Meet the publisher bringing black stories to life

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Thabiso Mahlape, owner of BlackBird Books, draws inspiration from TV producer Oprah Winfrey and author Toni Morrisson. PHOTO: Avantika Seeth
Thabiso Mahlape, owner of BlackBird Books, draws inspiration from TV producer Oprah Winfrey and author Toni Morrisson. PHOTO: Avantika Seeth

The mostly white world of books is slowly being disrupted by a new breed of publisher. Avantika Seeth meets the formidable Thabiso Mahlape, founder of BlackBird Books

Thabiso Mahlape is that all-too-rare figure in the world of books – a black woman who started her own company, BlackBird Books, an imprint of Jacana Media, to promote the work of new, black writers. This month, BlackBird celebrates a year of success with nine titles on the shelves and several new ones on the way – and critics have been forced to sit down and take notice of this no-nonsense businesswoman.

Earlier this year, the 32-year-old Mahlape took to Twitter to fire shots at anyone who discredited black women and spoke out, in particular, against black misogynists she had encountered at the Franschoek Literary Festival. She was tired of their “patronising patriarchy”, especially those who suggested her writers sign with a more established publishing house. She tweeted: “I will swear at you. Write something of your own and take it to YOUR preferred f*#%ing publisher #flf2016.”

The display name she tweets from is Oprah Morrison, a nod to two powerful women, Oprah Winfrey and Toni Morrison.

“I love Oprah,” she tells me during an interview at the Jacana offices in Joburg. “I’m not one of those who aspires to Beyoncé, even though I know a lot of women do. I don’t know if it’s an age thing.”

The woman in blue lipstick

Her bold, blue lipstick matches her personality perfectly. “My father would die if he saw me wearing this, but life is about trying out different things,” she laughs. “I started working as a marketing intern at Jacana and I slowly worked my way up until, finally, I felt I had enough experience to start my own imprint.” After approaching her boss, Bridget Impey, who is managing director of Jacana, she found great support and encouragement. But Mahlape’s involvement in the exciting world of books was not always on her cards. She’d studied to become an engineer.

“Engineering was accidental. I could no longer lie to myself about pursuing a career in it, since I wasn’t really enjoying it.” Initially, she had been drawn to journalism, influenced by the stories featured in Drum magazine.
“I feel like after everything that happened, the universe guided me to be exactly where I am today. There’s no logical explanation for it. It just happened and I feel good,” she says. After consulting a career counsellor, Mahlape was advised to study publishing when positions to study journalism were all taken.

Enter the intern

“I never looked back, but when I had completed my studies in 2008, I couldn’t find a job because the industry is so small. You have to wait for someone to either die or retire.”

Eventually, in 2010, Mahlape managed to secure an internship at Jacana through the Publishing Association
of SA.

The ardent book lover grew up in the township of Seshego, Zone 1 in Polokwane, Limpopo. She was raised by her father after her mom passed away. It was a strict household, her father working as a police officer in the narcotics bureau. He has since been transferred to the car-theft unit in Pretoria.

Mahlape exudes a powerful go-getter attitude, which has helped her to climb the corporate ladder.

“I did not do anything extraordinary as an intern that other people didn’t do. All I asked for was a chance. I remember we sat in a meeting with human resources and they asked me where I wanted to be in five years, and I think my exact words to Bridget were, ‘I want to be in your chair’.”

A place for black stories

The first book published by Mahlape, then still for Jacana Media, was not greeted by unprecedented success, but it taught her to be resilient. “It was called Mending a Broken Heart by Nadine Raal – a true story about a six-year journey after giving birth to a boy with a congenital heart effect.”

Her second book was the bestseller by McIntosh Polela, My Father, My Monster.

“That’s when I realised this is where the money is. It was a defining moment for me, because that story is entrenched in its blackness, and for it to do so well showed me that there was a space for black stories where there wasn’t a platform for them previously.”

BlackBird now focuses on black authors and black narratives. “One of the things that people need to understand, which I have learnt from Oprah – who is my light and my god – is that when you do work, you have to do work that does NOT make you feel like you are betraying yourself. For me, as a black woman, that natural resonance is with black stories.”

Mahlape makes it clear that she does not discount white narratives, but feels that publishing is a subjective field, and that she responds more to black writing and black stories.

The problem with black men

Her biggest challenge? That old, black misogyny.

“Black men are very patronising and condescending around my work. The things that they say around and above me make me so angry. I feel like maybe black men do want a decolonisation of literature, but they aren’t prepared to have black women run it.”

Apart from the business side of things and having to constantly assert herself within the world of publishing, Mahlape is a mother to a two-year-old, and that has made her push ahead harder.

“She is my life. I didn’t plan on having her, but she has been the greatest blessing to me. Her father is involved in her life, but she lives with me. So, ultimately, I am in charge of raising this young mind in a world that’s filled with a lot of slack and criticism.”

It does get tough for the single mother. In January, she suffered a nervous breakdown after she stopped taking her medication.

“I am on chronic medication for anxiety and it has been scary, because you don’t know if you are going to stand the test of time. You don’t know if the books you put out are going to sell or if you’re going to be able to make a living. But the fact that I am still standing here is a success, not just for BlackBird, but for me personally.”

Mahlape has hopes of expanding her market into the academic space.

“I am working on plans to see BlackBird grow and I should be allowed to. There’s no limit to what black writers can put out. If the environment allows for growth, then why not?

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