Decolonising the Literary landscape

Questions of race and colonial structures of literature brought to the fore at the Jacana Media discussion about decolonising the literary landscape.

This year the Franschoek Literary Festival (FLF) opened up a whole can of worms about the dominance of white privilege in the literary space when Author Thando Mqgolozana said that he was fed up with attending festivals like FLF where most people in attendance are white.

“Is anger Underated?” was the topic of discussion that caused what was considered an honest reaction from Mqgolozana. An article posted in the Daily Maverick, noted the literary festival as a place “where a lot was said but much more remained unsaid.”

The discussion at Wits raised important questions about decolonising the literary space in South Africa and urged those in the room to take a hard look at differences in the culture of reading that black and white people experience.

Eusebius McKaiser led the discussion along with authors Thando Mgqolozana and Siphiwo Mahala, as well as Ben Williams, Sunday Times books editor and founder of Books LIVE, and Corina van der Spoel, Franschoek literary festival organiser.

McKaiser made sure that the ground rules were set by elaborating and expanding on the reasons why Mqgolozana said he wouldn’t go to literary festivals of FLF’s nature. He explained that he was “sick and tired” of being the black writer who is only invited to make the audience understand race.

“The white South African authors, book editors, publisher’s are highly unaware of the un-erred privileges that come with being a white author,” said Mckaiser. He reiterated that this was ultimately something that they had to confront themselves with because it is no accident that only certain books are successful and punted.

These books are usually books that maintain a certain level of black people as ‘anthropological subjects’ and serve white people with a sense of satisfaction when they read it, thinking that when they’ve read a book about black people, they understand them. “That is something that white liberals have to confront themselves with and failure to do so puts you on a continuum with Steve Hofmeyr,” said McKaiser.

This set the tone for the conversation that at one point had an Englishman Ben Williams saying, “There is no opportunity for black literature” and then apologising for his exercise of capitalist systems that limit black literature as a book editor and publisher in South Africa.

The man in government stuck to diplomatic obedience and stated that he indeed knows what the problem is – lack of accessibility to books in places like townships – telling the audience that he can’t even find his own book in the community where he grew up. “We need an integrated approach and try to work together as a collective,” he added.

The discussion however moved to a question that sparked an immediate and emotional reaction from the audience when Corina Van de Spoel asked, “Are black parents buying books and reading for their children?” followed by a “Go find your audience,” and “Where is the black bourgeoisie?”

When Mqgolozana finally spoke he turned towards Van de Spoel and bluntly stated, “This is why Rhodes must fall.”

His statement was followed by comments that further explained the ways in which barriers of entry into a culture of reading are so high for black people in South Africa and in the end, white ownership and overt racist execution of white dominance was the answer.

No doubt the audience had their say with regards to Van De Spoel’s commentary and the discussion was helpful to those who didn’t understand the black writer’s struggle.

The outcome of the discussion (as important as it was, and those in attendance all play a major role in the ways in which the literary landscape can change for the better,) was that there is a level of self determination that is required with invigorating a culture of reading among black South Africans because the way in which it is set up, decolonisation is not happening any time soon.