Writing: Still a cultural weapon

Back-slaps and laughter reverberate around a Durban hotel lounge as writers gathered for the 11th Time of the Writer Festival greet old comrades.

However, Zimbabwean publisher Irene Staunton’s knitted eyebrows appear in opposition to this easy bonhomie. A study in concentration, she is struggling to price a book from the Weaver Press stable she co-founded. Having been away from home for a few weeks, Staunton has lost touch with the exchange rate and Zimbabwe’s vertiginous hyperinflation. She settles tentatively on “five or six US dollars” for a copy of Valerie Tagwira’s debut novel, The Uncertainty of Hope.

It’s painfully obvious, but food is a priority, “cultural property” isn’t, says Staunton.

Staunton, with Henry Chakava, the Kenyan publisher generally acknowledged as the driving force behind the success of Heinemann’s African Writers’ Series, are at the festival to talk about African perspectives on readership and publishing in a discussion to be chaired by Zimbabwean writer and bookseller Paul Brickhill.

Printing costs increase daily and book sales are slower than queues for petrol. “Now I’m used to not seeing my books, or any others, in bookstores. Bookstores just have flyers and greeting cards,” says Charles Mungoshi, International PEN Award-winning author of Waiting for the Rain and Ndiko Kupindana kwa Mavuza (How Time Passes). With work tackling the clash of traditionalism and modernity in Zimbabwean society, and an output in both English and vernacular Shona, Mungoshi is here to discuss Writing Home.

Staunton believes soaring prices are causing a more insular and isolated country. “A literate society is not a society that merely knows how to read and write, a literate society is one that knows how to discuss and get to grips with new ideas and at the moment we are allowing our society to be taken out of the world community, by giving them such limited access to the world’s intellectual debate,” she says, drawing comparisons between contemporary Zimbabwe and Ian Smith’s isolated Rhodesian regime.

Brickhill, who has worked in the field of textbook policy and is founder of Harare’s Book Café, says it was very different in the first 10 years after independence. He feels the government had implemented “the best textbook publishing and distribution system in Africa”.

Recalling a schools essay-writing competition on authors he ran in the late 1980s, he says “the sense of intellectual development through writing and reading fiction and identification with African authors was stunning”. Of the more than 5 000 entries, almost 95% were about Zimbabwe’s literary enfant terrible, Dambudzo Marechera.

The damage done to the education system and the literary industry since the 1990s, Brickhill says, is “mind-boggling”. He points to the declining fortunes and prestige of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in that decade as a watershed in Zimbabwe’s literariness.

Opening the Book Fair in 1995, President Robert Mugabe launched an untrammelled attack on gays and lesbians, sparking a boycott of the event in subsequent years.

South African booksellers, publishers and writers pulled out, as did their African and international counterparts.

“You have to blame — not him personally, we’re not that silly, this isn’t about individuals — but the ruling clique, the ruling Zanu-PF people who put power above everything. Above the intellectual development of their own people and the rest of Africa. These are crimes against Africa,” says Brickhill, pointing to the fair’s history of being a fountain of pan-African literary cooperation.

Various pan-African writers’ forums, booksellers’ associations and publishers’ associations, like the African Publishers’ Network, have sprung from the fair.

Staunton, who co-founded publishing company Baobab Books in 1987, says Weaver Press operates “almost like a small NGO rather than a publisher”, with the company doing more project-based publishing, such as privately funded books for libraries.

While inflation is a major challenge, in a sense it is “irrelevant”, she says, because “nobody buys books. We have a very well-heeled elite for whom, on the whole, books aren’t their priority.” Instead they spend their dollars on “tennis courts, mansions” and the like.

Yet the tenacity of Zimbabweans in the face of adversity means that cultural life goes on. Staunton says Weaver receives five manuscripts a week: “People may not be reading, but they are writing.”

Brickhill, who splits his time between Johannesburg and Harare, feels his home town is more happening: “Not just in terms of the literary circles, but also the music scene. At the Book Café we have a House of Hunger night [after Marechera’s collection of short stories] and the place is packed with poets. People using a form of poetry-meets-theatre and humour as a weapon. reinventing the English language with street slang and socio-political activism.”

THE DETAILS

The Time of the Writer Festival’s closing-weekend programme includes the launch of Breyten Breytenbach’s new book, A Veil of Footsteps, and a discussion on New Voices by South Africans Kirsten Miller and Kopano Matlwa (author of Coconut) on March 28.

Breytenbach and Congo-Brazzaville’s Emmanual Dongola discuss Changing Cultures as part of the March 29 programme.

The March 30 programme consists of conversations with Australian journalist John Pilger, facilitated by political analyst Patrick Bond and Mail & Guardian editor Ferial Haffajee.

Events start at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre from 7.30pm. Call 031 260 2506 or visit www.cca.ukzn.ac.za.

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