The Time of the Writer Festival (TOW) took place from March 14-19 in Durban. This year they decided to jump to the front of the debate regarding the primarily white publishing culture and literary festival circle in South Africa - they wanted to begin the process of decolonising the book.
Last year, writer Thando Mgqolozana caused a stir when he said he would no longer participate in literary festivals since he often felt like the lone black voice in front of a crowd of white people. He was reported as saying: “The audience does not treat me as a literary talent, but as an anthropological subject.”
His statements prompted Tiny Mungwe of the Centre for Creative Arts, the usual boss of TOW, to invite him to co-curate this year’s festival. Together they wanted to change things, to try to discover the path to a new future for books and publishing in South Africa, a more inclusive path. The festival invited leading black writers to help them find the answers. Panel and group discussion centred around finding ways to change the status quo.
But what does decolonising the book really mean?
In an interview in The Mail and Guardian, Mgqolozana said: “I’ve said a few times already that the only time I will feel at home in the SA literary space is when my publisher, editor, proof-reader, graphic designer, layout person, printer, publicist, distributor, bookseller and most readers are black, reading my work in their preferred languages.”
I know a bit of what he is saying since most of my books are published in South Africa. I can contest that nearly everyone you deal with is white and the unfortunate history of South Africa, still primarily in place, means that most of them really do not understand very much about black people who are the majority of their potential readers.
I have had to fight over things I thought were obvious. I remember once arguing with an editor about a white character greeting a black character in Setswana in 1882. She said no
able because she knew she would be the only black person there - dilo tsa makgoa and all - the editor assured me it was no longer like that in South Africa. I had to get a quote from a well-known black columnist I know to explain that yes, in fact, it is just like that, she had taken her own dog to obedience school so she knew all about it.
That’s my frustration - and I’m white - the colour of my skin, no matter how you want to slice and dice it, gives me undeserved legitimacy (which hopefully will fall away once the book and its publishing industry is decolonised). I can only imagine the level of frustration black writers have with South Africa’s white publishing industry.
I think the moves by Mgqolozana and TOW are very important. And I think too it is important for black writers only to come together and talk freely about the problems and how to address them— without white publishing folks and white writers. I know, having worked in numerous women’s rights groups in the past; excluding men in the early discussion is important, even sympathetic men. Women need to feel free to be with like-minded and like-experienced people to find the most efficient path to identifying and solving their problems. And I think this is the case here as well. I hope the benefits of what took place at this year’s TOW begin to have an effect and things start to change for the better.