Sunday, 14 June 2015

Sharp criticism levelled at SA's book industry and its bias against black writing

The issue of the literary system and the bias against black writers has been in the spotlight since the Franschoek Literary Fair in May. It was again the subject of intense discussion at Wits University on 9 May when Thando Mgqolozana, Siphiwo Mahala and others took part in a panel discussion. The event was organised by Jacana and was under the heading 'Decolonising the Literary Landscape'.

Mgqolozana told the meeting that, after seven years, he was tired of working towards acceptance by the establishment. Referring to a comment by another speaker that it was important for blacks to attend these festivals, he said he hated hearing the words "we need you". He said by putting them on the programme, the organisers were creating a space for "performance of black rage". 

He also argued that black people "do read" and that it should be recognised that every book purchased by a black person was read by many people. The problem was a lack of access "to reading material". Most bookstores were in white areas, and the only one in black area -- at Maponya Mall -- had closed down because the offering too closely resembled what was sold at Sandton branches of the same bookstore. In addition, books were expensive when seen in relation to average household income.

Mgqolozana called for reading to be viewed as a basic need and for government to scrap VAT on the sale of books.

Mgqolozana said he hoped to break free away from discussing white people and how they responded. It was much more important to "├»magine an alternative book industry". Although he would not attend any more festivals, for now he had no option but to still rely on white controlled publishing houses and bookstores. 

Writer and Department of Arts and Culture official Mahala said he decided in 2011 to stop attending events like the Franschoek Literary Festival. He described Franschoek as an initiative set up by private individuals linked to the white establishment who then invited black writers because they "needed black monkeys to entertain them".  Mahala deplored the fact that all aspects of the publishing business – from editing to sales to reviews –  was under white control.

During discussion many audience members prefaced their comments with the words "I am angry". Several of the young black audience members lambasted another speaker, Corina van der Spoel of Wits University, for stating that, due to the damage caused by apartheid, blacks do not read and that the black elite should buy more books. The audience members argued that it was not her place to make such remarks. "I use my money to buy books and I have been doing so since high school", another student said, adding that as far as he knew, young white people also needed to be encouraged to read.

Van der Spoel's input generated repartee from the young black audience. At one stage, van der Spoel asked "where is the Huisgenoot for the black community?" to which audience members shouted, "Bona, Bona".

In discussions such as these, of course, defining the problem is easier than finding solutions.

One of the audience members, Allan Horwitz of Botsotso Publishing, tried to provide a different perspective. He argued that the problem was the capitalist system and that socialist approaches were needed.  In his view, the democratic government should do more to curb the profit motive in the book publishing and distribution system. He also called on government to make sure libraries held books of local writers and hosted regular events where writers could discuss their work with community members.

Some in the audience strongly favoured "blacks only" literary festivals (although Mahala spoke out against this). Mgqolozana wondered whether writers should release and sell their work chapter by chapter, which would make literature easier to buy. Speaking from the audience, academic Pumla Gqola argued that greater use should be made of alternative distribution strategies, making use of new communications technologies which put more power in the hands of citizens. She also reminded people of how kwaito music emerged outside the formal system for music production and distribution. 

The panel discussion leaves many more questions than answers. On the one hand, there appears to be wide agreement that, 20 years on, the publishing industry has made too little progress in terms of transformation. On the other hand, it is unclear who will lead a new push for fundamental changes.  It remains to be seen which institutions or coalitions of organisations will step up to drive a new agenda of radical change in the publishing industry.

Frank Meintjies