A response to Thando Mgqolozana’s departure

During the second day of our stay in Franschhoek, our lecturer Whatsapped us a link to an article on The Daily Vox. Being low on data and without WiFi, I could only see the title and the name of the hyperlink. Even that was enough to make me cringe.

Black writer makes the too-white FLF his last festival

“thando-mgqolozana-the-audience-does-not-treat-me-as-a-literary-talent-but-as-an-anthropological-subject”

Ouch. And I could definitely see that happening; all the aunties and tannies and ooms and uncles sitting in the audience and going: “My, he is black. Hmm… source material for my memoir.”

Put it this way, if I were possessed of larger quantities of melanin and seated at the front of a festival venue, gazing out at the great sea of spectacled whiteness, I might feel a little conspicuous too.

Until the very last session I attended at the festival, I missed out on all this excitement. I heard from some of my classmates that Eusebius McKaiser’s session Is Anger Underrated? caused a stir and that someone in the audience yelled “Bullshit!” while Mgqolozana was speaking. So I was curious about what would happen in Finding Your Voice, where Mgqolozana was one of the panelists.

Imraan Coovadia, UCT Creative Writing Programme director and 2015 Shortlistee for the Sunday Times Fiction Award, acted as the facilitator. For the fourth time, I got to see Nthikeng Mohlele (The Rusty Bell). Newcomer Alex van Tonder (This One Time) was also on the panel.

Well, some interesting anthropological shenanigans went down. But it wasn’t Mgqolozana I was watching.

Coovadia started the session by finding things from the internet to humiliate the panelists. He discovered an interview with van Tonder where she gushed about her love of jogging. Then he addressed Mgqolozana’s recently penned Daily Vox post.

“Actually, I’m not embarrassed by that, Imraan,” replied Mgqolozana.

I think that Coovadia knew that. But it was a convenient way to segue onto the topic. Mgqolozana explained that he had decided to come to the Franschoek Literary Festival to use it as a platform to express his views, despite having declined two earlier invitations.

“I thought this was the most appropriate place from which to exit,” he continued.

He explained that he found South African literary festivals too exclusionary and unwelcoming to black authors and audiences. He expounded on this view at length, also admitting that he contributed to the system by seeking publication from ‘white publishers’.

Coovadia asked the other panelists what they thought of all of this. Mohlele gave a non-committal answer to the effect of ‘I’d rather not respond right now, but I kind of agree’. Van Tonder responded with:

“I think Thando has a point and he is well within his rights to make it. I haven’t really thought about it enough either.”

“Since when did writers have to think about stuff?” Asked Coovadia.

“Since the internet came around and people started tweeting.” She paused. “I think there is an Emmerson quote, ‘do you try to rebel immediately about the way that things are or do you try and change things as you go, until such a point as they have changed completely.”

Mgqolozana asked permission to respond to this, stating that an assumption should not be made that this was a spur of the moment rebellion. He said that he had been making these points for years, to little avail.

While he explained his past efforts and the motivations behind them, van Tonder did not making eye contact with him, despite the fact that he was clearly addressing her. After a few minutes, she fished out her cellphone, took a photograph of the audience, and texted.

“She’s bored,” Mgqolozana said.

Van Tonder did not react.

Coovadia expressed a fear that he would be drafted in to building libraries, continuing the discussion with Mgqolozana. They moved on to discussing the South African writing situation in general, suggesting that the title of the talk should instead have been “There are a lot of things that piss me off”, at which point, Van Tonder was done.

“I’m sorry, I feel like I’m on the wrong panel! I feel like we came here to discuss how we found our voices, but now I just feel very confused.”

The audience responded with resounding agreement. “Ja, ja!”

“I don’t know what… I don’t know where I am.” She laughed nervously.

And thus, for the moment, the discussion was brought to a close. Van Tonder was obviously extremely uncomfortable and felt way out of her depth. To be fair, the discussion had been hijacked. Twenty minutes in, and no one had even mentioned ‘voice’. However it felt wrong to shut down such an important and relevant debate in order to talk about a frivolity. In addition, I think that it was rude of her to ignore another panelist and play on her phone.

http://bookslive.co.za/blog/2015/05/18/look-at-yourselves-its-very-abnormal-thando-mgqolozana-quits-south-africas-white-literary-system/

This is a very long article. But let me just draw out this one little bit…

“An audience member asked Mgqolozana if he had considered whether a more sustained critique would be more effective than a once-off protest.”

Bitch, that was my question. You are stealing my thunder.

(Actually, I’m quite pleased (I’m on Books Live! (Annonymously! (Thanks ‘Jennifer’))))

I think that voices like Mgqolozana are vital at literary festivals. These events need someone to shake up all the comfortable, traditional and often racist dialogues. I do not agree with his decision to leave behind the festival scene for the following reasons:

  1. Because media moves so quickly, I think this rebellion will pass by without attracting a massive amount of notice. I doubt it will inspire change.
  2. Sustained critique would reach a wider audience and keep a dialogue going in the public domain. It might change people’s opinions. It might not. But abstaining from attending is the equivalent of silence and silence is not useful. I can’t write articles on your opinions if you are not presenting those opinions.
  3. The festivals will now be more comfortable for people who love the status quo.

I also disagree with Mgqolozana on other accounts. Much though I am sympathetic towards his cause, I find the idea of building an entirely new infrastructure for the exclusive purpose of publishing black authors unpalatable. I don’t think it is necessary to entirely divorce from the old publishing systems, despite their perceived whiteness. Rather, I advocate greater inclusivity and diversity within the existing systems, so as not to privilege individual authors, but merely to publish a greater range of books that appeal to all demographics.

The idea of dividing authors into racial categories for the purposes of publishing seems a bit… Apartheid-like. I think all authors should to be treated fairly at established publishing institutions, where the quality of their work is the only factor that influences whether they make the cut or not. As far as I’m aware, this is how it works. If Mgqolozana was saying that the entire literary publication process is inherently colonial, then a greater feat of imagination is necessary to devise a decolonized publication system for marginalized writers than simply calling on government bodies for increased funding for new initiatives. I prefer the notion of integration and transformation within existing systems, as I believe this will be more effective and economical, if less explosive.

There needs to be a space for these debates. The audience cannot be allowed to grow complicit and prioritize ‘How to make your writing workspace more inspiring’, rather than facing genuine issues that South Africans encounter.

I think Mgqolozana should continue attending festivals.

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