Fresh new look at literature
Author bound for symposium aims to raise questions about publishing and the value of oral tradition
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.