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“White with anger”

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It’s been some days since Thando Mgqolozana said that he will no longer attend what he called “white” literary festivals. Since then, he has posted, on Twitter, a vision of a what a better literary world would look like in SA (you can read it all here). And there’s lots more to read on the matter. 

The conclusion I have come to is that Thando and his supporters want exactly the same thing as the organisers of the Franschhoek Literary Festival – of all festivals: Access for ALL South Africans to books and reading. 

Here’s the summary of the literary festival that I wrote for The Financial Mail.

“I will never be seen at another literary festival unless it is a black literary festival,” said writer Thando Mgqolozana, rolling an unpinned grenade into the usually polite, intellectually stimulating, convivial arena in which all literary festivals take place.

He was talking on a literary panel at the Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF) this weekend chaired by Victor Dlamini entitled “Colouring In The Lines”.

It was bound to happen in Franschhoek.

For the nine of years of its existence, the FLF has continued to astonish writers of all races for its ability to remain so solidly, apparently intransigently, white. Look down from a stage, or across the audience from the back of a hall, and what you see is a well-kept carpet of greying white people’s hair.

It’s not all white. The panellists are, if not wholly representative of South African demographics, certainly not a reflection of what’s going on in the audience. And even the audience is not all white, but you can count those who aren’t.

“Black authors and black literature,” said Mgqolozana, echoing a point he made earlier in the week in an interview with Daily Vox, “are being viewed as anthrolopological subjects.”

He said authors had been trying to negotiate integration into a system that is white “from the owners of the farms where the trees are grown for the paper for the books” down to the lowliest marketing intern. He felt there was nothing more he could do or say to feel like a part of this white literary establishment.

“My contribution is to walk out of it.” He meant out of all literary festivals.

He is not the first to complain. Siphiwe Mahala declared in an article some years ago that he would not return to the festival to “perform in a circus performed exclusively for the amusement of the rich”.

Mahala and Mgqolozana aren’t lone voices. Amo Ngoepe, a young writer, said: “I think much of it (the ‘whiteness’) is unconcious, but for that reason deliberate action is required. Franschhoek is far. It’s expensive to get here. It’s intimidating. It’s a real culture shock. It makes reading seem elitist. And this is the only panel so far that I’ve attended that had only black people on it.”

Andrea Nattrass, Mgqolozana’s publisher, said: “Everything he identifies is real, but it’s not something the publishing industry is oblivious to. It is something we actively work to negate.”

That was on Saturday.

On Thursday, before many of the headline acts – Hugh Masakele, Eusebius McKaiser, Rebecca Davis, Richard Poplak, Moeletsi Mbeki, Deon Meyer, Jonathan Jansen – started hitting town, Maria Phalima was at Franschhoek High School talking to a room full of (only black) scholars.

Phalima’s book, The Doctor Who Walked Away, has been shortlisted for the Sunday Times Alan Paton award. She told her young audience: “It sounds dramatic, but reading felt like it opened the world for me. Growing up in Soweto in the 80s was hard. Reading helped me see that there was more in life than what I could see around me. It made me think what could be possible for me.”

Phalima was talking at Book Week For Young Readers, the festival that precedes the FLF, where the more than 5 000 learners of the valley get to meet authors. Book Week is an off-shoot of FLF Library Fund, which was developed to promote reading in the valley. Its successes include thousands of new books in schools in the valley, a box library in every high school class, a container library at one of the schools and the appointment of a full-time librarian who has trained four assistant librarians from the community.

The entire juggernaut of the FLF drives that machine. This year more than 16 000 tickets were sold for over 100 events over three days. More than 150 authors, 12 of them international, came. All because local librarians wanted more children to have access to books.

The FLF, like other literary festivals, also provides a platform for some of the most riveting and stimulating political and social discussions anywhere in the country, from land reform, to social media behaviour.

Judge Dennis Davis last week said: “The general poverty of intellectual discourse in our country means that there are so few opportunities to benefit from engaged and intelligent discussion. One swiftly realises why Franschhoek presents such an oasis of sense.”

Ann Donald, director of the FLF for the past year, said: “I have never been quite sure whether the accusation of ‘too white’ is aimed at the organisers for not providing a programme that attracts a more diverse audience, or at black readers for choosing not to attend the festival.

“I know the work that goes into developing a programme that is representative and which allow for a broad diversity of experience and writing to be represented. There has been progress in this regard, and that work is ongoing, but we have a long way to go and it’s something that we take very seriously.”

On Sunday, Mgqolozana was on another panel, this one run by Eusebius McKaiser and featuring writer Marianne Thamm and psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. Their topic: Is Anger Underrated.

It maybe be underrated, but it is not under-felt. Anger rustled through the room like a restless child and finally erupted when Mgqolozana eloquently and unequivocally re-stated his disinterest in attending literary festivals in future.

Black audience members say they feel uncomfortable, unseen and unheard. White audience members feel affronted by what they perceive to be a rejection of their support of the literary machinery that allows black voices to be heard.

Can the twain meet over the (undoubtedly noble) cause of uniting all people through reading? Or will the ropes keep unravelling forever over the issues of what is seen as a patronising white literary establishment?

  • This article first appeared in the Financial Mail of 21 May 2015

Samurai swords and death by social media

samurai girl

The world of words, books and education will be opened up and examined in thought-provoking – and probably highly amusing – depth at this year’s Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF), with the festival’s Friday programme tailored specifically to accommodate the floods of teachers and pupils who attend each year.

From samurai-wielding authors, to controlling yourself on social media, to government’s controversial proposal to limit textbooks to one per subject, the interests of those who are at school – both as learners and teachers – there is nothing at all boring about the kind of education that will be happening in Franschhoek from 15 to 17 May.

“While the programme is open, and every happening is of interest to just about anyone, we make sure to plan some of the events on a Friday so that school groups can be accommodated,” said Ann Donald, Director of the FLF.

“There is always great enthusiasm for those happenings that are of interest to teachers and pupils, so we’ve slightly broadened that part of the programme.”

Possibly the most exciting of the talks for older primary, and younger high school learners, and their teachers, happens on Friday morning at 10am when Darrel Bristow-Bovey, author of Superzero interviews two renowned authors: John Boyne, author of the international bestseller The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas – which was also made into a movie – and Chris Bradford, author of the Young Samurai series. Bradford is known to bring an authentic Samurai sword to his talks with young readers.

High school pupils and their teachers probably have much to learn from Rebecca Davis, one of South Africa’s best known hard news journalists and a woman who has had to stand her ground against some very tenacious and abrasive trolls on her Twitter feed. Davis is the author of Best White And Other Anxious Delusions and she’ll be in conversation with Emma Sadleir, who wrote the utterly delightful and equally terrifying book Don’t Film Yourself Having Sex. They’ll be talking about why being too open on social media is a dangerous thing.

There is a plethora of Friday events that high school learners will want to attend, but one that promises to be particularly moving will focus on the life stories of three remarkable South African women: Ruth Carneson, daughter of struggle activists who writes about her difficult, colourful, crazy life in Girl On The Edge, international actress Pamela Nomvete, whose memoir Dancing To The Beat Of The Drum appeared last year, and Maria Phalime, whose book Postmortem: The Doctor Who Walked Away caused a great stir when it was published. They’ll be interviewed by Redi Tlhabi, whose warmth and humour as a host have won her a great number of admirers amongst the regulars at the FLF.

Another talk that will be of interest to teens and their teachers focuses on what teens read and the crossover factor that draws adults to books aimed at teens. Panelists will also be discussing what adults think teens should be reading, which isn’t necessarily the same as what teens are reading.

Outspoken critic of the education system Jonathan Jansen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, will be speaking at an event entitled “We Won’t Get No Education”. This panel will also feature Western Cape Education MEC Debbie Schäfer and Arthur Atwell, who has is finding new and interesting ways to get books to children, and will be chaired by one of the festival’s most popular interviewers, Francis Wilson.

Donald says that a highlight of the Friday programme is the Poetry For Life Competition Finals, an event in which high school students compete against one another in recitation. South Africa is the latest country to join this international initiative.

“The competition finals tie in with ‘Reading to Remember’, an event earlier in the day, which explores why learning poetry by heart at school is important,” said Donald.

The competition will be judged by, among others, Cape Talk radio stalwart John Maytham and “Afrikaaps” poet Nathan Trantraal, and will be hosted by the poet Finuala Dowling.

“Everyone’s really excited about this one. It’s entertaining, educational and competitive all in one. Young audiences will love it,” said Donald.

  • The programme for the FLF is available online at www.flf.co.za. The festival takes place from Friday 15 May till Sunday 17 May. Block bookings are available for schools, which means that staff and pupils will pay only R20 per ticket per event. For school block bookings, you can contact Sheenagh at help@flf.co.za.