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Culture

Africa’s Songbird

In Jazz there are those singers who are unafraid to do something truly different. They will sing against the grain, or play in a new way that often shocks the establishment at first. Where so many others can’t resist the temptation to imitate the latest style, to sound like some already famous singer, these singers bravely trust their own voice. Sathima Bea Benjamin was one of these singers, her voice pared down to the last timbre. Like Billie Holiday, she turned her limited range into her greatest strength.

Like all the most outstanding jazz singers her art was as beautiful as it was political. She traced her roots to St Helena, and believed that Jazz was the cry of a woman. You hear this pain, and the beauty in her haunting tribute Winnie Mandela, Beloved Heroine. If ever a song could be at once poignantly beautiful but also palpably defiant, Winnie Mandela, Beloved Heroine does so. On this song Sathima is accompanied by Larry Willis, Ricky Ford, Buster Williams and Billy Higgins.

This piece was initially supposed to be a celebration of the reissue of Sathima Bea Benjamin’s African Songbird on vinyl. When word got out that African Songbird would be reissued on vinyl, I knew that I had to get my hands on a copy. Jazz is full of albums that quickly become fabled, and African Songbird had become one of these albums.

For those who may wonder why she goes under the name Bea Benjamin on the album, the name Sathima was given to her by the South African bassist Johnny Dyani. But over a course of six weeks of following the musician and her music, the piece also became a note of her death. Thankfully the truly great artists do not die, they live on through their music.

Sathima

The singer Sathima Bea Benjamin whose minimalism remained a hallmark of her  singing
The singer Sathima Bea Benjamin whose minimalism remained a hallmark of her singing

Amongst lovers of high jazz, Sathima Bea Benjamin belongs in that very small circle of singers who sing with little adornment. Nat King Cole with his clean lines and perfect pitch was an influence. But it was Billie Holiday with her limited range who gave her the confidence to tell her story through song. In her records, Sathima Bea Benjamin chose only the best accompanists. Miriam Makeba was known as Mama Africa, but it is easy to see why Sathima Bea Benjamin can lay claim to the title of African Songbird.

In July of 2013 a limited edition of this famed 1976 recording that has become a truly rare collector’s piece was reissued. In the UK, copies of the original vinyl fetch as much as £600. On the record Sathima Bea Benjamin is accompanied by South African jazz royalty, Abdullah Ibrahim, Basil Mannenberg Coetzee and Monty Weber with an impressive list of American sidemen.

After years of hunting for a copy of this record, I walked into a record store in Soho, London and as I was browsing the vinyl section, I stumbled onto African Songbird, in mint condition. When I went to pay for it, the storeowner Wayne told me of the story of the album’s reissue. Little did he realise that I had been on a quest to find this album.

Sathima Bea Benjamin’s story should be told widely, for she is unique in the world of jazz in that her debut album, A Morning In Paris, had not only Duke Ellington at the piano, but also Billy Strayhorn and her husband, Abdullah Ibrahim, then still known as Dollar Brand. She enchanted the great Ellington with her interpretation of his compositions. It was with Duke Ellington’s help that she relocated to New York together with her husband.

For those who hear platitudes from our arts officials that South African artists need to conquer the global market, it is worth reminding them that in the 60’s Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Chris McGregor, Caiphus Semenya, Abdullah Ibrahim, Letta Mbulu and of course Sathima Bea Benjamin had already won the world over.

One of the most distinctive voices in Jazz, Sathima Bea Benjamin
One of the most distinctive voices in Jazz, Sathima Bea Benjamin

When you put the album on the vinyl, side one has only the one song, Africa, a deeply moving tribute to the continent that Sathima Bea Benjamin credits with the birth of jazz. It begins with a lush, even orchestral interplay between the percussions and the basses, the drummer eliciting a richly polyphonic sound out of his instrument. About 9 minutes into the track, Abdullah Ibrahim is incredibly inventive on the Fender Rhodes. Basil Mannenberg Coetzee’s tenor sax is truly irresistible. This is quite possibly the most elegant musical tribute to the continent.

But it is on African Songbird in which Sathima Bea Benjamin sings without accompaniment that you grasp the depth of her musical power. Little wonder those who know this album treasure it as one of Jazz music’s greatest moments. Perhaps it is also the reason why she was not known to the bigger market as her style was devoid of the vocal theatrics that delight pleasure seekers.

In the second week of August 2013, Sathima Bea Benjamin was honoured by the Joy of Jazz for her contribution to the music. On a beautifully lit stage at The SABC, she sang an impromptu song from the Duke Ellington Songbook. As it turned out, it was to be her last performance. It was fitting that she should honour Duke Ellington, the man who had set her musical trajectory on the path towards mastery. A week after receiving this rare honour in the country of her birth, Sathima Bea Benjamin died in Cape Town.

The singer Sathima Bea Benjamin
The singer Sathima Bea Benjamin

Perhaps in death Sathima Bea Benjamin will gain the kind of following that her music deserved. On each of her albums, she poured her heart out, singing with the warmth of a storyteller and at the grace of a minimalist. Luckily for us African Songbird, her masterpiece, has been reissued on CD and the music sounds as if it was produced just yesterday.

 

Categories
Culture

Language is a meeting place, a point of confrontation, between the individual and the social. André Brink

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” Milan Kundera as quoted by André Brink in Writing In A State Of Siege .

 

There is something indescribably attractive about those individuals who take great delight in the pleasures of language. For them language is palpably alive, laden with a beauty so raw that each word is charged with this essence. Such was Andre Brink’s relationship with language, whether it was the English in which he wrote so many of his novels, or the Afrikaans he was born to, or the French he acquired during his time in Paris.

The author, Andre Brink

Brink reminds us in an essay titled, Censorship And Literature that “Language is a meeting place, a point of confrontation, between the individual and the social”. This is a point worth reinforcing at a time when language is often presented as something neutral, even innocent.

 

Brink was a towering figure, lean and tall, with chiseled features, and a deliberate manner that did not fully prepare you for his quick wit. His deeply furrowed face hinted at his intellectual occupation. But when he broke into a smile, you knew that here was a man who has tasted fully life’s sweetness. When he walked into a room you knew immediately that here was a man of substance. His range of references was vast and you could tell that he had spent as much time living life fully as had reading from texts on philosophy, poetry, history and of course literature.

 

But how do you make sense of someone who was at once a traveler, a teacher, a man of letters, poet, essayist and perhaps, most importantly, a dissident. The truth is you can’t. Such a life is impossible to sum up, because it defies the limiting categories that we use to place individuals in certain boxes. For me Brink was the quintessential homme des lettres and his life was a manifestation of how those who succumb to the lure of letters live their lives.

 

As a dissident Brink had his books banned. His novel, A Dry White Season, was banned because it threatened the safety of the state, according to the censors. In one of his last works of fiction, the novel Philida, Brink turned to South Africa’s complex and uncomfortable past and he rummages through the dustbin of the history to tell the story of the slave Philida.

 

One of the books that comes closest to giving us some sense of the complexity of Brink’s life is his Writing In A State Of Siege. This is one of the finest introductions to Brink’s own sense of how history has shaped Afrikaner discourse. But these essays also establish his own concern with history and its effect on identity.

 

If Andre was once lithe, athletic even, in later years he had been slowed down by the ravages of age, and where his walk was once a swift and graceful stroll, it had now become slow, deliberate, even labored. But his mind remained as keen as ever, and the spark in his eyes remained a measure of his vitality.

 

He has left us a rich oeuvre and those who wish to acquaint themselves with his considerable body of work can choose from works such as Before I Forget, A Fork In The Road, An Instant In The Wind, The Wall Of The Plague, The Other Side Of Silence, A Dry White Season and his other writings. When you read his memoir, A Fork In The Road, it is clear that for Brink, the confluence between distance and historic events in Paris led to his own social awakening. After this he had no doubt that Apartheid was a very dark evil, and one that he would write against in both his fiction and essays.

 

Brink’s books, such as An Instant in the WindA Dry White SeasonRumours of Rain and The Other side of Silence, established his ability to tackle head-on Africa’s “big” subjects in fiction, colonialism, Apartheid, and a rapidly changing world. It is worth comparing his fiction with his more personal views as reflected in his memoir, A Fork in the Road.

Throughout his life and career, language and culture were very important concerns for Brink. For a writer who did not stay with one language, the idea of “translation as rewriting” loomed large in his own work. Once he was banned by the Apartheid bosses, Brink was forced to adopt English as a co-first language. But even though he drew from a very wide circle of influence, it was quite clear that Brink regarded himself first and foremost as a South African writer – one who had experienced both the exilharating discovery of new worlds and the claustrophobic boxing-in of Apartheid, which sought, at its most basic level, to deny experiences other than those dictated by its segregated, racialised norm.

Andre Brink, a portrait

 

Brink received France’s highest honour when he was made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters and awarded the Legion of Honour by the French government; and in 1992 he was awarded the Monismanien Human Rights Award from Sweden’s University of Uppsala, for making known the injustice of apartheid to the wider world.

 

It was always such a pleasure to see Brink’s name in a literary programme for his presence at today’s ubiquitous literary events was a guarantee of a certain old fashioned literary seriousness that is fast disappearing under the pressure of literary celebrity. Brink’s works will serve as a reminder of how the past invariably imposes itself on the present. But they will also sharpen our sense of the pleasures of language that he felt so acutely.

 

 

 

 

Categories
City blog

Whose literature is it anyway?

 

It was inevitable that the defiance, dissent, resistance and protest against Apartheid should be reflected in South Africa’s literary tradition. What is surprising is the extent to which the literature that dealt most urgently with South Africa’s unbearable political oppression was dismissed as ‘protest literature’. The suggestion was that this fiction did not deal sufficiently enough with the depth implicit in most things, but scratched only the surface of meaning. An entire cottage industry emerged that extolled the literary shortcomings of the literature that dared to explore in its fictional worlds both the political repression as well as the dissent.

The most troubling aspect of the school of thought that sought to belittle this literature they called ‘protest literature’ was that it seemed that the very act of questioning the political persecution of the day was a betrayal of some higher literary code. There was a suspicion of a commitment to the political as a kind of betrayal of the literary or even a lowering of literary standards. Poets like Mongane Wally Serote and Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali wrote poems that were at once deeply political even as they were allegorical. The meaning that their work yielded depended on the effort the reader was prepared to make to go beyond surface meanings.

The Poems in Sounds Of A Cowhide Drum by Mtshali offer a powerful reminder that the most political language is often deeply coded so that those unaware of the code may read it at the surface level. But when picked up by those familiar with the code, the same line, passage, or poem yields an entirely different meaning. One of the things that I always found troubling about the dismissal of ‘protest literature’ was the uniformity of the reading of the texts.

Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali
Poet Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali

 

Now one of the things that is well known is that the same text yields different meanings to different readers because they bring both themselves and their expectations to the text. So the idea of the text as a uniform narrative is not plausible. It suggested to me the emergence of a popular response that may have amounted to a cultural sleight of hand because it relied for its uniformity on referencing the responses of persuasive reviewers and critics.

The alumni of this loose network of critics of this literature were not always openly hostile to these writings. At times the criticism reacted using the well-known rituals of literary criticism before delivering that telling blow that typically faulted these writers for serving political rather than literary gods. But the agony, the anguish and on occasion, even the ecstasy of small triumphs within the milieu of Apartheid were said to strangle the literary imagination of the writers of what was styled ‘protest literature’.

In its introduction to the course on American Literature of Dissent, the University of Pennsylvania says ‘The United States is a nation founded on dissent and some of the most enduring works of American literature deal with topics that were politically controversial at the time’

 

The great critic and novelist Lewis Nkosi
The great critic and novelist Lewis Nkosi

The Urdu writer, Dr Gopichand Narang says of literature “Basically it is a social act, sa-hitya, that which is with the people. Like all arts, it provides a space for dissent, raises voice for the oppressed and against social injustice” He adds “Literature reflects the dreams, desires and aspirations of the people. It is inspired by ideology but it goes beyond the narrow confines of ideologies”

Within South Africa there was relief amongst some that the end of Apartheid signaled the death of politics as the primary source for the country’s literature. For many a burden had been yanked off their backs and they could rush to write novels and poems about flowers, birds, and even love. It was truly fascinating to hear at literary gatherings so many writers express the view that the end of Apartheid signaled the moment of their literary freedom.

But things did not work out so neatly. As the post Apartheid novels of writers like Mandla Langa and Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee and Njabulo Ndebele have shown, the everyday can be deeply political. In the works of Gordimer, Langa and Coetzee, it is clear that there are always sides to be taken in any conflict, no matter how large or small.

As soon as the political dust had settled and even former combatants found themselves locked in the tentative embrace of reconciliation, they were surprised to find that the old suspicions persisted.

The Novelist Mandla Langa
The Novelist Mandla Langa

It is worth revisiting this important period in South Africa’s literary history. It is true that some South Africans find it unsettling when the dark periods in our history are revisited for fear that this may open old wounds. The trouble with this kind of nation building that favors amnesia is that it leaves too many questions. In any case peace founded on ignorance is not worthy of our aspirations.

In fairness to the school that curated this ‘protest literature’, South Africa has an enduring fondness for catch-all labels as could be seen soon after 1994. The label ‘the new South Africa’, suggested a neat break with our past that was politically and emotionally desirable to many but was sadly implausible. What was fascinating was to see how so many in the literary establishment prayed that this new South Africa might bring what they called ‘one dimensional’ protest literature to a quick death.

Incredible as it may seem now, the common prayer was that the new writers would spurn the exterior for the interior, and the gun for the flower.

It is worth noting that one of the strongest critics of ‘protest literature’ was Lewis Nkosi. Nkosi brushed aside much of the literary response to Apartheid as formulaic and devoid of the imagination. Nkosi’s main charge was that writings by Black South Africans had not responded with the imaginative force that matched the scale of the oppression. His assertion was that the literary works were minor in the face of a major political crime. Njabulo Ndebele refined Nkosi’s position, saying that a lot of the writing favored spectacle at the expense of the ordinary and the nuanced.

It was thus not surprising that at the crossroads between the repression of Apartheid and the freedom of democracy, there was this hope, perhaps even plea that writers should abandon the political in favor of the personal. The spoken word artists were the first to seize on this release and their mostly spoken word performances were littered with references to desire, sex and broken hearts. But as they were to quickly discover, even the seemingly personal can become deeply political. The disease AIDS brought to the intimacy of the bedroom the political squabbles of the day.

Beyond that, while the term ‘protest literature’ may have provided the critic with a reliable literary pillar, it was always likely to include works that differed considerably, and paradoxically, leave out works that had a lot in common. 
 With the passage of time, it is clear that what was then seen as a lost literary opportunity reflected the expectations of the interpreters, fed as they had been on a literary canon that favored introspection over action and the inner life over the outer life. But more importantly, it was inevitable that South Africa’s literary output would reflect the struggles and the war for control that raged on the political front. The ‘literary canon’ of the day reflected the contradictions of the colonial experience. Most of the novels and poetry and even fashionable theory were imported from abroad. The ‘classics’ as they were known, were supposed to contain ‘Universal truths’ and young students had to ignore any doubts about the appropriateness of these foreign books.

Of course on closer reading it became abundantly clear that many of these classics that were supposed to be above temporal political concerns were deeply political.  I often wondered if they had they been written in SA, would they have been considered protest literature. Novelists like John Steinbeck were in the canon, but their writings were deeply subversive.

Perhaps the writer Zakes Mda’s words provide a useful post Apartheid perspective on how the political situation may have created narratives with clearly delineated parameters. “It was easier to write about the past… because the past created ready-made stories. There was a very clear line of demarcation between good and evil, you see? Black was good; white was bad. Your conflict was there”

Mda suggests that this polarization in real life translated to a literature that sacrificed nuance for clarity. He adds. “There were no gray areas…. We no longer have that. In this new situation, black is not necessarily good. There are many black culprits; there are many good white people. We have become normal. It’s very painful to become normal”

It is fascinating to see how there is now a new movement towards literary exile, fuelled in some cases by writers with a strong desire to avoid any mention of Apartheid, even two decades after its official dismantling. What this shows is that there will always be many responses to writing the politics of the day in literature. But the past offers no clean break either, and writers and critics have to accept that meaning and significance in literature is always negotiable and never fixed.

 

Categories
Culture

Some thoughts on why I started The Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast

By Victor Dlamini

It is the age we live in that gives one that rush of blood to the head – and you suddenly feel as if you were a David of sorts, ready to slay your Goliath. I mean only in this new millennium would one be so foolhardy as to dare to dream of starting a new show on a completely new media platform. But then there is all around us a keenness to try out new ideas, and the young generation, the ‘digital natives’ have shown us just how big the ‘information age’ is destined to become. It is nearly a year now since I left traditional broadcasting and embarked on what may have seemed at first like a perilous plunge into the unknown, and in this piece I would like to share some of my own thoughts that led me, perhaps even compelled me to start the Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast

Much is made of what is called ‘New Media’ but since we all know that nothing stays new forever, and that certainly ‘New Media’ is no longer new, this convenient term seems destined for the dustbin. Whatever the term that will come to define this shift from the ‘traditional’ media such as Radio, Television and Print to a web based digital platform, it seems clear that it presents new and exciting possibilities to democratize mass communication without recourse to expensive financing of ‘broadcasting’ infrastructure.

The rise of ‘citizen journalism’ has been one of the most fascinating effects of new technology on our society, and I believe that in a few years some of the old-school broadcasters will be totally out of touch, chasing a dwindling and ageing audience. Once I’d grasped this idea that one no longer needed to be tethered to the inflexible edifice of the corporate media to reach readers and listeners, I knew that I had to break free, become independent and start the Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast.

Citizen journalism is a symptom: a deeper social reality is reflected by the phenomenal rise of Podcasting and Blogging, probably two of the most important developments in our recent history as social beings. Podcasting and Blogging bring with them a promise of democratizing speech in an age when ‘big media’ wields more power than most countries. All around us we can see that the interests of the powerful, be they vested in big corporations, big countries, big individuals, or big institutions, are stifling the voice of the independently minded.

One of the things that I found quite frustrating about South Africa’s public broadcaster was that there one had to try and deliver a high-quality programme whilst working with so many ill prepared, inexperienced individuals that had been given jobs that are well beyond their means. It is not just a question of training, but also of simple common sense, and if you have members of the team who think it is their birth-right to pitch up at the last minute, without any preparation, then the institution is doomed to deliver content of substandard quality. If there ever was a recipe for failure this is it, and I weep for this potentially World Class institution. It is of course heartening to see that many of the so-called big players have since followed my lead, right down to emulating or copying my technical solution to deliver high-quality Podcasts. That is one of the joys of possessing a pioneering spirit, but the benefit is for the larger community that loves the arts and now has more choice.

The poet, publisher and activist, James Matthews

It is one of the great ironies of our age that at a time when newspapers and magazines are getting bigger by the day there is actually less to read. Radio and television are much the same – with the possible exception of a few hours here and there on talk radio. This is because publishers and media owners, with the tacit agreement of editors, reserve more and more space to satisfy the demands of commerce. Little wonder that in so many parts of South Africa the consumer culture has become the primary impulse of most workers, who spend what little time they ‘have to themselves’ rushing to the nearest shopping mall.

One of the truly outstanding features of Podcasting is that it offers ‘content on demand’. Those who wish to tune in can do so at any time and no longer do they have to sit around waiting for their favourite programme to go on air. After my first ten shows I was struck by how quickly the Podcast had established a truly international audience. Clearly, the availability of the content 24/7 is one of the features that suits such an audience: time differences and geographical or even political barriers that still plague traditional media do not affect it in the same way.

Independence is one of the most cherished words in any language, and there was once a time when freedom and independence were used almost interchangeably. But nowadays the terms seem on the verge of divorce, and there has been a sense of the retreat of the latter – especially when it comes to individual freedom in public spaces. Since it was founded, The Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast has given writers, social critics, cultural activists and other creative voices a unique platform to express their ideas freely on this independent show.

I have always been attracted by the purity of ideas, not their popularity: that is why I love the deep conversations that I have with those who come on to the show. It is a truly great delight to listen to someone who has the gift of language and imagination express his or her ideas without any limitation. So far, since starting the podcast, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down to have at least two such conversations each week with remarkable individuals.

The writer and language activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o

I suppose, finally, that on a personal level I have also always loved the notion of turning what at first seems like an impossibly small or remote idea into something substantial. I think that Podcasting is still in its infancy today, but the success of the iPod shows that its growth as a legitimate medium is assured. No longer do individuals care to have someone else choose for them the things they listen to and watch. Part of what is truly exciting about working in this field, using these tools is that power and choice are returning to listener. To me Podcasting is a fascinating confluence of content, technology and freedom – the freedom to create choice on an untold scale for audiences across the globe, and the corresponding freedom to decide when you want to tune in.

I have no doubt that through my conversations with so many outstanding writers, thinkers and other creative individuals on The Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast, I have an opportunity to add to our ability to imagine beyond the confines of our circumstances. In these conversations those I speak to have never ceased to surprise me by how much they are prepared to open up to me, and I think that all of us can glean something from their answers. In the final analysis I do believe that the import of all this is that through the Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast we may once again realize that an untethered, unfettered imagination, as found in our various literatures, fictions and other narratives, may provide us the greatest freedom of all.

It has been a pleasure to post my conversations with artists such as Andre Brink, Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali, Dennis Brutus, Kgebetli Moele, Emmanuel Dongala, Gabeba Baderoon,Shailja Patel, Maestro, Ben Zander  Breyten Breytenbach, Lewis Nkosi, Vusi Mchunu,Eben Venter, Sandile Ngidi, Mbulelo Mzamane, Nawal El Saadawi, Anne Landsman, Njabulo Ndebele, Gcina Mhlophe, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Napo Masheane, Sello Maake Ka Ncube, Ben Williams, Antjie Krog, Kevin Bloom, Rosamund Zander, Zapiro, Sindiwe Magona, Ravi Naidoo and many others

 

A view of city Johannesburg, one of the world’s greatest cities
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Uncategorized

South Africa Finds Its Literary Voice

 

Portrait of a Nobel Laureate

By all accounts South African literature is enjoying its finest hour. Even as the scandal of dumped and undelivered textbooks in Limpopo was raging, the Polokwane Literary Festival was a welcome respite. That writers could descend on a town whose very name now resonates with the politics of succession and connect with readers was an act of faith in the power of literature. The Bloody Book Week was a great success and it brought to SA fiction A-listers Jeffery Deaver,  John Connolly and Mark Giminez. Jefferey Deaver is known for The Bone Collector that was turned into a movie starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. He has also written the James Bond thriller, Carte Blanche, part of which is set in Cape Town.

Portrait of Zakes Mda

 

There’s a renewed vibrancy in South African writing and some of the authors are finding devoted audiences both at home and abroad. It is always a great treat to be at a book shop in a foreign country and to stumble across a novel by Lewis Nkosi or Deon Meyer. It’s wonderful to see South African fiction attracting bidding from movie producers for the film rights for their books. The latest to join this list includes Deon Meyer, Margie Orford and Lauren Beukes.

 

Portrait of a Thriller writer, Margie Orford

The growth in literary events is testimony to the optimism that pervades the industry. From boutique by invitation only private events, to the larger literary festivals, SA has renewed its love affair with books. There is also a healthy presence of private book clubs that can be founded dotted across the country, from Soweto to Umlazi and across the country’s provinces.

 

Social Media has inspired and carried lively literary debates & Twitter #tags like #mustreadbooks reflect the important role this medium is playing in promoting our literature. Sharing articles and photos has never been easier across Social Media, and much of the shared material reflects growing interest in books and the ideas contained in them. If the literary purists were initially suspicious of Social Media, Twitter has certainly shown that it is a compelling way to share and reflect on literary issues.

 

The writers Tsitsi Dangarembga, Gcina Mhlophe, Nawal El Saadawi & Kadija George

 

SA’s youth have been under-served by the market and outside of textbooks, very few titles aim at them in the same way that other markets do. The youth market is an important one as has been seen abroad with titles for the teen market selling in the millions. It is heartening to see Pan Macmillan launch The Youngsters , its series  five pocket-sized books written by young South Africans: Anele Mdoda, Shaka Sisulu, Nik Rabinowitz with Gillian Breslin, Danny K and Khaya Dlanga. Other publishers should join the youth party and bring the voice of youth into fresh writing.

A vibrant literary scene: Anele Mdoda & Mimi Selemela

 

2012 has in many ways been watershed year for the country’s writers as they find new readers in increasingly large numbers. The popularity of political books has also laid to rest the myth that SA is done with politics. It is important for SA to enhance the vibrancy of the titles on offer as books have to compete for their share of the wallet. This is a time of fundamental change, but also great turmoil. Bookshops are closing down and e-books are claiming a larger share of the market. The growth in mobile digital devices and Apps presents new opportunities for both writers and publishers to reach their readers.Those that still doubt the relevance of e-books and self publishing need only look at the phenomenal success of some of the titles to realize that change is already here.

 

The writer and artist Breyten Breytenbach

One of the publishing success stories of the year has been Rev Frank Chikane’s Eight Days in September. This book on the Removal of Thabo Mbeki reflects on the unprecedented events surrounding the recall of South Africa‘s president from office in 2008. Nadine Gordimer’s No Time Like The Present has been another literary highlight. In this new novel from the grand dame of South Africa’s literary invites South African book lovers to a story that is at once familiar but also deeply surprising.

 

Portrait of a poet, Rustum Kozain

It is fair to say that the arrival of a new Gordimer novel is a very serious treat for book lovers across the world. South Africa’s literary universe is a deeply contested one and novels are dismissed or praised in line with deeply held positions. But Gordimer’s literary eye remains as sharp as ever and her storytelling focused on the contradictions that bedevil South Africa’s politics of identity.

 

Each year, Durban kicks off South Africa’s literary festival with The Time Of The Writer and after that it’s off to the idyllic setting of Franschhoek for the book festival named after this beautiful Winelands village. This festival reflects many of the most telling contradictions that define South Africa. It is set in a tiny village of extreme affluence and the audience has remained a largely white one. It is not a cheap festival to attend as the hotels and restaurants cater to a predominantly well heeled clientele. The village has truly gorgeous venues and the Green Room remains one of the best places to run into a writers for a quiet conversation.

 

Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka

But the festival has grown quickly and in its sixth year, the Franschhoek Literary Festival once again stuck to its eclectic formula that brings in a mix of the best in South African writing to political debate, environmental issues, genre fiction, poetry, press freedom, publishing and even social media.

 

The names on this year’s programme included literary big hitters like Imraan Coovadia, Ivan Vladislavic, Michiel Heyns, as well as new writers like McIntosh Polela and Yewande Omotoso. In keeping with the festival’s tradition of drawing speakers from a wide range of genres, satire will feature prominently, with the likes of Gareth Cliff, Ndumiso Ngcobo and Azad Essa likely to heat things up with their irreverent take on things.

Portrait of a novelist, Yewande Omotoso

Lovers of crime fiction were spoilt for choice as top drawer writers Deon Meyer, Marge Orford, Andrew Brown, Joan Hichens brought their voices to the event. In the past the Franschhoek  festival has attracted big hitters like Richard Ford, Andre Brink, Antjie Krog, Mandla Langa and Muriel Barbery. Poetry has featured strongly at the festival, and poets like Gabeba Baderoon, Rustum Kozain and James Matthews have walked the streets of this quaint village.

 

Novelist Richard Ford

 

This year saw the return of The Cape Town Book Fair after it was unexpectedly cancelled in 2011. The
relaunch of the festival will coincided with the hosting of the International Publishers Association AGM in the Mother City. But there is no doubt that this once powerful event has lost its way and its return largely confirmed how quickly things can go wrong.  I still remember the excitement when the Cape Town Book Fair was first established. It has faltered as quickly as it had established itself as probably the most important literary and book event in
the country.

 

Poet Gabeba Baderoon

The Cape Town Book Fair is now planned for every two years. In a historic first for Cape Town, The International Publishers Association held its 29th IPA Congress, the first time it was held in Africa. Other literary events that spring to mind include the Jozi Book Fair, the Mail & Guardian Literary Festival and Poetry Africa, which all  add to the country’s burgeoning literary calendar. The book may be threatened in print form but writers and readers are finding each other in this brave new world where the storytelling remains the supreme arbiter even as the medium changes.

 

Portrait of a Novelist. Ngugi wa Thiong'o

 

International writers visit SA on a regular basis and in the past year we’ve hosted the likes of Nawal El Saadawi, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, Kwame Dawes, Chris Abani, Kadija George, richard de Nooy, Tsitsi Dangarembga and many others. This shows that SA is a viable destination for the world’s major literary voices and it reflects our interest in literature.

 

Potrait of a novelist & activist, Nawal El Saadawi

 

One of the stand-alone events of the year was the visit to South Africa by Zakes Mda, the novelist, dramatist, traveler, teacher, painter and bee-keeper who visited Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, Johannesburg & Pretoria. Mda may have been here to launch his latest play, Our Lady Of Benoni, but his presence in South Africa is always cause for celebration amongst book lovers. His is one of the most authentic voices in SA fiction and his prolific output an important barometer of the health of our fiction.

 

The writer Bongani Madondo

 

The passion of people like Phakama Mbonambi, Jenny Crwys Williams, Darryl Accone, Elinor Sisulu, Sandile Ngidi, Jenny Hobbs, Ben Williams, Mmabatho Selemela, Georges Lory, Karabo Kgoleng, Raks Seakhoa, Gcina Mhlophe, Chris Thurman, Bongani Madondo, Peter Rorvik, Vusi Mchunu and others acts as a catalyst for literature’s growth. Sponsors remain a crucial catalyst for realizing these literary events and they should be thanked for playing such a vital role in encouraging reading and making it possible for writers to be seen and not merely read.

 

Portrait of a writer & walker, the one & only Richard de Nooy

 

Lewis Nkosi
The writer and his hat: Lewis Nkosi