The Literature and Magazine/Newspaper Editors’ Rant

I’m tired but I can’t sleep. I’ve been having conversations with the darkie South African literati and I felt I needed to write this. I know it won’t make me popular in the SA hood but, oh well, maybe that’s why I left the hood. So here it is my book-loving white compatriots (and no. This ain’t addressed to you Lauren Beukes, Jassy Mackenzie, Kevin Bloom, Helen Moffett, Tiah Beautement, Margie Orford, Fiona Snyckers, Jo Ann Richards and and and  so step away from the burning building, thank you!), please read carefully. The next three or four columns are addressed to you. The rest are to the rest of you, literati –black and white. So here goes:

Songeziwe Mahlangu. Napo Masheane. Yewande Omotoso. Lesego Rampolokeng. Phillipa Yaa de Villiers. Pumla Gqola. Maxine Case. Thando Mgqolozana. Shafinaaz Hassim. Lebo Mashile. Niq Mhlongo. Cynthia Jele. Sifiso Mzobe. Mary Watson. Angela Makholwa. Siphiwo Mahala. Angelina Sithebe. Kgebetli Moele. Ndumiso Ngcobo. Futhi Ntshingila. Nthikeng Mohlele. Sihle Khumalo. All these, among others are your literary compatriots. They write. BUT. And here’s the big but. They are NOT ‘good black writers.’  In a country where the majority of the population is black y’all have suddenly decided that white writing is the standard? Really? There are either good or bad writers. There are no good or bad black female/male writers so stop that ‘good black’ crap, stop it.  

And oh, we always think you are individuals so please don’t ask us to speak for our race. We call that white privilege. At literary festivals, don’t ask us about football, because we may actually be rugby or cricket fans or dammit, no sports fans. Don’t question (as some judge at an award I was shortlisted for did) why we don’t write about townships because not all of us were raised in townships. Some of us were raised in villages, others on farms, and others in some burbs or weird bourgeois exile neighbourhoods. That’s our reality. And just as you are not uniform, neither are we.

Artists, be they writers, film makers, musicians or dancers, are the easiest way of bridging gaps. Too often, we have hoped you, our fellow literati, will bridge those gaps through actually reading what has been written by some of us to help you get to know what we are all about. Too often, we have been disappointed. You live in South Africa. You claim to be as South African as the rest of us. How then do you explain that we know everything about your culture – through observing you, watching and reading your works – but you choose not to engage with ours ?  Why do I bring this up? Ahem, a few years ago a born and bred South African editor suggested that I remove a scene in a book because she assumed it was done by mistake. It was a scene where someone pours liquor in remembrance of the deceased. “Don’t you think you should say he mistakenly spilt the alcohol? You make it sounds deliberate.”  Err, duh. I started wondering how it was possible that this person was so out of touch with something so common. Said editor was also a writer, by the way.

Folks, if we’re going to make this the rainbow project that all those glass-is-half-full peeps keep talking about you will have to show us that you are in this, with us, for the long haul. We read you. We have read you since we could read. We attend your theatre performances. Some of us don’t like some of your kos like koeksisters much but we’ve tried it. We are even okay with a white dude to be lead singer of Mi Casa. When are you meeting us half way?

And white publishers, white publishers white publishers. Many of you may not be aware of it but we’re in Africa. A lot of the stories that your black writers write about resonate with many people on this continent of 53 other nations so before you do your very best to market us in Germany, in Italy, in the US, wherever, try for some publishing deals on this continent.  Try to distribute in bookstores on this continent. Africa is not that scary. Believe it or not South Africa is in Africa. And my very real experience is that there is a hunger for literature that people can relate to.

And South African bookstores: you do realize that no European or American bookstores have South African writers in their store fronts right? So why do you have Americans and Europeans in your store fronts? What’s with the clear distaste for South African and African literature? Have you ever considered having African writers in your store fronts (and I’m not talking just nonfiction)? It may give you more sales. Truly. I know it’s sexy for you to believe that your own writers are mediocre and to sell the myth you gave yourselves that “no-one buys local books.” Too often I have encountered many people who tell me that they cannot find a certain writer’s book which they wanted to purchase. And the response from your non-reading staff? A disinterested “It’s sold out.” No, “it’s sold out, may I get your number/email sir/madam so I can order it for you and call you when it arrives,” just, “it’s sold out. Next.” I know Exclusive Books is slightly better than others with their one month of Homebru but wouldn’t it be nice if local literature was believed in enough that it was Homebru twelve months a year? Try us out for at least three months and see how that goes? The results may pleasantly surprise you.

Finally magazine and newspaper editors – you don’t work for free, why do you expect us to? If you are selling your magazines or newspapers, why is it such a big deal to pay for content? This idea of “I’m giving you publicity” doesn’t quite cut it when you choose to pay some untalented pop tart to talk about their relationship with a sugar daddy. More so when you decide afterwards to do editorials on the “dumbing down of SA society.” If you’re confused, here’s the rule of thumb. If you’ve never asked a doctor who’s not a family member to give you a free consultation, please don’t ask a writer to write for free. Writing is a profession. Many of us in it love it because in addition to its professional aspect it’s an art form but believe it or not, writers sleep under roofs and they get hungry if there is no food. So let’s agree. You want quality writing from any writers, you pay for it as much or more than you are willing to pay for the pop tart cover girl. You don’t want quality writing, you ask said pop tart cover girl to write something for you, deal? After all, everyone can write, no?

And no DA and ANC, this was just a rant. I have no plans to vote for either of you. Soreee (well unless you invite me to one of your rallies with thousands of people and my books are in goodie bags)