“The writer’s life and work are not a gift to [humankind], they are its necessity”, prefaces a theme of the Kingsmead Book Fair, quoting Nobel Laureate in literature Toni Morrison. At the heart of the theme is a concern worth unpacking: what it is that draws one to read? Is it a matter of boredom, or is one searching deeper for ways to make sense of the world?
The theme and accompanying questions could not have come at a more poignant moment considering our current context in South Africa, and in the larger state of the world more broadly. From recent controversies at Huffington Post South Africa concerning the publication of a fabricated blogpost by a non-existent person, to the conversations about The Age of Trump in the American context, to fake news, it appears to be a tough and challenging climate for readers — as well as writers attempting to expose some truth.
Reflecting on how writing The Yearning has changed her life, Mohale Mashigo (who is in conversation with novelists Ameera Patel, Bronwyn Law-Viljoen and Fred Strydom at the Kingsmead Book Fair) reflected recently on her personal Twitter account that she spent much of her 20s trying to destroy herself, to the extent that she was convinced she would not make it to the age of 30. Mashigo tweeted: “[I] only kept writing The Yearning [because] writing quiets the pain.”
The use of writing to quiet pain is a tactic employed by many writers, particularly women of colour, who are often using words to make sense of their intersecting raced, classed and gendered realities. This is evident in writing by black women from Ellen Kuzwayo’s Call Me Woman, where she writes about the “torments in the lives of black women”, to bell hooks writing about her childhood trauma — brought about by white supremacy, patriarchy and classism. They have written and are writing to give us insight into their lived realities and to lessen the pain, and in the words of hooks, to also ensure that they do not have to make “the heartbreak church” their homes.
Making pain visible
Writing and visibilising one’s work, as Paulo Coelho has intimated, is, in a way, getting naked in public. Like with any form of nakedness, one would inevitably expose oneself to examination, scrutiny and potential marginalisation. Social activist Simamkele Dlakavu recently shared that in South Africa specifically, “the climate is getting tougher for black people who publicly challenge white supremacy and white fragility in their writing”. In Remembered Rapture: The writer at work, bell hooks reminds us that structures of advancement in society often “require homogenous thought and action, judged usually from a conservative standpoint”. This conservatism creates a space where dissenting voices are silenced and censored, and tough questions, reflection and thought are not encouraged.
The toughening climate for writers to write uncomfortable truths in coincides with the primarily youth-led calls for decolonisation at literary festivals and in higher education institutions — and simultaneously, right-wing white supremacist organisations have been re-emerging, whether they be informal or more formally organised. These are groups that are invested not only in the perpetuation of dominator cultures through white supremacy, but also the maintenance of xenophobic sentiments, misogynoir, rape culture, homophobia, transphobia and a range of other “isms” and “phobias”.
Moreover, at its literary festivals South Africa has had to grapple with its own lack of representation — in terms of both the people attending the festivals, and certainly the authors chosen to speak at the festivals.
Black authors and readers have had to navigate literary contexts where unlearned racism, sexism and misogynoir are prevalent and ingrained in perceptions of the literary capabilities of black writers. Reflecting on his decision to leave the “white colonial literary system”, author Thando Mgqolozana has remarked that (white) audiences at literature festivals do “not treat me as a literary talent, but as an anthropological subject”. Mngqolozana’s experiences are of course not unique. For instance, hooks has shown that black women are often automatically excluded from rankings of so-called “great” writers on the basis of stereotypes founded on sexism and racism. These views have meant historically, and arguably still presently, that black women writers are perceived as “incapable of creating serious imaginative writing”.
It is no surprise that at the Abantu Book Festival, Mngqolozana tried to decolonise the literary scene in South Africa (which has its own limitations and fair share of critiques) by using the byline “Imagining ourselves into existence”. Speaking earlier in the year at the University currently known as Rhodes, University of the Western Cape Professor Sakhumzi Mfecane noted the lack of writing from the Global South about our own experiences. He reminded us of the importance of us writing our own lived realities using our own concepts and idioms, and untying the knotted complexities of our own lives by ourselves. In this way, we take an “African into the world” approach, and not “the world into Africa” approach that still enjoys its hegemony.
In her Nobel lecture in 1993, Morrison warned that there would be more “diplomatic language to countenance rape, torture, assassination”, but yet called on us to reject and expose this language, which is sometimes “disguised as research” and wants to estrange minorities with “its racist plunder”. We need the truth in the literary now more than ever, but more than that, we need to support dissenting voices and writers. In a time when expressing uncomfortable truths can get one blacklisted from jobs, funding and support, we need writing that can help transform our lives by amplifying the voices of those who would otherwise be erased, and whose pain is met with disdain.
Makhosazana Xaba, in Tongues of their Mothers, writes in the poem, “My Book”
My book has never been too tired to go to bed with me…
It never says: please not now, I’m not in the mood…
With tenderness, it lays its pages bare for me
and speaks words that carry me through waves of emotions.
When my eyes won’t open and I am spent,
It rests right next to me, ready for the next round.
As Morrison and Dlakavu have warned, challenging times lie ahead in South Africa and elsewhere in the current climates for writers who choose to express dissent and ask tough questions in their work.
My hope is that no matter how painful the journey is, when we rest, we can rest with the surety that “the book” will be right next to us, “ready for the next round.”
Gcobani Qambela is a lecturer with the Organisation for Tropical Studies (South Africa) and Duke University