In the last few days, the South African literary community has been having one of those moments. It started when author Thando Mgqolozana announced that he will not be attending festivals where he feels more of an anthropological specimen and less of a literary giant. The man also offered solutions that the local publishing industry needs to ensure that the White literary system is usurped.
Kagiso Lesego Molope is the South African writer who gave the world three books; This Book Betrays My Brother, The Mending Season and Dancing in The Dust. She won the Percy Fitzpatrick Prize for youth literature in 2014. She weighs in on the affair;
I’m going to share one little-known fact from a writer’s world: literary festivals can be very lonely affairs. You spend months, sometimes years in front of your computer, isolated, unsure of your skill and talent; you have no one to keep you company except for your characters, whom you’ve come to know so well they follow you into your dreams and start to feel like best friends. Your moods rise and fall every day, from: this is going to be great! I’ll get fantastic reviews, to: is this worth writing? Am I the person for this job? Who, if anyone will read it? Then a miracle happens and someone says, yes, this is a book. Yes, we’d like to publish it, yes, we want to show the world what you have to say.
You’re feeling vulnerable and hope your work is received well, that the audience is kind enough to engage with you solely on the themes of your book.
But then imagine being in this position, with the hope of being acknowledged as a legitimate writer, and having the audience and fellow writers bring you back to that feeling of uncertainty, the feeling that you have not earned your place at the table.
I’ve been to many writers’ festivals around the world and I always call home for support because it isn’t always easy. Many of these places, outside Africa, invite African authors as fillers. We’re not met with the same respect as European or American writers and we’re expected to be grateful to be invited at all. We’re there as the one token African author, just filling up the diversity seat, feeling like an ornament instead of someone who’s earned her place at the table. But these festivals I’m talking about are not at home. I always tell myself, it’s different at home, in your home country.
So imagine my sadness when I read reports of Thando Mgqolozana’s decision to quit what he called the “White literary system” in South Africa. Imagine my heartbreak when I realised that this feeling of exclusion, of filling the diversity seat, can happen in a place where the majority of people are of African descent.
It’s a sign of the depth of our fears that neither White nor Black people in attendance could support the call to an end of Franschhoek literary festival’s exclusivity. White people continue fearing an invasion of (what they see as) their spaces and Black people fear not being allowed into those spaces. I was not there but what I’m getting from the articles is that Thando Mgqolozana was pointing out that it’s abnormal to have a literary festival that doesn’t represent the diverse South African population. White audience members took offense. Some Black authors took steps away from him.
Two things: First, these literary events are not meant to be bohemian free-love festivals. They’re artists’ spaces and you’re supposed to engage, the way art does. You’re supposed to make the world a little less comfortable, you’re meant to point out what is and isn’t right about the country we’re in. They’re a great opportunity to right some wrongs, so there should be as many different people from as many different backgrounds as possible. Literary Festivals are not supposed to help things carry on as they always have. If we’re at Franschoek or Time of the Writer to protect the status quo then artists are not doing their job. Then the festival shouldn’t be there to begin with.
The second thing is: make no mistake, Thando Mgqolozana is a literary giant. Not because he exposed the deeply flawed tradition of circumcision in A Man Who Is Not A Man, as people like to think, but because he wrote Hear Me Alone (our review here at JamesMurua.com). Have you read Hear Me Alone? If your Exclusives Books carried it and you bought it you would know that it’s the sort of book accomplished authors dream of writing. It is one of the most imaginative, most intelligent pieces of work we have in our country.
It changed the way I write, the way most of us write.
Someday, outside of South Africa, Thando Mgqolozana will receive the kind of literary praise he deserves and perhaps only then will we feel lucky to be reading him, having a chance to engage with him in his lifetime. The great Zakes Mda once said that Thando Mgqolozana stands head and shoulders above the rest. You should know this, you should listen to this, you should feel ashamed that when he spoke up we distanced ourselves and left him out in the cold.
The sad thing is that when the world knows what kind of gem we have in Thando Mgqolozana you’ll all talk about how he’s “one of us”. But like that audience member in Franschhoek last week, I will not hesitate to look at you and shout: Bullshit.