I attended the SA Book Fair this year, 9 September, hosted in Newtown, Johannesburg. I do not frequent the inner city as much anymore so it was quite refreshing to see how it continues to evolve and develop. For one, I was rather impressed with the Newtown Junction Mall — it was my first time there so the standard of the stores and restaurants on offer definitely left an impression.
The SABF exhibition took place at Museum Africa and this year’s theme was #OURSTORIES. If it was not for self-control and monthly responsibilities, I could have easily bankrupted myself with a mountain of delicious books on offer. I managed to get myself Collective Amnesia written by the riveting Koleka Putuma; plus Running and other stories by the glorious Makhosazana Xaba. Both books are beautiful reads I highly recommend — I will convince you why in book reviews to come (stay tuned).
Arriving at the book fair, I was not quite sure what to expect outside the exhibits — I had signed up a few of the key sessions held on that Saturday. The first I attended was a discussion on social media with the authors Karabo Kgoleng, Pamela Powers, and Fiona Snyckers. In this session one thing that stood out most for me was how social media has, without a doubt, changed how we approach literature but it has not taken away from the art of reading and writing itself — it has evolved it. From a writer’s point of view I was curious how one can go from being as concise as writing their full thought and idea on something in a limited space of 120 characters, to writing an entire novel? How do they do it? The synonymous response among all three authors was “discipline”. The more you do, the better you get — practice.
The second session was women at work: creating spaces for women’s fiction led by Yewande Omotoso; Ayobami Adebayo, Fiona Melrose, and Shubnum Khan. This session was so disheartening because as much as I know and experience patriarchy everyday, I somehow thought the literary world was exempt from that and people were seen as equal despite their gender. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Being born female seems to be a problem in all facets of the world including literature. Women have to do double or triple the amount of work men have to do in order to simply get someone to read their work and publish it. Worst still, the rejection given to women is significantly worse than that given to men, if the women get a response at all. This session basically made me more aware of the gender biases everywhere in our society and made me appreciate women authors significantly more than before — it’s been a tough road for that book to get to where it is so if you’re a woman author, I take my hat off to you, congratulations on being resilient and thriving through all the patriarchy, and in some instances misogynistic hassles.
The third session was on queer rights and writing in Africa and beyond. This sessions held the same time as Somizi’s session and as much as I was curious to hear what Somizi has to say about anything literary, this session seemed more worthwhile as it dealt with a broader platform of information I could learn from. The discussion was led by Makhosazana Xaba and B Camminga. I found this session particularly rewarding for one major reason, I did not realize how the rest of the literary world closely associates the author and the work he/she produces. For me, the author is the last person I think of when I go to a book store to purchase a novel. The author is like the web developer behind a great website, or a great production team behind a television show — I know they are there but I never consciously think about them to let them have much of an influence on whether I will consume the work/ book produced after. So this terrifyingly close association of the author and their work was particularly intriguing to me. The general consensus in the room was basically, the author should write on something with which they have firsthand experience i.e. if you are queer, you’re allowed to write queer literature, if not, readers are generally sceptical if you know what you’re talking about at all. But this makes me uncomfortable because if you are writing fiction, should it matter who you are as an author? Fiction allows for you to use your imagination, research, explore and create stories that are beyond your day to day persona. I was left wondering if the readers of SA, and the world over, still have the capacity to appreciate a beautiful piece of written work, despite the author. However, to ease my worries a bit, Makhosazana Xaba also spoke of how this close association has to do with the evolution of technology, particularly social media. As readers we were not always able to see the author behind the book and now with the Internet, book launches documented on social media, etc — this closeness was inevitable. She elaborated saying that this is not to say, imagination and creativity of authors should be discarded because of who they are or who they are not — great writing should be acknowledged and appreciated as such, great writing. (This is basically what made me buy her book, so much wisdom.)
The last session I attended was Literary access and pleasure: Access through language, genre and others means. Griffin Shea asked Mükoma wa Ngügī and Bibi Bakare-Yusuf about the difference means we can use to create greater access to books and reading. This discussion was another major crave ball I could not have anticipated. We glorify reading and books in general but how many of us can read books in our own African languages? Do we have an African canon of literary books produced and published by Africans for Africans? Do we even have our own forefathers and foremothers of African literature who have not been dictated so by western publishers? Hits you right in the gut doesn’t it? Admittedly, this had me thinking of how I have lost touch with reading and writing in Shona, and if I lose that due to lack of practice, then I can’t pass it on to my daughter and my culture dies out from the literary world in that way. And this goes for everyone focusing more on English literature as opposed to whatever their African language is. I was glad to have attended this session because it made me aware of how even though English is somewhat the primary form of communication in my circle, I should not neglect my Shona literature and should definitely be more proactive about teaching it to my daughter as well. As for the African canon of literature, we all need to start paying attention to the authors in our various communities and countries as opposed to those that have migrated for whatever reason and fed back to us when they don’t even reside here anymore. I’m not saying their voices are invalid based on their western location, but their voices should not be the only ones representing what African is and/or ought to be.
After all has been said and done, has all been said and done? Who and what are you currently reading? How intricately do you associate the author and their work? Do you consume enough African literature, by Africans and/or written in an African language? Tell me everything — after all, sharing in caring, I want to know your thoughts.
Do not forget to take a look at SA Book Fair’s website, announcements on the next fair will be posted there. Follow them of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Also pass through The South African Book Development Council to learn more about our relationship with books as a country.