Q&A with Morakabe Raks Seakhoa, project director at the South African Literary Awards
"Publish more books in indigenous languages, and help create or improve on platforms for everyone to interact with books"
The SA Literary Awards have become the most prestigious literary awards in South Africa. What's your aim each year in selecting nominees?
We aim to reach out to as many outstanding entries as possible, as well as break new ground and push barriers in subject matter.
You accept entries in all eleven official languages of South Africa, but book publishers tend to overwhelmingly favour printing in English and Afrikaans. How do you ensure that you find work that's representative of our country's diversity?
We try as much as possible to get our message across: through traditional media (newspapers, radio, television etc), social media platforms, our own websites, the publishing houses/organisations, writers’ organisations and word of mouth.
Are there any past SALA winners whose works stand out for you as pushing the idea of what diverse SA literature can look like?
There are many! We’ve awarded our three National Poets Laureate Mazisi Kunene, Keorapetse Kgositsile and Wally Mongane Serote Lifetime Achievement Literary Awardees as well as the late Nobel Literary Laureate Nadine Gordimer, Noni Jabavu, Eskia Mphahlele, Antjie Krog, Dan Sleigh, Sindiwe Magona, Patrick Magaisa, Zukiswa Wanner, Credo Mutwa, Aletta Motimele, Etienne van Heerden as well as many others.
Many people think literary awards only cover novels, but you have 12 exciting categories, even including forms of journalism! How do you decide what should be included (and excluded) as a literary work?
We get requests from different quarters for inclusion of categories: from members of the public, the selection panel, the adjudication panel, partners and so on. The SALA board then subjects the proposals to thorough scrutiny and, when we’re satisfied, advises for or against the proposed category.
You seem to frame your role as both rewarding existing and promoting future literary excellence. Can you tell us a little about the legacy programme you ask all award winners to be involved with?
The legacy programmes of SALA are the Africa Century International African Writers Conference, the Miriam Tlali Reading and Book Club and the Keorapetse Kgositsile Memorial Annual Lecture. We’ve now also added a project which donates books to schools, libraries and book clubs.
We're particularly impressed by your book club and library projects. What do these involve and why are they so important to SALA?
The Library and Book Club programme aims to create space for writers, readers and the general public to access and discuss books and topical literary issues. We’re interested in interactive ways of promoting the culture of writing and reading, which means they sometimes host workshops or support book launches. The club caters for both published and unpublished authors. We think it’s set to excite academics, bookworms and light readers alike!
2019 is Unesco's year of indigenous languages. What steps would you ideally like book publishers and readers to take to ensure that South African literature is loved and celebrated in all its diversity?
Publish more books in indigenous languages, and help create, or improve on, platforms for everyone to interact with books.
Other than buying more local books, how can we all support emerging writers in our communities and build excitement around new local work?
We need more and accessible platforms for writing skills development programmes so that emerging writers can gain experience and produce high quality work. SALA will roll out its Creative Writing Skills Development Programme in due course, as soon as we’ve been able to raise the necessary resources.
How can people nominate or submit work for the awards?
Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit: www.nalibali.org.
This Q&A was first published in Nal'ibali Column 1, Term 2 (2019)