Decolonise the book to create anew

Thando Mgqolozana, author of Unimportance (2016), Hear Me Alone (2011) and A Man Who Is Not a Man (2009), announced at last year’s Time of the Writer Festival that he’d forsworn “white colonial literary festivals” and that he’d be attending only one more such event. He was referring to the Franschhoek Literary Festival in May last year at which he publicly announced his exit from the ­“colonial literary system”.

His move has had serious ramifications in how literary festivals are discussed in South Africa and how they may unfold in the future.

The Mail & Guardian interviewed Mgqolozana before his keynote address at the 19th Time of the Writer Festival, under the theme Decolonising the Book, which he helped curate, and which takes place this week at various ­venues around Durban under the auspices of the Centre for ­Creative Arts at the ­University of KwaZulu-Natal. It ends on Saturday March 19.

Is the Time of the Writer Festival as bad as Franschhoek? Would you lump them in the same category?

The Time of the Writer Festival’s argument is that [it] is one of the better ones. They say talk about Franschhoek or the Cape Town situation if you want to say these things.

There might be 20 more black people in the audience at Time of the Writer, but that’s not it. We are talking about a system here; a system within which the festival existed and still exists, one which I chose to define as the colonial literary system.

There has never been a deliberate decolonial project. Freedom and democracy are not decolonial in nature. We inherited a colonial literary system and did nothing about it for the past 20 years.

I decided I was going to stop asking whiteness to take me more seriously, to accommodate me better in their system, because that’s not what we need. We need two things: One being to crush the colonial system completely, because there is no improving colonialism, and then imagine new things that are not framed by notions of colonialism.

How did you set about co-curating a different festival?

One of the things I had said to [Centre for Creative Arts festivals director] Tiny [Mungwe] was we shouldn’t be having these things at universities because black people can’t access them. We have to take it to where the majority of black people are. We have to do things in our languages. We should make books available, etcetera. We should not do it as a visit because all these elite literary festivals visit the township and say, hey, we have a relationship with Matthew Goniwe School in Khayelitsha. It was fronting and Time of the Writer was doing that as well.

I gave input on the [funding] proposal and the next thing was to have an agreement on the theme, which was decolonising the book, or the story. I then went to Durban to meet the provincial government with the Time of the Writer team.

Surprisingly, they [the provincial government] were the ones talking decolonisation before we did and they were co-operative in helping us deliver the festival in this way. Then we drafted the programme, names of people we’d like to see there and then the administrative things were done by the Centre for Creative Arts.

Besides having dropped the university as the venue, what is the most important feature of the ­festival programme for you?

We’ve done something that doesn’t happen with any other [literary] festival in South Africa. We’ve addressed the question of books.

Books are very expensive. We cannot ask black people to buy books when we know that they cannot afford them. So, one of the phases we have to go through as a country is to make free books easily accessible to black people. They are supposed to be there in the municipal libraries but we know that they are not there.

So we recommended to the provincial government, and they agreed, that they will buy at least two copies of each of the invited authors’ books and distribute them in all the [92 municipal] libraries in the black communities in eThekwini, and that these must be available before the festival takes place.

We don’t want authors to be asked: What is your inspiration? We want the audiences to be engaged with the work. The only way that can happen is if some of the people in the communities have had a chance to read the work. It probably won’t be perfect now, but after a few editions [of the festival] there will be relevant literature in these libraries that is accessible to the people. And if we keep making these books available before the festivals we could affect the depth of engagement.

The other thing is that this festival is kind of like a conference of all these black writers, who have been engaging with this issue on public platforms, to come together and interrogate what we mean by decolonising literature. What will it look like when we have achieved that? These two things stand out for me.

What has been the impact of your stance?

There are people who have been negative about it. They have come out in defence of their cocoon, which is the literary space. You will find all the racists there. Racists who were leaders in other aspects of society end up writing books so they can be invited to these things to be with people like themselves. So those people reacted.

They think this is undoing Mandela’s idealism. Reconciliation, blah, blah, blah … Some scholars [also]came out, writing against this. Some said we were using [Frantz] Fanon out of context and so on. But black people are happy. They may not agree with the approach, but people are saying this is necessary.

What has been the reaction and attitude of older black writers?

They haven’t said anything to me. [But] some are saying in public: “Stop blaming whiteness. Take it to the government that we elected because those are the people that are responsible for giving us culture.”

That’s a short-sighted view because the government has been described by people involved in the decolonial project as colonial administrators, because we exist in a colony. So it gets to be about: Do older black writers even believe we exist in a colony?

Was inter-generational dialogue a big thought in constructing the programme?

I might sound like I’m criticising black writers but what I have discovered about the decolonial project is that black people need each other. We arrive here in different stages of consciousness. There is value in us talking each other into consciousness, rather than alienating each other. We don’t want this to be an elitist thing. We want young and old to come together and see the main goals of this thing from the same ­perspective. The programme is not only young black people who are seen as “woke”; there are some mature people who are part of the programme.

Other than the keynote address, what will be your further involvement in the programme?

I’m going to attend all the discussions and contribute to those without being on the panel. I didn’t want to hog the space and was reluctant to even give the keynote address.

The festival is happening but there are other things that will pop up later in the year and I can’t take credit for all of them. There is a festival coming up in the North West – you can ask [black consciousness thinker, activist and writer] Andile Mngxitama about that. There is another book festival happening in Khayelitsha. I’m involved in that. And we are planning a massive project in Soweto later in the year. So hopefully this will be a year of action.

The writer’s accommodation and travel costs were covered by the Centre for Creative Arts. 

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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