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)


25 thoughts on “The Literature and Magazine/Newspaper Editors’ Rant

  1. Well said and a good rant;-). Truly this is insightful and something I needed hear as a new writer, who doesn’t even live in SA at the moment. Do I stand a chance with my writings that are not even SA related at this point? By the look of it, not…sigh.

  2. A damn fine rant indeed. And there are so many angles to this unfair situation. I also feel myself in a strange position here. I am a white English writer who lived for a while in Kenya and who writes for the African children’s literature market in Kenya and Zimbabwe (for both African and European based publishers). My characters are African kids. I admit that my doing this has always seemed a bit presumptuous. But then I told myself, someone has to, and at the time I started (in the 1990s) Kenyans were too busy doing the day job and the night job in other professions to have time to write children’s fiction for which they may or may not receive limited royalties (depending on the whim of the publishing house). But keep on ranting. I wondered if you’d seen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk: The danger of a single story. Here’s the link:

    • Hi Tish. I’ve indeed seen Adichie’s TED talk. Nothing presumptuous about that provided one does their research well. I’ve had male protagonists (although I never had a sex change:-) and most recently a female Anglo Saxon protagonist. It only ever becomes a problem when someone from that demographic can’t find any similarities with the characters that are supposed to be like them. It’s the reason why Beukes’ Zindzi is such a brilliant character. Where can I get your children’s books in Nairobi?

      • Not sure. Kijabe Street? I have a couple of little books with Phoenix Publishing House in Nairobi as Patricia Farrell. They were originally published by Zim Publishing House. Also write for Heinemann JAWS and Macmillan Education as Tish Farrell, but think these are sold via catalogues and reps not shops. It’s nice to meet you by the way. I’ve been thinking that e-publishing is maybe the way that African literature will make its big breakthrough. Don’t know what you think.

    • I will check with Phoenix. The current CEO John Mwazemba’s a friend of mine and I’ve bought books from them directly when doing children’s literacy workshops do I’ll be sure to look for your titles.
      I’m not sure about e-pub at the moment for the continent unless of course if the current Kenyan administration keeps it’s promise of a laptop per child (but my scepticism could just be because when I’ve done workshops in poor to lower middle class areas, I haven’t seen many children or adults with access to computers). Nice to virtually meet you too Tish.

  3. Hi Zukiswa, thanks for raising these points. Could you please recommend a reading list? Also, where do you live? If in Cape Town, I would love you to come and chat to my students about this issue. Many thanks dawn

    • Hello Dawn
      All the writers mentioned in the blog post above have some worthwhile works so you may want to check them (and Thembelani Ngenelwa who I fear slipped my mind when I wrote the post) out. You can of course google the authors themselves so you can see titles and possibly read synopses before you get to thd bookstore.
      Alas, I live far far away from Cape Town although I should be making my way there for my next book launch hopefully in April/May and if there, I’m quite happy to talk to your students.

  4. Thank you Zukiswa for this brillant reflection around the writer’s world in all its shades. I agree with all the points. I know it’s easier to find, for example in Nairobi, book stalls selling John Grisham rather than Amos Tutuola, or Micheal Crichton rather than Chinua Achebe or Kourouma. Definetly this has to change with the commitment of all the parts you’ve mentioned in your post.
    About Southafrican writers who don’t have a front shelf in EU or USA bookstores, that’s very true and this should change both sides as well. I’ve been travelling Europe last year and definetly there ‘s no African (let me enlarge the spectrum) writer who is on a front shelf, let alone the shopfront) BUT and also here allow me to say BUT. There are exceptions, last year I saw in Italy an African author on a front shelf and it was Tayie Selasi. I had to read the book, to knwo the writer better, to understand the reason or reasons why she was there ona front shelf Maybe because she chose to live in Italy? Maybe because she is published by a big Italian Publisher? Maybe because she studied at Yale and Oxford? Maybe because she has been complimented by Toni Morrison?Maybe because she is trendy and she is what she calls herself an “afropolitan” ,feeling home in four different countries? What if it was a great novel written by a writer who attended WITS or Makerere, who grew in Hillbrow or in Kampala, who didn’t have any references from any Nobel Prize, who has never travelled and feels at home just in his/her writing,? Would he/she have the same opportunity to be on a front shelf?
    Last december I toured nine important bookstores in the North of Italy looking for the Italian translation of Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir (just to investigate, I alreadey had my English signed copy from Binyavanga) and guess what? None of them had this book,nor the book sellers knew about it… in order to check its existence on the online national catalogue, I had to spell Binya’s name 9 times!
    And what about the media?
    How many reviews Tayie Selasi got and how many Binyavanga? Why? For the same above reasons?
    I sense there’s a lot of discrimination or let’s say unease in the publishing-media system.
    Maybe the fact that we do not find in bookstores in South Africa or Nairobi, African author’s front shelves has something in common with the fact that in EU or USA we won’t find those front shelves neither? It’s possible. That’s why African publishers and media should invest in building a unique pan african idea of culture that features African writers being on the top front shelves of every single bookstore in Africa before any “made in USA” best seller runs it!

    You’re right to mark the point that writing is a profession. Event’s organizers, medias, publishers, need to know that they cannot ask you a “pro bonus” collaboration nor they can pay you after two or three months… unfortunately bills run on a monthly basis and food on a daily one!

  5. how many people here (in SA) actually read … and further how many buy books – Let’s say it takes a year to write a novel and it sells well in the first year (5000 copies would be a smash hit here!) . How do you stay alive to write the next book. Europe & America consume a huge amount of written word so a hit there is worth 2 in the bush. Hence the publishing bias in that direction. In the meantime we need to educate and create a culture of reading here . Get kids to put away the phones for a bit and pick up an unputdownable book. Of course there is the brilliant Government idea of slapping huge taxes on books which does nothing for sales…. and then all the violence – why did those guys in Bronkhorstspruit burn down a library of all things? So I say well done anyone in South Africa who has stayed alive by the power of their pen (or keyboard) . The odds are stacked against you…all those mentioned above!

  6. Pingback: Zukiswa Wanner Condemns the Phrase ‘Good Black Writers’ and Asks White South Africans to Meet her Halfway | Books LIVE

  7. Great article! I constantly despair at the lack of South African (and other African) literature available locally, even at Exclusive Books. (Must admit, I haven’t checked out Clarke’s in Cape Town recently though.)

    When I was in Dar Es Salaam recently, I stumbled upon a book by the fabulous Alain Mabanckou, and was delighted to have found a “new” (new to me) African author with a great back catalogue. Sure, he’s a francophone writer, but all his books have been translated into English. So why can’t I find his books in South Africa?

    In other example, when I was in Accra in December I found a bookshop (it was more like an educational bookshop, but had a couple of fiction shelves) that had an entire shelf dedicated to the African Writers’ Series – with all books going for 5 cedis each (I think that’s about R25+). Had a bit of a splurge – and one that didn’t break the bank. Why can’t we buy books so cheaply?

    Last thought: the best local book I read last year, hands down, was Jozi by Perfect Hlongwane. Hasn’t received proper marketing, but I suggest you look out for it if you haven’t come across it already 🙂

    • I know the Accra bookstore you’re talking about. I remember splurging at it meself in 2008. I’ve heard of both the book and the author re Jozi but it was unavailable last I went book shopping in EB and I was abiut to leave SA do couldn’t order.

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  9. Pingback: Not quite everything you need to know about writing, but close | Tiah Beautement

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