question about intergenerational difference in responses to anger, but even if this was Mgqolozana’s intention his response was perhaps deliberately provocative.

Mgqolozana recalled the situation during the transition in the early 1990s, when the ANC Youth League consisted of “older” people like Jackie Selebi and Peter Mokaba – “something was missing”.

Gobodo-Madikizela agreed, saying: “There’s a sense in which young people expressing raw emotion does change the poles.”

McKaiser then said he wanted to respond personally to the tearful audience member:

“I cannot speak for all black South Africans, but I my response is that I totally feel you, don’t stop doing the amazing work that you do. I have family who live in poverty, I feel the burden of what I call ‘black tax’, I can’t develop wealth and get out of that poverty myself. Like many black professionals, including the few who are here, we are actually secretly indebted – we’re not genuinely middle class – your work is very important. But I have two points.

“There’s a difference between guilt and reflective awareness of unearned privileges. You are not Verwoerd; you should not feel guilty because guilt presupposes you did something wrong directly. You didn’t. What you are exhibiting is not resting with guilt. You are reflectively aware as a white person of your unearned privileges and you’re not being challenged on it.

But in acknowledging your story and affirming the amazing work that you do, let’s not pretend that your story generalises across our society. If every white South African was like you, this conversation wouldn’t happen.

DA MP Michael Cardo was next to stand up, saying: “I was glad that the previous speaker shouted out ‘bullshit’ in the middle of a session, because I think she was exactly right, I think a lot of this discourse around white privilege and self-flagellating discourse is exactly that. It’s the basest form of racial identity politics.” Cardo also asked McKaiser, who has written a book about the opposition party entitled Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma, about his “flip flop” on the work of Samantha Vice, which he had previously been critical of.

“My answer to you is very simple,” McKaiser replied. “I’m allowed to change my mind. I read Samantha Vice differently after Rhodes Must Fall than before. You call it flip flop, I call it intellectual development.

“Number two, I say it’s bullshit – yes, I’m emoting now – to pretend that because in the DA’s future you might have to be colourblind that there’s something fundamentally amiss in Thando self-identifying racially and experiencing a space like this painfully and racially. I think you need to hear him differently.

“Of course a white person should be an active citizen; you pay taxes, you’re a citizen of the country. Samantha’s basic advice was be humble and be silent and don’t perform in the public space. I think she spoke badly as a good philosopher, and that’s why we re-read her. If we take her literally, she’s wrong, and I’ve written a paper on it in the South African Journal of Philosophy. But the generous reading of what she says – which I now hear because I hear people like Thando differently to how I heard them before, as a liberal – what Samantha intended to say but used poor language, even as an academic, is don’t be so arrogant as to assume you have the monopoly on truth and only your understanding of the phenomenology of race is morally the most appropriate way of thinking about race and living racially.

“What she should not have implied and I acknowledge that she did, and this bit I do not agree with, is that as a white person you must literally shut up, not participate, not run for political office. And that cannot be right, not only because you’re entitled to those things as a white person and a citizen, but also because if I have an inferiority complex as a black person, it’s not going to help me to practice confidence speaking to Thando, who’s also black. I need to learn how to slam-dunk Michael the white person, and I can only do that if Michael and I are in dialogue publicly and not trying to live apart in terms of apartheid geography. But I think what Samantha is calling on you to do is put aside the normativity of whiteness.”

Later that day, Cardo tweeted:

Check out Twitter timelines from the events:



The 2015 Franschhoek Literary Festival was covered on Books LIVE by editor Jennifer Malec (@projectjennifer), deputy editor Helené Prinsloo (@helenayp), assistant editors Erin Devenish (@ErinDevenish811) and Annetjie van Wynegaard (@Annetjievw) and Jennifer Platt (@Jenniferdplatt) of the Sunday Times.

Have a look at our Facebook page ( and our Twitter profile (@BooksLIVESA) for more information and pictures!

Keep an eye on Books LIVE for write-ups of the best events this week (including the panel discussion featuring Kenny Kunene).

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Author Photos from the 2015 Franschhoek Literary Festival Launch Party

Check out all the photographs from the author cocktail party held last night to kick of the 2015 Franschhoek Literary Festival.

The festival runs from today (15 Friday, May) until Sunday, and will be covered by Books LIVE editor Jennifer Malec (@projectjennifer), deputy editor Helené Prinsloo (@helenayp), assistant editors Erin Devenish (@ErinDevenish811) and Annetjie van Wynegaard (@Annetjievw) and Jennifer Platt (@Jenniferdplatt) of the Sunday Times.

Keep an eye on our Facebook page ( and our Twitter profile (@BooksLIVESA) for more information and pictures!

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The Books that Built Me, by Mark Winkler


Published in the Sunday Times

mark winklerThe first real book I read – and by that I mean one with no pictures in it – was The Little Iron Horse, from the Bobbsey Twins series, given to me when I was six.

It was hardly the stuff of high literature, and back then I was unable to critique the jingoism and prejudice that lay thick behind the story. But as I mouthed the words, I realised I was holding something precious in my hands.

After that, I raced through The Hardy Boys and my dad’s collection of Louis L’Amour’s Westerns. This was SA in the ‘70s, without TV, and beyond your bicycle and pellet gun, you had to make your own entertainment. The Quick and the Dead and Sackett’s Land brought violence, sex, and formulaic story-telling into my lowveld bedroom, and with them the addictive aroma of ink and paper and binding glue.

Wilbur Smith followed. Such a cliché, I suppose, this literary path, but books like When the Lion Feeds and its certain well-thumbed passages were fodder of all sorts to a 12-year-old.

Later, my high-school English teacher leant me a copy of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It opened my eyes to a different kind of writing, and through it I glimpsed a different way of seeing the world. After dipping into a few more modernists, I came to love how they were able to take a dry dictionary of words and, like a palette of Gauguin’s paint, turn it into Technicolor magic on the page, using only black cyphers that numbered just 26.

Of course there was Salinger and Kerouac and Burroughs. I discovered Gordimer and wrestled through her works. And while doing my national service, I came upon JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which took me somewhere I’d never been before.

The turning point was Etienne van Heerden. I was a student at Rhodes, he was a lecturer, and we were both pissed. He described a scene in which a man was showering with a woman and he licked her nipples and they tasted like soap. Then he admitted he didn’t know where to go next. I could offer absolutely nothing, and Etienne bought me a drink to make me go away.

20 years later I read Michiel Heyns’ beautiful translation of Van Heerden’s 30 Nights in Amsterdam and something in it flipped a switch. I could do this, I thought. Nowhere near as well, perhaps, but I could do it. I’ll never know what exactly it was, but something in that novel convinced me it was time to jump on and try to pedal for myself, even if I never would win the Tour de France.

WastedMark Winkler’s second novel, Wasted (Kwela), has just been released.

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Follow Winkler on Twitter @giantblackdog

Picture credit: Simone Scholtz

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Storm Child: Michele Magwood Chats to Ruth Carneson About Her Memoir Girl on the Edge

By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

ruth carneson

nullGirl on the Edge – A Memoir
Ruth Carneson (Face2Face)

In Gillian Slovo’s 1997 memoir Every Secret Thing she recalls Madiba visiting the family on the morning of Joe Slovo’s death. He told them that his grown-up daughter had once flinched from him, saying that he was the father to all our people, but he’d never had the time to be a father to her. “He said that this was his greatest, and perhaps only, regret: the fact that his children and the children of his comrades had been the ones to pay the price of their parents’ commitment.”

Ruth Carneson has paid a bitter price for her parents’ commitment to the struggle. Fred and Sarah were prominent activists in the 50s and 60s, leading members of the Communist Party in Cape Town who were repeatedly banned, arrested and detained. Her father went on trial for High Treason and was once tortured and kept in solitary confinement for 13 months.

Ruth and her older siblings Lynn and John grew up in an atmosphere of sickening fear: their house was watched around the clock by the Special Branch, and often came the dreaded banging on the front door, taking one or other of her parents away. “They were there and then they’d disappear,” she says, speaking from her home in Cape Town. “I was always expecting catastrophe. In a second everything could just fall apart.” When it did, the children were parcelled out to family or sympathetic families. They learned to keep secrets.

One by one, the family escaped into exile in London, but there was little comfort there. “It was compounded trauma, really,” she says. Before long she had tipped over the edge into mental illness, at one stage being held in asylum for “the hopelessly insane”.

Carson’s own memoir, Girl on the Edge, has been 10 years in the writing. It’s a poignant portrait of a lost, untethered child who buffets through life. The first half of the book flies along in the vivid, fragmented style of the child’s point of view: “Every morning Dad has to go to court for the trial. At breakfast time I butter him a piece of toast. I make sure the butter is spread evenly from corner to corner and spread salty Marmite on top.”

She takes us candidly through her life in the UK, through breakdowns and drug-taking, in squats and caravans and on Greenham Common. She campaigns energetically against apartheid. She drifts incessantly, staying a bare step ahead of starvation. She has two sons and then splits from their father. The shiftless squalor of her existence is depressing, but still we root for her. Though she qualifies as a Nursery Nurse, art ultimately becomes her salvation, and when Nelson Mandela is released from prison she is pulled back to South Africa.

Today she still makes art and lives with her mother in Muizenberg.

Has she ever resented her parents’ commitment to the struggle and the cost to her and her siblings? “No, never,” she says firmly. “I’ve always felt proud of them, of their courage and vision. They showed that it’s possible to change the world, that you don’t have to accept the system. My life has been much richer because of what they gave me.”

At the end of her book, we are pulled up short by facsimiles of her letters to her jailed father – reminded of his yawning, vast absence and the fear and need that formed his daughter. Her mother, she says, wonders whether she would have done it had she known how it would affect the children. But Ruth’s having none of it. “I sometimes wonder whether I would have had their courage.”

Follow Michele on Twitter @michelemagwood

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Find Out How Book Dash Creates Free Books for Children – and Give the Gift of Reading this Christmas

Karlien de Villiers brings the story of Graça Michel to life

Book Dash is a registered voluntary association that creates free books for South African children – and you have until midnight tomorrow to take part in their Thundafund campaign!

The project is the brainchild of Arthur Attwell, Michelle Matthews, and Tarryn-Anne Anderson, and part of their mission statement is that “every child should own a hundred books by the age of five”. That means creating and giving away 600 million free books, to children who are not able to buy them.

During a Book Dash, volunteer writers, illustrators and designers get together in teams of three to create a brand new children’s book in one day.

There have been three Book Dashes so far, the first in May, with just two teams, the second in June with 10 teams, and a Women’s Day-themed Book Dash in August.

Book Dash are currently raising funds through a Thundafund campaign, which has been extended to 24 December. You can donate anything from R120, which contributes one book, to R25 000, which translates to 1 000 books. You can also donate on behalf of somebody else, for which you receive a certificate, making a thoughtful and meaningful Christmas gift.

You can also buy original artwork from the Book Dash books as part of their crowdfunding campaign.

Related stories:

Attwell chatted to Books LIVE about what Book Dash has planned for the new year.

Arthur AttwellBooks LIVE: Once the Thundafund has finished, what’s the next step? Are you planning another Book Dash or is the plan to print the books you have already produced?

Arthur Attwell: We’ll be printing the books we’ve already created. We’re already talking to several literacy organisations, like The Shine Centre, Nal’ibali, Wordworks and Read to Rise, who’ll be giving the books directly to the children they work with. Our focus has always been to support their work with new, beautiful books that children can take home and keep.

Do you have any plans to produce books in other South African languages?

A big reason for Book Dash’s open model – where anyone can freely translate and distribute our books – is to make books in African languages cheap and plentiful. Nal’ibali and the African Storybook Project have been helping us with translation, so we already have some of our books translated into isiZulu, isiXhosa, Sepedi, Sesotho and Afrikaans, with more to come. When it comes to printing, our distribution partners will help us decide which books to print in which languages, for the greatest possible impact.

How do you choose where to distribute the books you print?

It’s been easy to find great organisations with established children’s literacy programmes, and they know where our books are most needed.
Happy Girl, Saskia!
Which literary organisations do you work with?

We’re already working and talking with many organisations, including the African Storybook Project, Wordworks, The Shine Centre, Nal’ibali, Fundza, Read to Rise, Masikhule, Pratham Books, Puku, Worldreader, and Mxit Reach. We’re just making beautiful books and giving them away, so it’s really easy for our work to complement what others are doing.

Why did you register Book Dash as a non-profit? What opportunities does that open up?

After the first couple of Book Dash events we realised how much this thing could do, and that we should step it up a notch. Official non-profit registration is a big box to tick if you want to raise money: it’s a way to show others that we’re accountable and transparent. It was a big commitment, because staying registered and managing non-profit tax affairs is seriously hard work – not something a few volunteers can handle in the evenings. It makes serious fund-raising possible, but also requires serious fund-raising in itself.

What will your work with Jill Ritchie of Papillon Press involve?

Jill’s team has a long and acclaimed record of raising money for organisations here and abroad. Proper fund-raising is a deep and complex field, so we’ll be relying on Papillon to navigate it for us. For instance, by identifying and building relationships with funders who share our vision. The aim is to raise large amounts that will allow us to run book-creation Book Dashes, print books to give away, and pay for basic overheads like accounting and storage.

What kind of expertise are you looking for from volunteers at the moment, and where can people get in touch?

First and foremost, we need to grow our base of experienced creative professionals in illustration, writing and design. Our illustrator–writer–designer teams are the heart of our work. Then, we’ll need to grow our core team of volunteer project and event managers, editors, photographers and videographers, scanner–retouchers, and HTML experts. Finally, we need champion word-spreaders in journalism, blogging, video and radio. People can drop us a line from, or just join our mailing list there.

Jireh children heart Book DashAny plans to come to Joburg?

We’re super keen – nothing’s fixed yet, but we’re chatting to potential funders. A Book Dash – one day for 10 books and a print run – costs about R100K, and the minute that’s available, we can set the date and call for volunteers. In corporate social investment terms, R100K is tiny, so we’re hoping to see corporate sponsors come aboard. For instance, it’s a brilliant way for a company’s staff to have thousands of books to give away on Mandela Day in July.

What’s your long-term plan for Book Dash?

We’re just starting out, so our plans are still short term: raise money, print books, give them away, make some more books. These are baby steps towards a long term vision: to be part of a national movement to make children’s books so plentiful that kids get a book every time they leave home. Free books at every big store, every clinic waiting room, every bus station, every playschool, every library. We all wonder how to make a difference, or worry that our charity isn’t having the desired effect. If you want to be sure you’re making a difference, just give a book to a child. We’ll help make that cheap and easy.

Books by the big-hearted authors involved in Book Dash include:

I Don't Like ChocolatePrincess Talia and the DragonVets and Pets: Jamie and the Magic WhistleMa mère était une très belle femmeFeast, Famine and PotluckThe Parade

The Little Red HenThe Whole Food AlmanacSister-SisterCtrl Z my leweAdults Only

As jy 'n ster sien verskietKilling TimeRide the TortoiseEmbracing Digital

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Video: Philani Dladla – AKA The Pavement Bookworm – Shares His Story with TEDxJohannesburg


“Books are the most important thing in my life.”

With these words Philani Dladla – known to most as The Pavement Bookworm – opened his TEDxJohannesburg talk earlier this year. He shared his incredible life story, from the first book he recieved (The Last White Parliament by Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, a gift from the man his mother worked for) to the moment he realised he had to change the way he was leading his life.

Dladla grew up in the rural parts of KwaZulu-Natal. He was raised by a single mother who did everything she could to provide for him and his three brothers, but “this was not enough for me”. Swept up by the “need of being cool”, he did whatever he could to keep up with the crew. “I went from being bullied to being a bully,” Dladla said, sharing the story of how he got kicked out of school at the age of 16.

“It was very hard for me. Everybody was moving on with their lives, even that crew that I wanted to be a part of, they just moved on like I never existed.” Dladla’s mother, however, did not give up on him. She saved enough for him to finish his matric at an FET college but, before long, partying and debauchery became top priority again until he was stabbed one night. “While my peers were writing their matric exams I was laying in a hospital bed. It was very sad.”

Life got too much for Dladla and he tried to commit suicide. After he recovered, his mother decided it was best for him to move away so she sent him to live with a friend of hers in Johannesburg. It went well for a while, but before long his old ways took over and he found himself with no home – only a bag of clothes, a blanket and his precious collection of books.

It goes without saying: life on the street is hard. Luckily, Dladla was able, through all his turmoil, to hold on to his pile of books. “I decided to do what I know best. I took my pile of books and I went to Empire Road [...] and decided to make friends with people who were passing by, telling them about books.”

Watch the video below to find out how books went from being the most important thing in Dladla’s life to actually saving his life:

“It puts a smile on my face to see a kid reading a book because I know what books did for me. Books are very good for your mental health. Books can change the world. You don’t have to be rich, start with the little that you have – sharing is caring!”

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Nal’ibali interviewed Dladla, asking him about his life and the road from the pavement to prosperity. “For me, reading is a weapon of choice to fight social challenges. If you read, you think,” Dladla told the national reading-for-enjoyment campaign.

Read the article:

Not only did he read self-help books in order to end his addiction, but he also read novels and biographies – anything to keep himself meaningfully occupied. Then, Philani started reviewing them and selling them to motorists driving up Empire Road. He charged according to how he rated the work.

His unique approach soon captured attention and he became known as “the pavement bookworm”. One day, a documentary filmmaker Tebogo Malope, interviewed him about his roadside bookstall and posted the video online where it went viral.

His life changed.

Here’s how you can help Dladla and find out more about his Book Readers Club:


Images courtesy of Pavement Bookworm and TedxJohannesburg

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Waiting for the Vegetarians

Sophy Kohler muses on the Richmond Bookbedonnerd book festival, now in its seventh year, taking place from 23 to 25 October. View the programme at

For Boekbedonnerd organiser Darryl David, Richmond is the perfect place for a literary festival — it is in the middle of nowhere, so once you convince your participants to make the trip, they are compelled to stay. But are they? A friend had her husband keep the car running while she delivered her talk. They lasted less than two hours, unprepared to face a room in the eerie motel alongside us and Norman Bates.

Richmond lies on the N1, just beyond the comfier bounds of the Western Cape and roughly equidistant between Johannesburg and Cape Town. My boyfriend and I have done the drive from both sides now. It’s an extra hour versus the Freestate (Dis mos mielies!).

Few people set off with Richmond in mind as their final destination, it is a conduit and one less desirable than Graaff-Reinet or even Colesburg. But it has modeled itself as a “book town” for the purposes of tourism — you can find Willard Price in hardback — and books journalists know Richmond for Boekbedonnerd, now in its seventh year. The festival traps no more than four gullible reporters annually (two of them I can usually account for) and a handful of the rarest authors you will ever see. And this weekend, it is happening again.

The permanent residents are a Lynchian ensemble cast — a hunchback rides around on a disability moped offering to show unsuspecting visitors “his snakes” and The Giant is there, somewhere, too. In one bookshop, a sign proclaiming “Welcome to the Old South Africa” is only slightly more unsettling than the massive giraffe that looms in the passage behind it — a taxidermist’s magnum opus.


We joke about buying property in Richmond; it seems a natural halfway point between the two cities that divide our lives and has become an unlikely constant in our relationship. But beneath our banter is something more serious — we are aware of the pull of the margins, the allure of the Karoo’s timelessness; we are attracted to this strange nowhere.

During one of the long drives we plan a restaurant, a gastronomical companion piece to the festival, a refreshment station to ward off scurvy and stasis, born out of endless days of lamb chops and chips. Like the town’s other restaurants it would be open for two days a year, its staff brought in from the township or the prison for their lucky moment of employment.

We imagine the Double R spliced with Leo’s, a place where local authors fight to swap eponymous dishes beneath the mounted heads of sable antelope; where Rian Malan would kill for A Change of Sliced Tongue and Antjie Krog only ever orders My Artichoke’s Heart.

Our signature dish, Ah, But Your Lamb is Beautiful, would take care of the Karoo’s staple menu item and appease any regulars who feel threatened by change. And, while our morning customers may be restricted to a Story of an African Farm Breakfast, for lunch we’d allow a choice between The Seed Loaf is Mine and the more decadent Daughter’s Burger.

Our cocktail list would be equally ostentatious with Rumours of Cane and Portrait with Key Limes likely to be favorites. Layers of chocolate sponge cake and white mousse will embrace in our famous dessert, The Quiet Violence of Creams. But perhaps our real monkey maker will be the 24-hour pizza special, Gobbling at Night.

But Richmond’s hallucinatory effects wear off when you hit the edge of the dome, 20 kilometres out, and our desperate attempts at entertaining ourselves are short-lived. We are left with the sense that Richmond’s own humour will always be better than our best attempts at faking it, that we will never be as interesting as its residents, nor have enough backbone to rejoin the past.

But I still imagine JM Coetzee, that prodigal son, wandering into our little diner (heavy curtains, red plastic booths, neon lights) to find that someone’s named a sandwich after him. And he’ll sit down and order a glass of tap water and the Book of Raw, because nobody liked White Whiting.

~ ~ ~


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A Vivid Voice: Ivan Vladislavic Remembers Chris van Wyk

Chris van Wyk

First published in the Sunday Times

Ivan Vladislavić remembers his friend, poet and novelist Chris van Wyk, who loved and lived through stories.

Chris knew books could change your life. Could save your life. If you want to hear his booming laugh, open any page of his memoirs.

The Year of the TapewormEggs to Lay, Chickens to HatchShirley, Goodness & MercyLong Walk to FreedomTwenty in 20

Chris van Wyk was a rare kind of writer. He brought people and places so vividly to life in his books that reading them makes you feel more fully alive yourself. His company had the same effect: he was so full of life that it spilled over to the people around him.

We met when I joined Ravan Press as a social studies editor in 1984. The press was in an old house in O’Reilly Road, Berea, loomed over by hotels and blocks of flats. On my first day there, it was Chris who steered me towards the crucial stuff — author files, stationery cupboard, kettle. He had been editing Staffrider for a while and was keen to show me the back issues of the magazine. We went into the garden, where a dilapidated coach house faced the service alley, and I followed him up a wooden ladder into the attic. In the hot, dim space under the corrugated-iron roof, surrounded by towers of books and magazines, he told me about his work, and I began to think that editing might be a proper job after all.

I had seen him once before, in the late ’70s or early ’80s, at a poetry reading on the Wits campus. There were a lot of angry young men on the programme, the young black poets who would fill the pages of Staffrider, and Chris read “About graffiti”. It is an extraordinary poem, this tough, wryly amusing collage of hard-boiled street imagery.

When one black child tells another / “Ek sal jou klap / dan cross ek die border” / it’s graffiti.

He read the piece so vehemently that the wit passed me by, almost shouting the last lines: Soon graffiti will wade into Jo’burg / unhampered by the tourniquet of influx control.

When I came across Chris again at Ravan, the angry young man had mellowed. Politically he’d shifted from the Black Consciousness camp into the non-racial world of the newly established United Democratic Front. He was then involved in the Transvaal Anti-President’s Council campaign against the Tricameral Parliament.

I remember one of his stories from this time. He and some other activists were picked up while they were going door to door and taken to John Vorster Square, where he was left in the hands of a sergeant. He started out boldly determined to speak English only and ignore the policeman’s rank. But then he noticed the size of the man’s freckled fists, he said, and found he was quite able to say “Sersant” in his best Afrikaans. This sort of self-ironising comedy about painful things is at the heart of Chris’s storytelling. He often evokes the laughter that isn’t far from tears.

When I met him, Chris had already published his first poetry collection, It Is Time to Go Home (1979), which won the Olive Schreiner Award; and his children’s classic, A Message in the Wind (1982), with a warm introduction by Richard Rive. He and his friend Fhazel Johennesse had also founded and disbanded Wietie, a literary magazine no less extraordinary for having run to just two issues.

I bought a copy of his collection and soon realised that his skill as a poet went far beyond the jagged polemic of “About graffiti”. There was the conceptually brilliant “In detention”, which has entered South Africa’s collective cultural memory, something that does not happen often. This intricate verse, no longer than a sonnet, remains one of the most chilling critiques of the apartheid lie.

Many of the other poems are equally memorable. The book is studded with exquisite love poems dedicated to Kathy, his high-school sweetheart and later his wife. “Winter without you”, “Portrait”, “You must never know I’m writing you a love poem” carry a huge emotional load on their slender frames. My favourite is the perfectly simple, heart-burstingly beautiful “Confession”:

i would
have brought
they threatened
to explode
their mauve
all over
best shirt
i ate them

As an aspirant writer myself, I was both admiring and envious. How had he learnt to write like this? There are answers to this impossible question in his memoir, but that lay 20 years in the future.

There were a dozen of us working at Ravan Press. The editors — the other two were Mike Kirkwood and Kevin French — sat together in a single room, two desks on either side, facing one another across a narrow channel. We talked and joked, overheard one another’s telephone conversations, edited and argued. Frequently we rearranged the schedule. We worked hard too, as the publishing record shows. We were harassed by impatient authors and the security police. When the CCB threw a petrol bomb through the back door, it was a stroke of luck that a house full of paper did not burn to the ground.

Chris and I sat side by side for four years. We discovered a world of common interests, in books of course, but also in things like crosswords, which we did at lunchtime, somewhat competitively. He told me his favourite crossword clue was gegs (9,4). It’s up there with the best: the answer is “scrambled eggs”. He liked it so much, he mentioned it in his memoir. He was an incredible punster. Given half a chance, he could keep a riff of puns going for 10 minutes.

Chris poured his energies into his work with the Staffrider writers, who arrived at the house like pilgrims from all over the Rand. He spent half his time on a bench in the garden, going through handwritten poems in school exercise books with the authors, or unrolling drawings on the counter where the orders were packaged. Because of his poor eyesight he had to hold the pages up at an angle, which made his attention seem incredibly fierce.

Ravan was something of a refuge. Despite the personal and political tensions that played themselves out in the press, it felt a lot saner than the surrounding madness. Some of us made enduring friendships. We drank where we could, at the Market bar, or Dawson’s, or a gloomy kroeg in Langlaagte. We ate in the Coffee Bean in Hillbrow, where the proprietor Penny turned a blind eye. Mainly we got together in one another’s homes, in Troyeville, Noordgesig, Crown Mines. I was welcomed into Chris and Kathy’s place in Riverlea. Long after Ravan came to a sticky end, I would drop in at Arno Street for a chat and stay until lunchtime, or even suppertime. Sometimes Willie Smith would come past with a couple of quarts. Kathy, who was always the rock in Chris’s life, tolerated our carousing with good humour.

Once, in the early days of our friendship, we were reminiscing about the book exchanges we had gone to as kids in search of Alistair MacLean or Louis L’Amour, and I remarked that we were cut from the same cloth. Years later, when he took me past the matchbox house he’d grown up in, I realised what a thoughtless statement that had been.

In the early-2000s, Chris wrote the series of biographies for young readers that earned him enough to focus on his writing. The two books that followed about his childhood in Riverlea, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy and Eggs to Lay, Chickens to Hatch, will loom large in his legacy. Here he found his true voice on the page and it turned out to be a resonant echo of the one he used in the world. You can hear him speaking in every funny, sad, large-hearted line.

The books put Riverlea on the map and brought him a wide readership. It was the local response that mattered most to him, the reactions of old schoolteachers or neighbourhood shopkeepers. He loved to tell stories about the many people who contacted him to correct or confirm things, to challenge how they’d been portrayed or ask why they’d been left out.

The interest in his memoirs helped him to discover a talent for public speaking. The wonderful storytelling that had always entertained his friends grew into a kind of comedy. He was utterly fearless in these performances. If a little boy cried in one of his stories, he would bawl like a baby. If his mom shouted at him, he would shout at the top of his voice. In Shirley, Goodness and Mercy, he tells us that his first teacher, Miss Abrahams, told stories with this kind of conviction.

To the end, Chris made me laugh. We were talking about his chemotherapy and I said, “I’m glad the tumour’s responding well.”

He said, “No, no, Vlad, you don’t understand. We want it to respond badly.”

He told stories about the cancer survivors he met during his treatment. I remember thinking: “He’ll get through this. He’ll beat the odds, and then he’ll write an amazing book about it, full of the human detail that only he would notice.”

I will miss the long, hilarious phone calls, usually sparked by a pun in a headline or a clever newsbill (on the impending transfer of the footballer of the year to Real Madrid: “Hier kom Kaka”) or some Louis Jordan or Cole Porter rhyme he’d heard on Eleanor Moore’s radio show The Bandstand. He made me laugh so much the neighbours would come to see what was going on. It’s a truism that writers live on in their books, but with Chris the comment holds. If you want to hear his voice, his booming laugh, open any page of his memoirs.

Chris knew books could change your life. Could save your life. It’s why the failings of our education system infuriated him and why he spoke so often at schools. It’s remarkable, even in the life story of a writer, how much his memoirs circle around books: getting them, having them taken from you, using them to change your mind and the minds of others, revealing their true uses and values.

One of his most touching childhood stories tells how his Ouma took him to town to buy books out of her pension, carefully considering each one before pronouncing on its merits. And how he discovered a few months later that she had never learnt to read and write.

In the late ’70s, when the country was a darker place than it is now, he dedicated the poem Candle to his friend Caplan, another Riverlea raconteur who died too young. It ends like this:

Read brother read.

Only the wick shines red now.

But it is not yet dark.

Remember brother,

it is not yet dark.

Book details

Open Book 2014: Imraan Coovadia, Geoff Dyer and Hedley Twidle Tackle the Art of the Essay (Plus: Video)

Imraan Coovadia and Geoff Dyer sat down with Hedley Twidle to discuss the art of the essay in front of a 2014 Open Book Festival audience today.

Twidle and Dyer have both previously been shortlisted for the Hatchet Job of the Year award, but it was Coovadia’s infamous essay “Coetzee in and out of Cape Town” that got the discussion going. Twidle called it an example of “nailbomb criticism”: “You put everything in there: very serious critique, together with gossip and scurrilous stories.”

“There are polite cultures, and there are warm cultures,” Coovadia responded. “If you’re living in Cape Town you’re in a polite culture and it’s actually extremely repressive. I much prefer warm cultures. I’d rather be yelled at to having someone politely steer me to the door.”

Coovadia, much to the amusement of the audience, added: “You’re assuming I knew what I was doing, which is a very dangerous assumption to make about people. I think essays sometimes make kinds of connections or do certain things, and you’re not entirely sure you’re doing. I think the best books are ones where the writer doesn’t really know what they’re doing and our job is to simply give them a kind of beautiful quality or flow.”

Twidle asked Coovadia if he was “trying to introduce friction” to what he has called the “frictionless space” of the South African literary system.

“Yeah, I was, and I realised the costs were way too high. That was one part of it. But all our South African systems are constructed to absorb large quantities of resistance and put it down, whether it’s economics, whether it’s university, or the company … we think we live in a democracy but all our systems are really good at repression.

“If you write a critical book review you’re going to pay for that in blood, every month of your life. And similarly all of the different sub-systems in our society. And I think it just makes the cost of resistance too high.”

Dyer was asked about his essay in But Beautiful on influence in jazz, and how it can move both forwards and backwards, which led to a discussion about Harold Bloom and a good quip from Coovadia:

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Twidle wound down the discussion by asking: “There are all kinds of critical discursive prose that are now enabled to circulate by the Internet; has this given a fillip to the essay at all? Is it a golden age for the essay, or where are we at?”

“I don’t know if it’s a golden age of the essay but the essay has become briefly slightly fashionable again,” Dyer said, “and I think maybe that speaks to a kind of impatience, really. But I think the other thing as well is that if somebody is solely an essayist it would be quite a, sort of, lowly niche to be occupying, really. And if we were to think of the very best essayists, they would tend to be people who thought of themselves primarily as novelists, and this was something they did in their spare time.

“Gore Vidal is the classic one, nobody really reads Gore Vidal’s novels, we all read his essays. Even somebody like Martin Amis, who’s at his best as an essayist, I think he’d be incredibly insulted by that. Also, to take a really extreme example, the great essayist Susan Sontag, who really insisted she was a great writer of fiction. But I think the important thing is that they all regarded the essay as something on the lesser slopes of their achievements, a kind of sideline.”

Our editor Jennifer Malec Tweeted from the event:

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Open Book Festival 2014 Kicks Off With a Bang: Tweets from the Launch Party

The 2014 Open Book Festival has officially kicked off! The launch party was held last night, 16 September 2014, at the Book Lounge in Cape Town, and from the outset the twittersphere was abuzz with excitement.

Liesl Jobson tweeted from the party and captured quite a few famous faces in pixels – both local and international authors. Have a glimpse at the timeline below for snaps of Zakes Mda, Justin Fox, Geoff Dyer, Andrew Brown, Raymond E Feist and many, many more!

Councillor Garreth Bloor from The City of Cape Town and the Book Lounge’s Mervyn Sloman welcomed a full house to this year’s festival.

If you find yourself at Open Book and in a twist over which events to attend, we’ve compiled a list of 10 unmissable ones for your convenience.


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