Abantu, you are on your own

Now in its sec­ond year, the Abantu Book Fes­ti­val ex­em­pli­fies the now-hyper­vis­i­ble love af­fair be­tween black peo­ple and books. But, who car­ries the per­sonal cost of this re­nais­sance?

Mail & Guardian - - Books - TO Molefe

Book club Amaka meets mo n t h l y . I t s 1 2 o r s o mem­bers are black. It was not i nten­tional. They were just friends, some now work­ing grad­u­ates who had been in­volved in #FeesMustFall, and who now de­cided that they were tired of their own ig­no­rance. From their protest ex­pe­ri­ences they felt they lacked the knowl­edge to speak back to power and to be heard as in­tended, with in­tel­lec­tual rigour back­ing their ac­tivism.

They needed a space to ac­quire th­ese in­tel­lec­tual weapons. The univer­sity cer­tainly was not pro­vid­ing them. They found ... no, cre­ated, that space with each other.

To­day’s meet­ing is on a cold spring af­ter­noon in deep Midrand. Al­most Cen­tu­rion. Some peo­ple are run­ning late, but even­tu­ally they ar­rive. Seven in to­tal. The oth­ers couldn’t make it. The host adds an­other log to the rag­ing fire­place. Food is served and it be­gins.

The book to be dis­cussed is Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, a serendip­i­tous choice.

Serendip­i­tous be­cause, de­pend­ing on who you ask, black peo­ple in South Africa and books are hav­ing a mo­ment, a love fest. Ei­ther that, or they al­ways have been. It’s only that so­cial me­dia has made more vis­i­ble the black tra­di­tion of an of­ten in­ge­nious and sub­ver­sive strug­gle against the at­tempts of the colo­nial and apartheid projects to de­stroy or co-opt the knowl­edge sys­tems of the na­tive.

To keep dark­ies in­formed just enough to serve as “ma­chine-an­i­mal” peo­ple, as Fanon put it; crea­tures upon whose ex­ploited labour white so­ci­ety could live in com­fort.

Book clubs like Amaka seem to have sur­rep­ti­tiously popped up ev­ery­where overnight. Ev­ery sec­ond black per­son th­ese days seems to be­long to one. Some have for­mal so­cial me­dia ac­counts, such as @TheJoz­iBookClub and @LitAl­lianceSA. Oth­ers are in­for­mal gath­er­ings of friends who en­joy the soli­tary act of reading, but need an out­let for the thoughts and emo­tions books stir in them.

Their ap­pear­ance co­in­cides with that of black-owned book­stores, such as African Flavour Books, which re­cently opened a new branch in Braam­fontein.

But what­ever this phe­nom­e­non is, the Abantu Book Fes­ti­val is, in many ways, em­blem­atic of the mo­ment. The fes­ti­val re­leased its sec­ond lineup last week, a ver­i­ta­ble list of the who’s who of black au­thors, along with a se­lec­tion of fresh faces.

“Bal­ance,” fes­ti­val or­gan­iser and writer Thando Mgqolozana, calls it.

The word seems very much em­bed­ded in his ac­tions since declar­ing in 2015 that he was done with the “white lit­er­ary sys­tem”. A prag­ma­tist, Mgqolozana in­tu­itively recog­nises that his ac­tivism strad­dles two worlds — one run on white dom­i­na­tion and money, and an­other, a more egal­i­tar­ian world in which ubuntu is the or­gan­is­ing logic. For the lat­ter to live, the for­mer must die. But the path to this fu­ture is fraught with dif­fi­cul­ties.

His view on the star-stud­ded lineup is that you need fa­mous, recog­nis­able faces to draw in the crowds, and then bal­ance that with newer and un­heard-of au­thors.

Mgqolozana’s prag­ma­tism stands in stark con­trast to the frus­tra­tion of Thabiso Mahlape, pub­lisher of Black­bird Books, an im­print of Ja­cana Me­dia.

Black­bird Books pub­lishes books by black writ­ers for black read­ers. Their best­seller so far has been Panashe Chigu­madzi’s de­but novel, Sweet Medicine. Many of the other ti­tles have not achieved the sales fig­ures she’d hoped for. She is frus­trated partly be­cause, like Mgqolozana, she is risk­ing her own fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity, as well as her phys­i­cal and men­tal well­be­ing in her com­mit­ment to the de­colo­nial project.

The ob­ject of Mahlape’s frus­tra­tion is the black mid­dle-class mar­ket, which she thinks has un­crit­i­cally im­bibed the val­ues of a lit­er­ary cul­ture never in­tended for them. They ape its lit­er­ary snob­bish­ness. This puts her un­der enor­mous pres­sure as both a pub­lisher and an ac­tivist.

As a busi­ness-minded pub­lisher, she knows that, for fi­nan­cial suc­cess, she should pub­lish manuscripts that ap­peal to the black mid­dle classes, who have the re­sources to buy enough copies so that Black­bird Books, at least, re­coups its costs. How­ever, the ac­tivist in her knows that, in a coun­try where nearly 65% of black house­holds live be­low the poverty line, she wouldn’t re­ally be pub­lish­ing books for black peo­ple. She’d be pub­lish­ing books for the elite.

That would make her no dif­fer­ent from any other pub­lisher, she says.

In her ideal world Mahlape would be pub­lish­ing books for the read­ers of the big-sell­ing pa­per, the Daily Sun.

Then she imag­ines a taxi driver in Orange Farm reading an ex­cerpt from one of th­ese books in that pa­per and she grows de­spon­dent. Not even Eyethu Mall, the main shop­ping cen­tre in that area, has a book­store.

She asks: Where would that taxi driver get a copy of the book?

But she knows that she can’t rely on the black mid­dle class to buy such a book ei­ther, even the ones who are most vo­cal about the de­colo­nial project. They, the ob­jects of Fanon’s scorn in Amaka’s choice of books, iden­tify with the val­ues and views of the colo­nial­ists about what con­sti­tutes a “good” book.

Mahlape is not talk­ing about Bo­nang Matheba’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, where she ad­mits she made mis­takes. She is re­fer­ring to The Last Stop, by Thabiso Mo­fo­keng, set in the of­ten vi­o­lent world of the taxi in­dus­try, and which ex­plores xeno­pho­bia and a Daily Sun- reader favourite, the para­nor­mal. She is also re­fer­ring to Miss Be­have, Malebo Sephodi’s African Fem­i­nisms mem­oir, which is only do­ing well be­cause the au­thor has been work­ing her­self to nearex­haus­tion do­ing pub­lic­ity.

She says Miss Be­have has faced some crit­i­cism for be­ing “too ba­sic” from well-ed­u­cated black read­ers versed in the likes of Ju­dith But­ler and Kim­berlé Cren­shaw, but was heart­ened to hear an­other reader say that reading Sephodi al­lowed her to read and fi­nally un­der­stand Pumla Di­neo Gqola’s work.

And that’s how reading de­vel­op­ment works, Mgqolozana says.

Read­ers, es­pe­cially those in the early stages of their reading ca­reers, need books with char­ac­ters fa­mil­iar to them. Then, from there, the sky’s the limit. The reading as plea­sure bug has bit­ten. For Mgqolozana, that mo­ment came for him as a child while reading Joseph Di­escho’s Trou­bled Wa­ters and find­ing a char­ac­ter with whom he deeply con­nected.

There is a dearth of books in which the av­er­age young South Afri- can, a young black woman, finds them­selves and their ex­pe­ri­ences re­flected, Mgqolozana main­tains.

His ad­vice to Mahlape? Bal­ance. Find that nar­row path that guides ac­tivists such as her­self from the old, dy­ing, white-dom­i­nated, money-run world to the new, more egal­i­tar­ian world.

Sisonke Msi­mang, au­thor of the new mem­oir Al­ways An­other Coun­try, who is also on this year’s fes­ti­val line-up, also sees reading for plea­sure as a set of steps. Chil­dren es­pe­cially need sto­ries that move them from the schooltaught men­tal­ity of reading as a chore to reading as plea­sure.

A pan­el­list at Abantu 2017, Msi­mang re­sists strongly the ex­pec­ta­tion that the event should let go of its ori­gins as an act of re­sis­tance and be­come some­thing else. In her mind re­sis­tance has value, for as long as the op­pres­sion re­mains.

Msi­mang is backed by Sihle Khumalo, who penned that in­fa­mous op-ed, “It’s a fact: dark­ies just don’t read.” Khumalo, also fea­tured this year, sees Abantu sur­viv­ing into a sec­ond year as a sign of progress since he penned the col­umn in 2009. More mea­sured in tone than in the in­cen­di­ary col­umn, Khumalo main­tains this should have hap­pened decades ago. Dark­ies reading is, to him, the big­gest, “bad­dest” mid­dle fin­ger to Bantu ed­u­ca­tion. He wants more Abantu Book Fes­ti­vals, more Black­bird Books, more black book­stores and book clubs.

Gqola, also to speak at the fes­ti­val, wants the same. She sees Abantu grow­ing into an in­sti­tu­tion, with events around the coun­try. But she was honest that she has nei­ther the will, tem­per­a­ment nor the know-how to do this work.

The ad­mis­sion is a re­fresh­ing de­par­ture from oth­ers mak­ing th­ese de­mands of Mgqolozana and Mahlape when they them­selves aren’t pre­pared to do the work, let alone admit they aren’t.

Mgqolozana, like Mahlape, has put him­self at risk for the de­colo­nial project, at risk for the love of black peo­ple. He is sad­dened when oth­ers who cry de­coloni­sa­tion, es­pe­cially the monied mid­dle classes, don’t even chip in for some­thing as “arm­chair ac­tivist” as Abantu’s crowd­fund­ing cam­paign for this year’s event.

That the likes of Mgqolozana and Mahlape are at risk and alone, yet sur­rounded by black­ness, brings to mind the apho­rism: “Ev­ery­body wants to be black un­til it’s time to be black.” It is used in the black Amer­i­can con­text to re­fer to white peo­ple ap­pro­pri­at­ing black cul­ture be­cause it’s cool, but dis­ap­pear­ing when black lives are un­der at­tack from the state.

In our con­text, it is a re­minder of Biko’s un­der­stand­ing of black­ness as, firstly, recog­nis­ing that you are op­pressed un­justly and, sec­ondly, us­ing that recog­ni­tion as the ba­sis to unite with other op­pressed peo­ple to over­throw the cause of your op­pres­sion.

Many black peo­ple read­ily do the first part. It’s the sec­ond, the one that de­mands self-sac­ri­fice, where the likes of Mgqolozana and Mahlape find them­selves on their own.

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