THE BIG READ: We are what we write
There are divergent views about the state of South African literature, and probably the strongest of these are expressed in two recent articles.
In a piece headlined "Where are the black writers?", published in The Times in May, Justice Malala asked provocatively: "Why has 'black' literature of the past 20 years been so sparse, much of it weak, so anthropological?"
Victor Dlamini, on the other hand, praised South African literature in an article online titled "South Africa finds its literary voice". He confidently posited: "By all accounts South African literature is enjoying its finest hour."
Such disparate views from two esteemed social commentators would be healthy discourse if there was continued engagement and sufficient attention paid to our literary landscape. But the only moment that books dominated the national discourse was in the wake of the Limpopo textbook saga.
Book Week offers literary enthusiasts a glorious opportunity, without being prompted by controversy and sensationalism, to interrogate the trajectory of our literary architecture with a view to shaping its growth.
As an entry point for such an interrogation, Malala's assertion, I believe, embodies a rich constellation of erroneous convictions.
The use of the first democratic elections as a signpost in literature is conceptually problematic. Such a deposition could be construed to mean the democratic state triggered immediate creative rupture from our apartheid past and that, as a society, we are bereft of a sense of history and collective memory. The irony is that the very same hermeneutists unwittingly employ apartheid-era barometers to measure developments in what they term post-apartheid literature.
Equally problematic is the labeling of literature by black writers as "black writing". The compartmentalisation of literature according to skin colour presupposes that writing is intrinsically the domain of a specific racial group. To make sweeping statements about black writing, as if black writers are a homogeneous bunch of retarded children, is to undermine the dynamism of our literary heritage.
The emergent paradigms in South African literature largely transcend racial dynamics.
Zukiswa Wanner emerged as an unknown writer with her debut novel, The Madams, in which she reversed racial stereotypes, bringing the perspective of a black madam with a white maid. Soon thereafter, Nape oa Motana published Fannie Fourie's Lobola, about an Afrikaner protagonist who had to negotiate and pay lobola for his Pedi fiancee. Lauren Beukes, a white woman, wrote the internationally acclaimed Zoo Citywith black characters as protagonists.
These are the narratives of our society in the 21st century and, more than just reflecting, they interrogate the architecture of our society today. South Africa is a country in the making and a society fraught with contradictions. We preach reconciliation and social cohesion, while, at the same time, dozens of spear-wielding miners are mowed down.
Remnants of the idealistic African renaissance are still visible. Simao Kikamba's novel, Going Home , HJ Go lakai's The Lazarus Effect and Yewande Omotoso's Bom Boy bear testimony to a society whose cultural outlook is no longer defined by the Limpopo river.
The relevance of the thematic content of these texts does not undermine the aesthetic value and the exquisite storytelling capabilities of this new generation of writers.
Sifiso Mzobe is shortlisted for the continental Wole Soyinka Prize for his debut novel, Young Blood. Mandla Langa, Lebo Mashile, Cynthia Jele and Zachariah Rapola have claimed international awards. The books of Niq Mhlongo, Kopano Matlwa and Kgebetli Moele have been translated into French, Dutch, German and Spanish.
This is not to suggest one must win an award or be translated in order to be a good writer, but such accomplishments provide reference points. The successes of individual writers happen in the backdrop of a vibrant literary culture. The establishment of new literary journals, blogs, online discussion forums and other electronic media, the proliferation of book fairs and literary festivals, the emergence of new publishers and the publication of hordes of new authors bear testimony to a thriving literary landscape.
Sadly, our burgeoning literary output has not translated into a sizeable increase in consumption.
This lack of appreciation came to the attention of literary giant Ngugi wa Thiong'o during his recent visit to the country. "I find it extremely embarrassing that every time I enter a book shop in Johannesburg and Cape Town, I cannot find books by even South African writers on display," he said. This discovery was not a surprise to many of us. More than 70% of books sold in the general market are imports, mainly from Europe and the US.
To find South African books in most mainstream bookstores you will be fortunate to spot a small shelf labelled "African Fiction''. What this means is that the rest of the books in the shop are non-African, and that literature from Cape to Cairo is confined to that little space. Where is the place of South African literature then?
South Africa is not Europe, and departure from Western orthodoxy should not be construed as denigration of literary standards. Literary merit, rather than the simplistic recast of the black and white orthodoxies, should define the architecture of our literary landscape.
As we celebrate National Book Week, these are some of the ambiguities we need to contend with.
- Mahala is author of 'African Delights' and 'When a Man Cries'