I’ve tried to stay out of the ‘Whiteness of SA Literary Festivals’ debate on social media because I’ve felt that the insufficient quantities of melanin in my skin have disqualified me on some level.
But the longer I think about it, the more I read, the more I begin to feel that I ought to add my voice to the melee, at the expense of being castigated for what I’m about to say.
I start with this thought:
Wear not your blackness as a wound.
I extend this principle further:
Wear not your womanness as a wound.
Wear not your gayness as a wound.
Wear not your Muslimness as a wound.
Now hang on. Before you decide to school me on the injustices inflicted on black people the world over, injustices that continue to be perpetrated against them even now to varying degrees, let me remind you that women too are marginalised. Gays continue to face bigotry. And as a Muslim I sometimes have to convince people that I don’t have a bomb under my hijab.
In short, the world has enough ugliness to go around. Several times over.
But the reason I start with this statement about wounds is because I’m tired of being confronted by victims. I’m tired of being told I’m a victim. I’m tired of having to pretend to think I’m one.
Rather I am a brown woman who refuses to fit into any box that society has decided I should inhabit. I am loud. Opinionated. Gentle. Angry. Shy. Calm. In touch with my sexuality. Devout. Irreverent.
But never, am I ever a victim. This in spite of my being an Indian Muslim Woman, survivor of child abuse and writer of words that no one wants to publish.
And you, my black writer friend are no victim of a system that favours white people either.
If anything, you’re lucky. Luckier than I am at least, since your skin colour serves as a passport to getting published. Your stories are the ones publishers want to publish in order to prove they aren’t ‘Too white’.
And then when you do get published and the people for whom you’ve written don’t buy the books, you blame the industry for making the books too expensive for ‘your readers’ to afford them. And in the same breath you lament the fact that as a writer you cannot afford to live off your scribbles.
Now correct me if I’m wrong here:
- The publishing industry is a business.
- The purpose of every business is to generate a profit.
- If publishing houses stop generating profits, they stop publishing books.
- If they stop publishing books, you cannot get your story out there.
I’ll tell you an interesting little story.
Two years ago I was at The Time of the Writer Festival that is held at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre in Durban. Every night that I attended sessions, I found a predominantly white audience. A rather poor representation of the SA demographic.
Then on the night Susan Abulhawa appeared, the Muslim brown people suddenly filled up the theatre.
Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian author. She writes books about the injustices visited on the Palestinian people, her people, by the Israeli occupiers. This topic is dear to Muslim hearts everywhere. Palestine is after all home to Al Aqsa, the third holiest site in Islam. In fact, given the outpouring of support for Palestine by SA Muslim people every time Israel goes on a rampage, one would be forgiven for thinking that SA Muslim blood is red, green and black.
I was quite pleased to see more brown faces that night though. I felt like less of a playwhite.
BUT after the interval, during which all these brown people queued up to have Susan sign their copies of her book and pose for a selfie for social media posterity, the brown people vanished. They didn’t stay to listen to the next author.
I shook my head in disgust.
Now let me clarify the following:
- Brown people aren’t that impoverished that they cannot afford books by other brown or black South African authors. In fact, judging by their predilection for designer labels, they can afford to support the works of many local authors if they so choose. So this gives lie to the argument the people don’t buy books because they cannot afford them.
- Ask other brown writers how well their novels sold and they’ll tell you, not well at all. This in spite of the brown community being very proprietal of their ‘heroes’. Interestingly, that of the writers that appeared after Abulhawa, one was South African Muslim.
People don’t buy books because they don’t prioritise the buying of books. They don’t read them because they’d much rather be watching the latest Bollywood offering or episode of Soul City. Often, if they find that they’d like to read a book, they’re more likely to borrow from a friend than actually buy it. They have better things to spend their money on.
People don’t attend festivals because they find them boring. Or because they’d rather attend a John Legend concert, the more expensive of the two tickets, mind you. I must admit, this year’s Time of the Writer was so boring that I probably won’t fly down to Durban for it again. And I’m a writer, saying this.
So lowering the cost of SA fiction won’t result in more readers. But my non-existent bank balance will definitely appreciate it.
Making a festival more accessible (Time of the Writer, M & G Litfest, these are both plenty accessible, by the way) won’t see more brown and black people attending it either.
Creating a culture of reading at primary school level. Maybe.
Hoping that parents who are readers succeed in passing on their love of books to their offspring. (Though, with five kids of my own, I see two readers emerging from the five, all of whom had stories read to them as children. Not everyone wants to be a reader.) So yeah, maybe again.
Lobbying this wastrel government of ours to direct more funds towards the arts so that our libraries are at least STOCKED. (A library cannot be better stocked unless it is stocked to begin with.) Definitely!
And then, keep writing. After all, it's a labour of love, no?