“White with anger”

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

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