On reading and writing in South Africa

There has always been an insidious suggestion from certain parts of polite society that black people do not read. And if you were to look at the sliver of shelf space allocated to African fiction at your typical mall bookstore, you would get the sense that black people do not write.

Both suggestions, however, are informed by the racist institutional practices of mainstream South Africa, which are dripping with condescension, prejudice and innuendo.

These were among the issues that the 19th Time of the Writer literary festival – hosted in KwaZulu-Natal a few weeks back – had to address as part of its Decolonising the Book theme.

When a panel gathered at Umkhumbane Library to discuss books and readership, the day was hot and humid; electric fans struggled to push the heat back out. It was midday; young people and pupils from around Cato Manor trickled in with contagious glee.

Extending the festival from the city centre to the fringe townships of Durban was a welcome novelty at this year’s festival, a model most visitors hoped would remain for years to come. Guests had heard about the panel event at their school, while others had only seen it advertised on posters around their neighbourhood and were shuffling to their seats.

“Libraries need to work like a bar,” said Wiseman Gumede, an aspirant writer and ardent reader, who spoke passionately about literature during the workshops set up to discuss aspects of “decolonising” – peeling off the barriers that prevent black people from participating in the literary field, whether as readers or writers.

Each group was allocated a panellist. The issues discussed included concerns about the price of books, current reader profiles as imagined by the commercial book industry, the process of deciding which books end up on library shelves, the national literary festival scene and the need to have young people place the reviews of the books they like on platforms such as those offered by Sunday newspapers.

Libraries need to consult communities about books – especially fiction – to place on their local library shelves or they risk being irrelevant to the communities they serve. The audience stressed the need to access books that reflect their lives and reality, and deal with their history, to “better understand ourselves and the sociopolitical dynamics of our space”.

Predictably, the rand’s collapse had affected book prices, said Exclusive Books CEO Benjamin Trisk. The fact that many South African books were not printed in the country, even if they were printed on local paper, was another factor that affected the pricing, he said, citing shipping costs.

Maria van Driel, director of the Jozi Book Fair and part of the editorial team of Khanya Journal, pointed to the history of dispossession and forced removals as having been a major factor – beyond pricing – barring the majority of people from reading.

Short-term interventions that arose from the discussions included hosting book launches in community libraries, and for publishers to use local newspapers to advertise new books and local events.

A suggestion of having residencies for writers at local libraries and to invite established writers to mentor them was also raised, as well as the sponsoring of free e-books for children to help them develop a love for reading at an early age.

While it was evident that those who attended the discussion were clearly interested in literature and emphasised its importance in their lives and community, they also cited that, between TV, Facebook or Twitter and, say, a book, most people were least likely to choose the last option. Critically, too, in low-income households, where the choice is often between buying bread and buying a book, the reader simply can’t even think of doing the latter.


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