To savour and enjoy

2009-04-22 00:00

IT’S World Book Day on Saturday, the day to celebrate that greatest of inventions — the book. There may be people out there who haven’t picked one up since they left school, but they must be sad, sad losers. Why deprive yourself of all those hours of pleasure?

Last week, in good time for April 25, Exclusive Books launched this year’s Homebru list, its annual celebration of South African writing, with a bash at its newest shop — the 50th it has opened country wide — in Melrose Arch, Johannesburg. It was a good party, with three of the authors featured on the list as guest speakers — Sindiwe Magona (Beauty’s Gift), Kevin Bloom (Ways of Staying) and Happy Ntshingila (Black Jerusalem). There were plenty of others in attendance as well, including Jane Griffiths and weatherman Simon Gear, both with Pietermaritzburg connections.

Homebru is great, but it still has to contend with the old, residual, cultural cringe. How many times have I heard people say they don’t like reading South African books — too depressing, too dull, too badly written … too South African? True, there have been occasions when local publishers have rushed something into print that should have been sent back for a rewrite. But there is a tremendous amount of good local stuff around. Congratulations to local publishers for finding it, and to Exclusive Books for celebrating it. What better to read than something that echoes our own experience?

To discover how Exclusive’s most worthwhile promotion campaign does, I asked Jaco Nel, the Fanatics Marketing Manager, to tell me honestly, without the PR slant, if it really translates into sales. And apparently it does. “It also has a carry-on effect, beyond the initial promotion,” he says. Books on Homebru continue to sell and attract interest. This year, 140 titles were submitted to Exclusive Books by local publishers, and 28 made the final cut.

There is plenty of fiction, chick lit and humour from the likes of Zukisa Wanner, Annica Foxcroft, Megan Voysey-Braig, Laurian Clemence, Ndumiso Ngcobo, Sam Cowen and Lee van Loggerenberg, Sindiwe Magona and the Hayibo team; life stories from Andre Brink, Oscar Pistorius; Chris Karsten, writing about Oscar winner Charlize Theron and Zubeida Jaffer on activist Ayesha Dawood; and books on cooking, gardening and South African cultures. Also in the non-fiction line are Simon Gear’s Going Green and plenty of looks at life in South Africa, serious and lighthearted. You could try Kevin Bloom’s Ways of Staying, which he describes as being about not why we stay in this country, but how we stay. And once we are staying, what better than to read about other people doing the same, in different ways?

I managed to corner Sindiwe Magona for a moment during lunch to talk about how to get South Africans to appreciate South African stories. She is the author of Beauty’s Gift (reviewed in The Witness late last year). Magona is an author, actor and storyteller who, on retirement, returned to her homeland after 20 years working at the United Nations in New York. Her novel tackles the subject of Aids head on, but before the chorus of “too depressing” starts up, it is an entertaining read, with a powerful and positive message. She admits it is not the book she was wanting to write — that would have been “fun stuff”, probably a historical novel.

“I had good reasons not to write Beauty’s Gift,” she says. “It’s a book about our national shame, and it will make me enemies, but I wrote it because I am very, very angry. We need to be honest, and say that what is wrong is wrong.” Among her targets are irresponsible men who sleep around and produce children all over the place. “It’s not enough to sire them, guys. We need to father them,” she says.

Even before getting onto the Homebru list, Beauty’s Gift was selling quite well. Magona is keen to use her fictional story to promote debate. A launch is planned where she will talk to Zachie Achmat of the Treatment Action Campaign. Magona would love to see her book being serialised on radio — a great medium for taking it to even a non-reading public. And the publicity Homebru brings should help her sales.

Why not celebrate World Book Day by picking up a copy of the Homebru list, and treating yourself to one or two of the 28 South African books there? You could do a lot worse.

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