Fresh new look at lit­er­a­ture

Au­thor bound for sym­po­sium aims to raise ques­tions about pub­lish­ing and the value of oral tra­di­tion

The Sunday Independent - - METRO - AMANDA MALIBA | @Aman­daMal­iba

AU­THOR and ac­tivist Malaika Mahlatsi, pop­u­larly known as Malaika wa Azania, will go to the sixth In­ter­na­tional African Women Writ­ers’ Sym­po­sium to re­in­force the knowl­edge that an African story is also valid, she said.

“We don’t have a cul­ture where we think our sto­ries are valid and our sto­ries mat­ter,” said Mahlatsi, who has been in­vited as one of the speak­ers at the sym­po­sium spon­sored by the De­part­ment of Arts and Cul­ture, Joburg The­atre, Hill­brow The­atre and Afro Arts SA.

“And I think one of things that we need to do as writ­ers at the sym­po­sium to the au­di­ence that goes there, is that ac­tu­ally as a young black per­son in this coun­try, your story is valid and you must write it even if you don’t have a lan­guage, but it is a story that is worth telling,” she said.

The sym­po­sium that takes place from Novem­ber 29 will ad­dress var­i­ous is­sues that ex­ist in lit­er­a­ture in Mzansi, tack­ling top­ics such as “writ­ing the truth in con­tested times” and ex­plor­ing “racism and marginal­i­sa­tion” – a topic that Mahlatsi said is close to her heart.

“I have al­ways con­tended that one of the great­est re­spon­si­bil­i­ties writ­ers have in the so-called post-colo­nial so­ci­ety is to re­flect mean­ing­fully about where we are as a so­ci­ety.

“If we are to agree that this so-called post-colo­nial so­ci­ety is still a re­flec­tion of a colo­nial re­al­ity, our re­spon­si­bil­ity then is to make the com­fort­able un­com­fort­able – peo­ple who are ben­e­fit­ting from the sta­tus quo.

“Writ­ers need to re­flect on that in or­der to be­come the voice for those who don’t have the same po­si­tion as we do, giv­ing a voice to their re­al­ity, and there­fore mak­ing the re­spon­si­bil­ity of writ­ers more grave,” she said.

And a writer’s re­spon­si­bil­ity, she said, is to not just write for the sake of writ­ing but to be an ac­tivist writer, a con­ver­sa­tion she seeks to raise at the sym­po­sium on how to reimag­ine ac­tivist writ­ing to ben­e­fit the coun­try.

“One of the things we need to do, for ex­am­ple, is to re-cen­tre the is­sue of oral tra­di­tions for in­tel­lec­tual thoughts. Why is it that our fo­cus is mainly on le­git­imis­ing writ­ing ac­tivism, but not on things like oral tra­di­tions?” she said.

“I mean our great-grand­par­ents were ac­tivists in their own right. Even though they didn’t write, they still fash­ioned a so­ci­ety that was very pro­gres­sive. And they did this through sto­ry­telling, speak­ing, etc. So maybe one of the things as writ­ers we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to do is to chal­lenge the very colo­nial and western nar­ra­tive that says that only writ­ing is the le­git­i­mate tool for com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

“Ac­tu­ally, oral tra­di­tions are le­git­i­mate tools too and we must re­cen­tre them. We must fight for that space as writ­ers who are more than just writ­ers but are also ac­tivists,” she added.

As a young girl Mahlatsi used read­ing as a form of es­capism from her re­al­ity of poverty and to get lost in other peo­ple’s sto­ries.

“I know what writ­ing has done for me and can only imag­ine a coun­try we could build if lit­er­a­ture was pri­ori­tised. We don’t have a strong cul­ture of read­ing and en­gag­ing in in­tel­lec­tual work, and the con­struct is very deeply colo­nial in its make-up.

“The im­pli­ca­tions be­ing that we have sys­tem­at­i­cally been so greatly dis­tanced from read­ing and in­tel­lec­tual work. Sec­ondly, per­haps where we need to crit­i­cise writ­ers is the fact that maybe we are not writ­ing the type of sto­ries that our peo­ple want to read, sto­ries that don’t re­flect our peo­ple.

“And thirdly, a point which is im­por­tant, is the very is­sue of the value chain of pub­lish­ing in this coun­try. The value chain of what gets pub­lished, what sto­ries are le­git­i­mate, is ul­ti­mately the vi­sion of the pub­lisher.

“And for as long as the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try it­self is not trans­formed, we are not go­ing to have a sit­u­a­tion where our peo­ple will ac­cess the kind of books that they want, books that re­flect their re­al­i­ties.”

Over the week, speak­ers who will join the con­ver­sa­tions are Wil­lie Per­domo (US, Afro Latino, award win­ning poet, pub­lisher and aca­demic), Prof J Ndlovu Gat­sheni (Unisa) and Chris Steyn (au­thor of The Lost Boys of Bird ls­land).

The sym­po­sium will be held at the Joburg The­atre from Novem­ber 29 to De­cem­ber 6.

MALAIKA Mahlatsi, pan­el­list for this year’s In­ter­na­tional African Women Writ­ers’ Sym­po­sium.

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