Isabeau Steytler reports from one of the more provocative panels at #OBF2015
Friday 11 September 2015
The relationship between race and writing has become a vital one during 2015 and what Achille Mbembe recently referred to as ‘the Fanonion moment’ which South Africa is experiencing. The relationship between race and literature has been highlighted by the frequent citing of Fanon and Biko by student movements while the relationship between race and book festivals was problematized by Thando Mgqolozana at this year’s Franschoek festival. The ‘Covering Colour’ event was consequently a key event in this year’s Open Book Festival.
The discussion was marketed as ‘How we talk about race in the book world’. The panel represented a diverse range of literary vocations which comprised of journalist/novelist Rehana Rossouw, adman/memoirist Khaya Dlanga, publisher Thabiso Mahlape, academic/writer Jonny Steinberg and graphic novelist/poet Nathan Trantraal.
The event kicked off with a discussion of Fanon and Biko, whose books Rossouw pointed out are now frequently being stolen from libraries and bookshops. She then asked Mahlape whether this means she’s looking out for the next Biko or Fanon to publish. Mahlape answered that she’s more interested in new narratives than another Fanon or Biko. Moreover, she questioned whether if Biko were alive today, he would say the same thing in the same way. Steinberg added that he thought it was great that people are excited about Fanon and Biko because it means people are excited about reading; powerful reading, he said, leads to powerful writing.
The discussion next turned to the role of anger, which would become the dominant theme of the discussion. Trantraal passionately asserted that if you are a person of colour and you are not angry, then there’s something wrong with you. If you’re not angry, you’re in denial. Mahlape said she doesn’t mind anger, it’s a good emotion because it can lead to action. She did, however, say that anger needs to be made useful and lead to transformation. Referring to movements such as Rhodes Must Fall and Open Stellenbosch, Dlanga quipped that ‘the kids are not alright and that’s great’.
Steinberg then tackled the question of the place which anger occupies in writing. Writing is above all about reflection, he said, it’s about looking at the world in a new way; it’s about looking at the world a bit skew. He mentioned James Baldwin who he said was furious and a literary genius as he was able to stand back and reflect on his anger. Steinberg pointed out that we live in a very angry society, and that what writers must do is use anger as subject matter. To use the power of writing is to have anger and more.
Rossouw returned to publishing with Mahlape, asking whether publishers have a responsibility to steer the mood of the country? Mahlape spoke of the importance of addressing a certain audience, which she later clarified as speaking to certain issues or perspectives. ‘We owe it to ourselves’, she said, ‘to make sure that what we leave behind has clear intent’. Steinberg said that it’s important not to write for a particular audience as it makes you humble, and in any matter, you have no control over who reads it and how they interpret it. A very angry book could trigger experiences for people you would never have thought. Trantraal agreed describing how his book ‘Coloureds’ was clearly aimed at coloured people, and to his surprise, was bought by many white people who said that they had had similar experience to the ones he described.
During Q&A with the audience, it was asked how different this conversation would be if held in a different language. Mahlape agreed that publishing is very English-oriented. Dlanga said he thought the texture of the conversation would be very different. He also noted that he’d never been to a literary fest where more than thirty percent of the audience was black. Dlanga concluded the discussion by observing that the industry often only talks to a certain audience remarking that we’re continually having the same conversations amongst ourselves but don’t impact the rest of society.