Opinion

Young black authors set to write a new chapter in our history

20 July 2017 - 07:26 By jonathan jansen
NEW ORDER: As in all things South African, we have come a long way. Vernon Philander, the man of the match in this week's Test victory over England Picture: Gareth Copley/Getty Images
NEW ORDER: As in all things South African, we have come a long way. Vernon Philander, the man of the match in this week's Test victory over England Picture: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

I cannot think of another country in the world where a book fair could generate so much racial unease. From book festivals in Franschhoek and Cape Town to book stores in the leafy suburbs of Johannesburg, I have heard the murmurs, and sometimes a loud pronouncement, at book events that the audience is too white.

The argument that book-fair audiences reflect the racial and class structure of South African society is, of course, incontestable. That demographic reality is as true of our elite schools as it is of the clients at posh restaurants in our major cities. Our divided and unequal history hangs over us wherever South Africans are organised at work (corporate boardrooms, for example) or at play (major sports teams), eating a meal outside your home or in public discussions of new books.

As in all things South African, we have come a long way. The man of the match in this week's cricket Test victory over England was a black man. One or both of the Sunday Times's annual book awards for fiction and nonfiction are now regularly won by black authors. One of the most successful restaurants in the area of these book awards in Franschhoek belongs to a black chef. The problem is that there are not enough black cricketers or restaurateurs or, for that matter, authors of books. And this irks some of us.

It must be infuriating or embarrassing for white South Africans to have to be reminded again and again of the fact that the audience of book lovers is racially privileged. I find the constant finger-pointing at white audience members unhelpful for it resolves nothing other than to inflict hurt and unease on fellow citizens over and over again.

The irony is that the audience at book events tends to include people who spend their lives dedicated to changing the lives of the poorest among us. At a recent book launch I could quite literally list white (and black) people in the audience who earn very little but give very much to early childhood education programmes and high school maths and science interventions in township schools. These are allies, not enemies. Rather than embitter we should enlist these men and women behind action plans that address the critical question: What is to be done?

The racial profile of book audiences reflects, once again, a failed education system. Those who produce books tend to be people who had a solid school education with strengths in reading, writing and imagining other worlds. A quality university education provides confidence in your subject and competence in communication. Those who read books and attend book fairs often travel the same route of an inspired education in which the love of literature is ingrained at an early age. Changing the education system is going to take time and then only with a new government. So what is to be done in the meantime?

Out of simply one set of workshops on How to Write Your First Book, which I conducted for students, came black authors, at least one of whose work is now prescribed in some schools. 

We should enlist these men and women behind action plans that address the critical question

By simply investing in one young man from a school in Nyanga, Cape Town, our university had its first in-house library built in a men's residence in more than 100 years.

As in the past, my new books will be launched in disadvantaged communities from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. There the audiences will be black and the idea is to promote the culture of reading and enjoying books among older adults but also young children and students.

In the next few weeks I will also be taking a proposal around the country to raise funds for book-writing workshops in all the major townships of South Africa where young people will be encouraged to write their first books. I will be assisted by some leading authors in South Africa to make this happen.

And the people who pay for all of this are going to be those who attend book fairs and festivals so that in the near future our book authors and our book audiences also reflect the great diversity of our beautiful country. Perhaps then we can all just chill and enjoy the book.

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