Time to tell our stories

2015-03-18 15:00

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Hotshot novelist Thando Mgqolozana has issues with literary festivals - where many of the writers are black, but audiences are lilly white. He talks to Binwe Adebayo about his favourite fest, Time of the Writer

“We should read for the sake of enjoyment. If knowledge and consciousness are acquired in the process, that’s good, but that should never be the main objective.”

This is a surprising statement from a writer who deals with hard-hitting subject matter.

Thando Mgqolozana is one of South Africa’s rising stars, having blazed on to the literary scene at the age of 24. With a couple of awards under his belt and a fresh take on local literature, he has continued to reshape the local writing landscape with each new effort.

He tackled complex narratives around botched circumcision in A Man Who is Not a Man, reimagined the birth of Jesus in Hear Me Alone and explored the dynamics of student politics in his latest novel, Unimportance.“Knowledge and consciousness” seem always to be at the core of his work.

And yet he insists that is not literature’s main function.Mgqolozana is one of 20 authors from all over the continent who will participate in the 18th Time of the Writer festival in Durban, which showcases, among other things, the best of new African literature.

“I grew up in a family of teachers, but I only started being interested in literature after reading Troubled Waters by Joseph Diescho, a Namibian writer. It appealed to me because I could imagine the characters as my friends and myself.

I had never been able to identify with characters like that before,” he says.Mgqolozana believes identification is at the centre of successful writing and he is committed to stories that reflect his experience of life as a black person in South Africa.

He continues to support Time of the Writer for this reason, arguing it is the only literary offering that fully includes and engages with South Africa’s diverse society, both in terms of the writers it invites and the audiences they attract.

“I am involved in an individual campaign to interrogate our literary festivals and make them understand they are not relevant.

As a black author, you feel like you have to explain yourself to these all-white audiences, instead of focusing on the craft,” he explains.I agree with him.

Other literary festivals, such as Franschhoek, Knysna and Open Book, are good at inviting black authors to speak, but everything else seems geared towards retaining literature as a pastime of the privileged.

Often, says Mgqolozana, the only black people are a couple of journalists and the people cleaning the venue or setting up microphones. But this is not a blame game or the sole responsibility of festival organisers to change.“You can trace this back to our history.

Black people were made to feel inferior. We don’t feel confident that we can write high-quality stories. Even at the level of schools, our government and teachers do not see our stories as literature.”But slowly, the tide seems to be turning. Just look at Mgqolozana.

The majority of authors at this year’s Time of the Writer are relatively young, but despite their years, have solid work behind their names. Authors Kirsten Miller, Jacob Dlamini and ZP Dala have had the freedom to publish stories about authentic African experiences.

According to Mgqolozana, there has been a shift from political protest work to more individual stories, which do not always hold oppression or freedom as the premise.

“We’re now able to deal with smaller things and grapple with them fully. In this way, we can engage directly with the audience about their daily experience. There have never been as many young, published authors and we’re building a new body of our own stories.

“Literature is no longer just about England,” he says.

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