Promise of the pen

2017-06-06 06:00

DURING our days when we studied literature or specifically African literature, we hardly encountered South African writers.

Our canon had mainly Nigerian, Kenyan and Zimbabwean scribes of note, among them Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Buchi Emecheta and Tsitsi Dangarembga.

Just as the apartheid system barricaded cultures from one another, we were also deprived of the great writings of Nadine Gordimer, Peter Abrahams, J.M. Coetzee, Alex la Guma and Bessie Head. Recently, there has been a major shift in this perception thanks to a crop of young South African writers who have put the country on the literary map and ensured that the world reads different, intriguing and interesting stories about South Africa for a change.

A couple of years back, I wrote about the beauty of reading where I both praised the presence of many community libraries in South Africa and lamented the dearth of a reading culture.

However, there are signs that there are some young people who are interested in reading and writing. The fruits of the fall of the previous barricades can be seen in how South African writers are getting more recognition in both African and international writing contests.

It might be true that there is a long way to go in reaching Gordimer and Coetzee’s prominence (winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991 and 2003, respectively), but there is much promise.

Last year, Lidudumalingani Mqombothi, a young man from the village of Zikhovhane in the Eastern Cape, became the third South African to win the prestigious annual Caine Prize for Literature since its inception in 2000.

In 2006, Mary Watson won the prize with her short story titled Jungfrau and two years later, Henrietta Rose Innes’s story Poison was a potent literal concoction that clinched her the prize.

I found Mqombothi’s Memories We Lost a riveting encounter of how madness affects individuals and society. This year, Magogodi oaMphela Makhene is among the five Caine Prize short-listed writers for her story The Virus. There is much promise.

There is much writing going on in South Africa, especially from the so-called prominent figures in our society. One cannot doubt the relevance of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom, Helen Zille’s Not Without A Fight, Thabo Mbeki’s The Dream and F.W. de Klerk’s The Last Trek, among others, but we also need timeless and gripping fiction. It seems nowadays that any public figure is going to end up with a book on the shelves. From radio personalities to sportspeople, actors and pastors, the possibilities are many, but that is not quite the promise I have in mind.

If you read newspapers every day and follow the many news channels on the television, the internet and on radio, you might be one of those people whose idea of reading on a quiet night or a peaceful weekend might include a short story or a novel for a change, and not another view on politics or sports. Why not escape into the world of imagination penned by our own writers? Zakes Mda, Zukiswa Wanner, Niq Mhlongo, Rachel Zadok and many others are making their contribution. The good news is that there are also many other young writers who are promising to keep our reading demons appeased with captivating stories.

• Myke Mwale is a Dominican and an alumnus from UKZN and Saint Joseph’s Theological College, Cedara.

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