Innovative platforms for local literature

Founded in 1994, initially as a poetry group named the Botsotso Jesters, our free-floating collective of poets, writers and visual artists soon became involved in publishing and organising performances and exhibitions.

The objective was to create a space for South African literature and spoken-word art that, though respectful of and celebrating the differences in our cultures and languages, was attempting to build links and facilitate cross-fertilisation. As such, we wanted to include the whole mosaic of South African cultures and to do so with a political awareness that was radical without being sectarian or dogmatic.

These objectives have not changed. Over the past 14 years we have managed to publish 15 editions of Botsotso (a literary journal), another 20 books (by individual authors as well as anthologies) and organised numerous exhibitions and events. The main ones have been Manuscript Exhibitions, Isis X (photographs and poems by 14 women) and the Jozi Spoken Word Festival. The political and aesthetic openness we practice enables diverse writers and artists to work under our umbrella. Combining verbal and visual images in our books and performances has led to fruitful collaborations.

However, the fact that we generally work in art forms that are not mainstream (mainly poetry, short fiction and photography) has made financial independence impossible. South Africa is still culturally backward in that literacy and reading levels and the markets for local literature and visual arts are extremely limited. Our reliance on public funding — via the National Arts Council (NAC) and the National Lottery Development Trust — is unlikely to be reversed for the foreseeable future. Of course, we appreciate this support so that powerful and original work, not viewed as “marketable” by commercial publishers, has still managed to find a public platform. But there are many key problems that could be resolved if it were not for the failure of state and private sector groupings to advance mass reading and cultural awareness.

For example the NAC, while offering funding, has not taken up our request to link us with the national library system and the Department of Education. If we were able to sell our books to these two state-funded departments we would achieve two major goals: firstly to enable new work by a wide range of writers (emerging and established) to reach a readership of hundreds of thousands and secondly to provide financial sustainability.

The Publishers Association of South Africa has no public programme to encourage reading and no systematic marketing of local literature. Added to this, the major booksellers will not offer marketing assistance or publicity to our titles (poetry in particular is regarded with disdain and short fiction is given a similar status). Most distributors are loath to take on our titles, arguing that sales of these genres is too limited. We thus have a classic chicken-and-egg scenario where distributors blame the booksellers and the reading/buying public and booksellers blame the “product”.

Added to this is the phenomenon of the “celebritisation” of writing, in that writers are now forced to become media personalities to draw attention to their work; those who do not wish to position themselves as a “brand” risk public indifference and marginal critical attention. Here the blame must be laid at the door of the media. The trivialisation of book reviews and the “dumbing down” of review writing (together with ad hominem attacks) have become a hallmark of our books pages. There is also more space given to vacuous interviews with writers than to engagement with the work itself. If poetry and short fiction enjoy limited readership, is that a reason to deny them serious attention? Surely it is the role of the few substantial newspapers we have to sift through and expose this shallowness rather than capitulate to it?

The irony is that there is a flowering of literary and artistic talent in South Africa and the globalised world seems to be more interested in our work than we are ourselves. Botsotso receives numerous manuscripts from all over the country that testify to this explosion of creativity. But here again we must note the reluctance of South African writers and artists to engage with the work of fellow South Africans. There is too much small-mindedness and pettiness, jockeying for a slice of a small pie.

In addition the anthem of our new democracy seems to be that art which explores the interplay between the social world and individual consciousness, as opposed to individual experience in isolation or fantasy for its own sake, is dull and inevitably trite. The days of the struggle having been superseded by a self-oriented way of living, Botsotso as a collective is viewed as a relic of an outmoded era, out of touch with new values and a consumerist lifestyle. Our response is that, given the local and global crises humankind faces, we make no apology for having a political consciousness — but that does not mean we have a particular “party” position or dedication to a “line”.

Classic misrepresentations of socially conscious art claim that it inevitably reduces literature to propaganda and distortion. We believe that realism, magical or otherwise, is but one of many possible approaches to making art and that art which is truly profound ignores fashion, remaining true to the core issues of living. As such, Botsotso will not compromise with regard to the multiplicity of themes and styles we publish and present as long as they have both stylistic and thematic authenticity.

Botsotso Publishing co-presents the Jozi Spoken Word Fest 2008 until August 16 at Wits Theatre and the Writing Centre, Wits University. For more information call: Allan Kolski Horwitz 082 512 8188 or Pamela Nichols 083 233 5270

Hot off the press
Recent Botsotso books include: Botsotso 15 (a special edition featuring participants in the Jozi Spoken Word Festival 2007); two books by Liesl Jobson — 100 Papers, a collection of flash fiction, and View from an Escalator (poems); Mma Afrika (poems in Sepedi by Tlou Setumu); and two books by Allan Kolski Horwitz — Blue Wings, a prose poem for children and Out of the Wreckage, a collection of dream parables and stories.

Forthcoming are two books by the actor and playwright Gamakhulu Diniso: Ikasi and other Plays and Siyanuka and other Plays; Sections of Six (an anthology of poems by Khanyi Magubane, Natalie Railoun, Gift, Abu Solomon, Alison Green and Thuto Mako); Izinhlungu Zomphefumulo (Emotional Pain), poems by Bongekile Mbanjwa; and Bluesology and Bofelosophy, poems, stories and essays by Mphutlane wa Bofelo, as well as a co-publishing venture, being an anthology of poems and short fiction drawn from the literary website Donga, edited by Alan Finlay and Paul Wessels.

Hall and Modjaji score
There is a double first in Megan Hall’s collection of poems, Fourth Child, winning this year’s Ingrid Jonker Prize for English poetry. Fourth Child is Hall’s debut collection and was the first title published by Modjaji Books, the independent press dedicated to the work of Southern African women.

Founded in 2007 by Colleen Higgs, Modjaji Books is the sort of initiative that rewards the true believer’s faith in the power of small, independent publishing ventures, as well as making real what Higgs advocates in her work, A Rough Guide to Small-Scale and Self-Publishing (Centre for the Book, 2005).

“Modjaji — which means rain queen — is a press that will make rain and generate spaces for new voices to be heard that otherwise may not find a platform,” says Higgs.

“The growth of small publishing means that new writers have more options open to them other than the obvious ones — it’s not always easy to get a foot in the door of the larger publishers. Small publishers can take risks with new writers and with books that are only likely to sell a relatively small number. Our overheads are lower, and we can use digital printing and we can rely on the kindness of friends and strangers.

“I think we are doing an important service for the literary community, breaking ground, discovering writers, nurturing them and giving them personal attention that sometimes is not possible in the more bottom-line focused mainstream context. From poetry to biography and fiction, there will be an outlet for writing by women that takes itself — and its readers — seriously.”

Hall will receive the Ingrid Jonker Prize during a ceremony at the Stellenbosch Versindaba early in September. The adjudicators’ committee for the prize, made up of poets Gabeba Baderoon, Kobus Moolman and Ingrid de Kok, praise different facets of Hall’s poetry.

Baderoon and Moolman note “the attentively crafted verse and the powerful emotional effect”. Dealing mainly with grief and loss, the poems are “written with discretion and restraint, steering away from self-pity”.

“Images are sharp and unforgettable,” says Baderoon. Moolman comments on Hall’s “accomplished and precise writing”, pointing out that its lack of formal inventiveness — so that the poems may appear conservative and traditional — is more than compensated for by the poet’s sophisticated imagery and construction of lines.

Moolman describes Hall’s poems as clearly lovingly, deeply and painfully crafted, and bearing “the mark of committed writing”. — Darryl Accone

Modjaji Books has published two collections of poems, Megan Hall’s Fourth Child and Azila Talit Reisenberger’s Life in Translation, and a novel, Whiplash by Tracey Farren. Forthcoming are Malika Ndlovu’s poetic memoir on her experience of stillbirth, Makhosazana Xaba’s novel Befallen and a collection of “Bed” short stories.

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