/ 4 December 2008

Expanding literary horizons

South Africa’s publishing boom has brought about dozens of diverse authors penning the sordid crime tale, the historical novel, the urban romance, the short story and poetry.

Unlike in the West, where many works of fiction first see the light of day in literary journals, most of our local works appear in book form first. This may change with the launch in the past year of two literary journals, Wordsetc and Baobab.

The quarterly journal Wordsetc was founded by Phakama Mbonambi and Zamani Xolo late last year. The third and latest issue, titled Women and Words, features the female voices of Jo-Anne Richards, author of My Brother’s Book; writer and editor Alexandra Dodd; writer Palesa Mazamisa; poet and journalist Arja Salafranca; and a handful of others.

Mbonambi says the vision is to promote consumption of African literature. He commissions writers to write essays, reviews or features. In this way “readers get to know their take on a variety of subjects”. Mbonambi hopes to “excite the reading public about local writing as well as provide a platform for new and old writers”. He says “most readers have admitted that this journal reignites their passion for books. Some have used our book review section to go out and buy books reviewed.”

Mbonambi — whose day job is sub-editing at the weekly tabloid Sunday World — says he faces the usual problems that plague new publishers: “Advertising could improve,” he notes tersely. The publication has been on a “bumpy road” and, naturally, Mbonambi has mastered advertising speak. “Books and literature are an indication of lifestyle. The niche audience we are talking to is lucrative; any smart advertiser would do well to consider tapping into it.”

Such concerns should not gnaw at the scene’s newest journal, Baobab, published by the South African Book Development Council with financial support from the department of arts and culture.

Crucial to the birth of the journal are Minister of Arts and Culture Pallo Jordan; Andries Oliphant, former editor of literary journal Staffrider; poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile; and novelist Siphiwo Mahala.

Sandile Ngidi, editor of the journal, says: “We are not editorially accountable to the department and are an independent project.”

He argues: “Baobab is not a sloganeering platform nor an avenue for lost souls who think their hope for redemption lies in their ability to preach and scream pedantic songs to others under the guise of the spoken word and similar gimmicks.”

Ngidi says their choice of title is meant to “celebrate our deep-rooted connection to Africa”.

He points out that, “given the journal’s pan-African commitment, [and] the baobab’s presence in other parts of the world, [this] speaks to the journal’s all-inclusive philosophical ethos”, adding “we envisage a world where the written word has no borders”.

Foremost in its collective mind, Baobab, Ngidi says, “celebrates and critiques writing from South Africa, other parts of Africa and the African diaspora” with a “wide array of voices, both known and unknown” to provide a platform in Baobab so that our literatures are advanced.

The inaugural issue features novelist Lewis Nkosi, Kgositsile, Oliphant, Imraan Coovadia, flash fiction exponent Liesl Jobson, novelist Zukiswa Wanner, novelist and businessman Kole Omotoso and many others.

It is an expanding literary horizon, which adds to the feisty Chimurenga, the pan-African journal edited and founded by Ntone Edjabe.