The eight must-read African novels to get you through lockdown



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Isabel Hofmeyr, University of the Witwatersrand; Aretha Phiri, Rhodes University; Grace Musila, University of the Witwatersrand; Manosa Nthunya, University of the Witwatersrand; Nedine Moonsamy, University of Pretoria; Sam Naidu, Rhodes University; Sarah Nuttall, University of the Witwatersrand; Susan Kiguli, Makerere University, and Tom Odhiambo, University of Nairobi

For those looking from the global North, African literature is often marketed in a narrow way, comprising worthy stories of resistance, written in an uplifting and sober realist mode. Seen from the continent itself, this view has long been brushed aside by the effervescence and animation of ongoing literary experimentation and creativity. I approached literary academic colleagues from South Africa, Kenya and Uganda to choose – and share their thoughts on – one of their favourite books of African fiction. The resulting finger-on-the-pulse list offers a bookshelf that speaks to the vibrancy of both contemporary and older African literature. – Isabel Hofmeyr


Waiting by Goretti Kyomuhendo

Susan Kiguli, Makerere University

The 2007 novel is set in the time of the war to get rid of the dictator Idi Amin. The main character, the adolescent Alinda, and her family have to hide from fleeing soldiers. It is an atmosphere of great angst and fear tinged with hope for the arrival of the liberators, who are a merged force of Ugandan exiles and Tanzanian soldiers. This short novel ingeniously handles the matter of the Lendu woman, the Indians and the Tanzanian soldiers with a blend of suspicion and optimism for the unknown and mystique suggested by foreigners.


The Feminist Press at CUNY

The narrative thinks through the gaps and anxiety created by war, where ordinary citizens do not know what to expect. It describes the violence, victims and loss that come with lying in the path of fleeing soldiers and pursuing liberators. The setting is a village near Lake Albert at the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This is a novel depicting a situation of post-independence internal and cross-border conflict. It is a worthy read particularly because it resonates with this time when the world is tense under the weight of a marauding pandemic.

I used to think war meant violent clashes between human beings, but since the arrival of the coronavirus I think it includes human beings confronting disease.

The Wormwood Trilogy by Tade Thompson

Nedine Moonsamy, University of Pretoria

Tade Thompson’s The Wormwood Trilogy (Rosewater, The Rosewater Insurrection, The Rosewater Redemption) has been widely acclaimed. It was recently nominated for the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Series. For African readers, it is a watershed moment, marking the arrival of an African science fiction trilogy that we so needed and deserve. Set in the near future, these novels capture the interaction between an invading alien population, the Homians, and the citizens of Nigeria.

All three books hit the sweet spot between exploring what science fiction means to us – who, as the characters often point out, have been historically subjected to alien invasions – and the pleasure of simply imbibing well-written and pacy genre fiction.


Orbit

Teeming with alien life, Wormwood is an extra-terrestrial biodome that embeds itself in Nigerian soil. Its sprawling tentacles provide organic power and, contrary to what one might imagine, people flock to the surrounding community of Rosewood because Wormwood also performs ritualistic acts of healing on sick human bodies.

In contrast to greater Nigeria, where power outages are still frequent and homosexuality illegal, Rosewood has all the makings of an African techno-utopia. Yet at the heart of the trilogy is the niggling question about whether it is ever possible for humans and aliens to co-exist with symbiotic ease.

The novels make use of sharp-witted, hard-boiled detectives to probe further into alien motives; Thompson’s female characters, in particular, are a testament to his talent as they bristle with an unsentimental brand of Nigerian humour. Getting to know these characters makes reading the trilogy rewarding in itself, but Thompson’s world building is a force to be reckoned with. The interweaving of chaotic Nigerian streets, alongside organic extra-terrestrialism and imagined human technologies, is handled skilfully, allowing readers to delve into a seamless African biopunk universe that makes us marvel at the potential of what is to come.

A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

Grace A Musila, University of the Witwatersrand

On the eve of Angola’s independence in 1975, Portuguese expatriate Ludovica Fernandes Mano goes into isolation in her penthouse apartment in the city of Luanda, out of fear of the post-independence future. She seals off her apartment with bricks, withdrawing into a new life with her dog and her garden on the terrace, which keeps her fed. Her only connection to the outside world – which soon descends to a 27-year civil war – is her radio.

Angolan novelist Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion is a riveting tapestry of history, detective fiction and poetic interludes, interwoven with poignant turns of phrase and absurdities delivered with a straight-faced candour. It is a perfect lockdown read, not because it is about isolation, but because Ludo’s self-isolation is filled with hilariously narrated encounters and adventures, including a trained messenger pigeon that keeps two young lovers in contact. Ludo uses small pieces of diamond to trap pigeons for food; but when her trap delivers a messenger pigeon with a note attached to its leg, Ludo decides to set it free so the lovers might receive their message – and with it, her swallowed diamonds.

Ludo spends her time writing out her reflections initially in notebooks, and later the walls of her apartment, using charcoal. We get to read excerpts of her poetic reflections; from whose philosophical musings the novel draws its title.


Harvill Secker

Her encounter with the messenger pigeon draws an intricate network of the world she has withdrawn from, into her sanctuary, eventually ending her 30-year isolation when a young burglar accidentally discovers her and forms a bond with the now elderly lady.

The novel is a patchwork of short, interconnected stories. They weave a web of connected lives which lend it an expansive and colourful range, through short, pacy, thriller-style chapters, interspersed with Ludo’s poetic reflections. This is a book you read when you want to be surprised, and to have your imagination stretched by startling turns of phrase, odd logic and lyrical philosophical observations about life.

Warm, occasionally absurd, humour renders the inevitable tropes of war-time – torture, executions and profiteering – bearable. Part of the novel’s charm lies in its eccentric characters, like the self-fashioned “collector of disappearances” who tracks disappearances of planes off air spaces, as well as more ordinary disappearances, such as the journalist who apparently vanished right before people’s eyes.

This 2015 novel is a stunning canvas of the historical devastation of the Angolan civil war and richly imagined textures of ordinary people’s everyday worlds told with great warmth and inventiveness.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Sam Naidu, Rhodes University

At a time when the world is experiencing unprecedented restrictions to mobility, Freshwater offers a searing and illuminating narrative about various kinds of border-crossing and about being multiply-located. In this unusual, at times shocking, bildungsroman, Emezi’s protagonist, Ada, is the child of a Nigerian father and a Malaysian mother. From early childhood, and then increasingly as she approaches adulthood, it is clear that Ada exists in a liminal zone: between spirit and human worlds; between cultures and nations; and between sexualities and genders. In retrospect, the novel’s dedication, to

… those of us with one foot on the other side,

that is, to those who do not claim one single affiliation, but both or many, is economically apposite. This liminality is portrayed with astonishing vividness and through varying perspectives, often drawing on traditional Igbo mythology and cosmology to create imagery which is unsettling and challenging.


Faber and Faber

As an “African” novel, 2018’s Freshwater is innovative and irreverent in the way it marries African religious and cultural beliefs with “Western” geography, religious iconography and cultural symbols, ultimately defying literary categorisation, just as its protagonist repudiates predetermined categories of identity. (The novel is set in Nigeria and the US, and it deliberately presents Ada as a hybrid, transnational character.)

It also contains a rare combination of sensuous, brute physicality with the spiritual. By the end, it is clear that Ada cannot be claimed by her homeland or her diasporic home as she transcends even the human-spirit border to become something which is indefinable, “as liminal as is possible – spirit and human, both and neither”. This bold, contemporary novel captures the porousness of borders, which may prove disquieting for the reader, but also very liberating. In these times of lockdown, Freshwater transports the reader boldly to unexplored, uncanny territory.

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Sarah Nuttall, University of the Witwatersrand

I recommend Namwali Serpell’s 2019 Zambian tour de force The Old Drift. This is a long book – all 563 pages of it – by a writer whose prose and outsize imagination will hold you spellbound throughout. It’s a postcolonial family saga across three families and three generations. It is also the story of the great Zambezi river, and its capaciousness, capriciousness and capacity for revenge in the face of human-centred attempts to control it.


Penguin Books

Serpell unfolds her canvas along two trace-lines of Zambian modernity: the building of the Kariba Dam, the biggest man-made dam in the world at the time of its construction; and Edward Nkoloso’s Zambian National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy and his attempts to send the first Afronauts to the moon. The novel is grounded in precisely rendered historical events but also has a partially speculative sweep. Its final scenes take place in 2023, with a smart techno-twist. The story is narrated not just from a human perspective but from that of a mosquito swarm, a “bare ruinous choir, a chorus of gossipy mites”.

This is a book that asks for your time – and now you’ve got it. Read. And be riotously rewarded.

Hunger Eats a Man by Nkosinathi Sithole

Manosa Nthunya, University of Pretoria

It may as well be the case that at this very trying historical time, it may be difficult to appreciate the offerings of fiction. After all, on a daily basis, we are being asked to read and reread the world, asking ourselves if the catastrophe that has befallen us will pass. What comfort, then, can fiction offer when the very future is at stake? But read on we must – and we do – because it remains an activity that allows us to see how large the world is, despite seeming very small at the moment.


Penguin Random House

A book that could be worthy of consideration is Nkosinathi Sithole’s Hunger Eats a Man (2014), a novel that examines the devastating effects of poverty in the rural areas of South Africa.

Much of the literature that is being produced in contemporary South Africa has a bias towards the city, with often very little reflection on the experiences of people who live in rural communities.

In this award-winning novel, Sithole opens a world that is marked by deep adversities, exploitation and an increasing disillusionment with a nation still learning how to crawl. It is a book worth reading, and reflecting upon, as we start counting down the inevitable costs of this catastrophic moment.

Broken Glass, by Alain Mabanckou

Tom Odhiambo, University of Nairobi

Alain Mabanckou’s fiction may not be known in much of Anglophone Africa but translation is making it easily available. Mabanckou’s 2005 Broken Glass, set in a bar, Credit Gone West, is a good read for times likes these – easy enough for someone interested in light reading; deep enough for someone looking for a nuanced depiction of African modernity. For those who can no longer access their beloved pub, it will remind you of the sounds, smells, sights, that only a bar can produce, from the beginning to the end.


Serpent’s Tail

The tragic life of Broken Glass, the narrator, who appears “self-quarantined” in the bar, mirrors those of the different characters in the society, whose stories we hear in the many anecdotes he tells. The dark humour, satirical tone, endless allusions, and lack of conventional punctuation (sometimes making it tedious to follow the tale), all build up to a dystopic story. But, in the end, the bizarre story in Broken Glass should surely lead you to search for more of Mabanckou’s novels.

Life and Times of Michael K by JM Coetzee

Aretha Phiri, Rhodes University

The oldie on the list, from 1983. An award-winning novel by JM Coetzee, Life and Times of Michael K evokes a desperately depressing sense of subjective fragility and existential nothingness – concerns for which the author is well known.


Ravan Press

Set during a period analogous to civil war, it’s a story about a seemingly insipid and largely enigmatic character whose journeys across and encounters with inhospitable landscapes and unwelcoming communities from the Western Cape province to the Karoo see him, at the novel’s end, gathering water from a well with “a teaspoon and a long roll of string”.

And yet Michael K’s vacuous itinerancy also suggests something pathetically hopeful about the existential journey and signals something ironically prescient about the will to endure. Michael K is a sobering read for these testing times.The Conversation

Isabel Hofmeyr, Professor of African Literature, University of the Witwatersrand; Aretha Phiri, Senior lecturer, Department of Literary Studies in English, Rhodes University; Grace Musila, Associate Professor in the Department of African Literature, University of the Witwatersrand; Manosa Nthunya, PhD candidate in Literature, University of the Witwatersrand; Nedine Moonsamy, Senior Lecturer, University of Pretoria; Sam Naidu, Professor, Department of Literary Studies in English, Rhodes University; Sarah Nuttall, Professor of Literature, University of the Witwatersrand; Susan Kiguli, Associate Professor of literature, Makerere University, and Tom Odhiambo, Senior Lecturer in Literature, University of Nairobi

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Giving back to English: how Nigerian words made it into the Oxford English Dictionary



Photo by Bruce Milton Miller/Fairfax Media via Getty Images.

Kingsley Ugwuanyi, Northumbria University, Newcastle

Nigeria was recently in the spotlight when the Oxford English Dictionary announced that its January 2020 update included 29 Nigerian English words.

The reception, in both the traditional and new media, was nothing short of sensational. Most Nigerians expressed a great sense of pride in the fact that the unique ways in which they use English were being acknowledged internationally.

The Oxford English Dictionary said in the release note:

By taking ownership of English and using it as their own medium of expression, Nigerians have made, and are continuing to make, a unique and distinctive contribution to English as a global language.

Interestingly, the idea of Nigerians owning English is the fulcrum of my doctoral research. In it, I found that increasingly Nigerians are demonstrating a strong sense of ownership of the English language, and in particular their use of it.

The inclusion of Nigerian English words in the Oxford English Dictionary is, in a sense, a recognition of the tremendous efforts by scholars of Nigerian English many of whom have produced discipline-shaping research. This has included four published dictionaries of Nigerian English.

These developments indicate that Nigerian English has indeed come of age. They also validate the concentric circle model developed by Professor Braj Kachru, the father of world Englishes research. This avers that the ‘outer-circle’ varieties of English (where Nigerian English belongs) is ‘norm-developing’. In other words, that Nigerian English is adding to the norms of English.

I think the English, indeed the English-speaking world, should be thankful to Nigeria for this historic gift.

So how were the words chosen?

As the Nigerian consultant to the project which saw the inclusion of the words, I have insights into the process the team underwent in adding them. These include the rationale for adding them, and the enormous significance the inclusion holds for the English language.

How, and why, new words are added

The Oxford English Dictionary has a wide variety of resources to track the emergence of new words and new senses of already existing words.

The Oxford English Corpus is one. This is an electronic database of different types of written and spoken texts specifically designed for linguistic research. In the case of Nigerian English and other World English varieties, for instance, suggestions of new words and senses come from the corpus, reading books and magazines written in the English varieties in question as well as looking at previous studies, and the review of existing dictionaries, if any.

Once there is a list of candidates, a team of expert editors at the Oxford English Dictionary looks closely at the databases to ensure that there are several independent instances of the words being used. And how they are being used.

Other factors that are considered include the time period over which words have been used, as well as their frequency and distribution. But there’s no exact time-span and frequency threshold. Some words – such as Brexit – are relatively young but were included quickly because of the huge social impact they had in a short space of time. Others are not used frequently but are included because they are of specific cultural, historical, or linguistic significance to the community of their users. An example is ‘Kannywood’, the word describing the Nigerian Hausa-language film industry, based in the city of Kano.

It’s clear therefore that the editors don’t simply select the words or senses that appeal to them. Instead, they are guided by use, which links in with the prevailing thought in lexicography and linguistics more generally: that the remit of dictionaries and linguistic research is not to prescribe how languages should be used but to describe how languages are being used.

Words are added because the Oxford English Dictionary recognises that English is a universal language. It believes that including words from varieties of English all over the world enables it to tell a more complete story of the language.

These varieties also reflect the unique culture, history, and identity of the various communities that use English across the world. Nigerian English is a good example. Like other English varieties, it is a living ‘being’ with its own unique vocabulary, encompassing all sorts of lexical innovations. These include borrowings from local languages, new abbreviations, blends and compounds.

Failure to capture such words would deny English an opportunity to grow. It would also deny the flavour of what the speakers of these varieties contribute to the development of English.

What does it mean for English?

One of the reasons previous world languages such as Egyptian and Ancient Greek ceased to exert dominance internationally was their inability to keep pace with developments around the world.

Perhaps this is one factor that clearly distinguishes English. It has demonstrated a capacity for growth by keeping its borders open, helping it to develop from a West Germanic dialect spoken in a small island into a world language. English is now spoken by about 1.75 billion people – a quarter of the
world’s population
. This includes first and second language speakers.

One way English grows is by admitting new words and senses not just from other English varieties but from virtually all languages of the world. For instance, English has had the word ‘postpone’ since the late 15th century, but it was through India that its opposite ‘prepone’ entered English in current use during the 20th century.

Similarly, Nigerian English is reintroducing the verb meaning of ‘barb’, which existed in 16th century British English.

This is how English maintains its dominance. In addition, the Internet has given today’s Oxford English Dictionary editors wider access to non-traditional sources of linguistic evidence. This has enabled them to widen and improve the dictionary’s coverage of world varieties of English, affirming Oxford English Dictionary’s claim as “the definitive record of the English language”.The Conversation

Kingsley Ugwuanyi, Lecturer/Doctoral Researcher, Northumbria University, Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Anniversaries spark renewed readings of South Africa’s celebrated Sol Plaatje



Flowcomm/Flickr/Sol Plaatje House Museum

Chris Thurman, University of the Witwatersrand

Over the last decade, inquiry into the life and work of South African writer, intellectual and politician Solomon T. Plaatje has been spurred by a series of hundred-year anniversaries.

In 2010 it was the centenary of the formation of that dubious political and geographical structure, the Union of South Africa, which would shape the focus of Plaatje’s many projects until his death in 1932. It was also in 1910 that he founded his second Setswana-language newspaper, Tsala ea Becoana.

Two years later, Plaatje was one of the eminent group who formed the South African Native National Congress, which would later become the African National Congress (ANC). In 2012, when the ANC celebrated its centenary, Plaatje’s name was often cited, although he has been more readily associated with a cosmopolitan, erudite – “elitist”? – strand in the ANC that did not fit with the populist brand emphasised by the party in the shift from Thabo Mbeki’s presidency to Jacob Zuma’s.

There was another hundred-year anniversary in 2016, this time of the publication of Native Life in South Africa. The book was Plaatje’s seminal response to the passage of the Natives Land Act of 1913. This notorious piece of legislation set a traumatic tone for the dispossession, segregation and violent oppression that would characterise late-colonial and apartheid South Africa as the 20th century wore on.

Here was Plaatje in strident “Give back the land!” mode, an appealing figure to those advocating for more radical approaches to redressing the disenfranchisement of black South Africans.

The South African Native National Congress delegation to England, June 1914. Left to right: Thomas Mapike, Rev Walter Rubusana, Rev John Dube, Saul Msane, Sol Plaatjie.
Unknown photographer/Wikimedia Commons

The year 1916 is also significant in the field of Plaatje studies because it was when he contributed his short bilingual English-Setswana essay “A South African’s Homage” to the Book of Homage to Shakespeare.

Here again, we have the paradox of Plaatje writ large. The “Homage” signals his future undertaking as a translator of Shakespeare’s plays into Setswana. He saw this as complementary work to his wider promotion of the language. Yet his affinity for Shakespeare cannot be disconnected from his attachment to Britain and to its empire, his role indeed as an imperial apologist, which can seem difficult to reconcile with some of his other political and literary credentials.

To make sense of this requires a deeper understanding of Plaatje’s historical context as well as his life’s trajectory, and the people, convictions, accidents and circumstances that shaped it. Happily, this is made possible by historian Brian Willan, who has chosen Plaatje as the main focus of his own life’s work and who knows his subject better than anyone else. Willan wrote a biography of Plaatje in 1984. The book seemed definitive until, in 2018, Jacana Media published his Sol Plaatje: A Life of Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje, 1876-1932.


Jacana Media

A magisterial biography

“Magisterial” is a word too often applied to biographies that don’t quite merit the moniker. But in the case of Willan’s book it is entirely apt. This may not be the final word on Plaatje. Nevertheless, it is a text to which all future scholars and researchers working on Plaatje will have to refer.

At almost 600 pages it is an encyclopaedic tome, documenting Plaatje’s life and times in rich detail. The true achievement of the book, however, is that it manages to do this in an engaging manner and with a prose style that – while never “chatty” – imagines a kind of conversation with the reader.

One can follow the chronological narrative, through 18 chapters marking out distinct periods in Plaatje’s astonishingly productive life. Alternatively one can dip into and out of its pages, navigating its riches via the index, or even flipping idly between phases and themes.

Fortunately, Willan is neither zealous nor jealous when it comes to his subject. His collaborations with other scholars have yielded fruit in various other Plaatje-oriented publications. In 2016, Wits Press published a collection of essays on Native Life co-edited by Willan, Bhekizizwe Peterson and Janet Remmington.

Mhudi gets a new collection

Later this year, Jacana will publish a similar collection, co-edited by Willan and fellow Plaatje biographer Sabata-mpho Mokae, focusing on Plaatje’s novel Mhudi. I am fortunate to be one of the contributors to this volume.

Mhudi appeared in 1930 after an exhausting 10-year battle to get it into print. So 2020 marks another centenary of sorts.

First edition of Mhudi, Lovedale Press.
Blessing Kgasa/Kanye Records Centre/Twitter

What are we to make of this novel, with its eponymous heroine and her husband Ra-Thaga, whose lives coincide with major colonial-era clashes in the first half of the 1800s?

It seems, by turns, to be an imperial romance and an allegory that is critical of empire; a naïve vision of interracial cooperation and a reminder that history is relentless in its cycles of violence.

Is it an affirmation of tribal tradition, or a feminist riposte to patriarchal culture? Is it a patchy experiment in need of an editor, or a genre-busting proto-postmodern pastiche influenced as much by oral narrative traditions as by the polyvocality of Shakespearean drama?

What is beyond question is the significance of Mhudi as the first novel in English by a black South African writer.

The next wave

Strandwolf’s new edition of Mhudi.

The novel’s original publisher, Lovedale Press, sadly faces the prospect of closure. But it is encouraging to note that other independent publishers have committed their resources to keeping Mhudi current. Blackman Roussouw’s Strandwolf imprint has brought out a new edition. Jacana also has plans to publish another edition alongside Willan and Mokae’s critical volume on the novel.

It is to be hoped that, by the time we reach the centennial celebration of Mhudi being published by Lovedale (1930) and the centennial commemoration of the author’s death in 2032, the new wave of scholarship on Plaatje will have challenged readers to grapple with this enigmatic, protean polymath anew.The Conversation

Chris Thurman, Associate professor, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

African literary prizes are contested — but writers’ groups are reshaping them



Best-selling Nigerian novelist and literary superstar Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Armando Babani/EPA-EFE

Doseline Kiguru, Rhodes University

Literary prizes do more than offer recognition and cash to writers and help readers decide what book to choose. They shape the literary canon, a country’s body of highly regarded writing. They help shape what the future classics might be.

But what if Africa’s biggest prizes are awarded by foreign territories; former colonial masters? Or what if African-born writers in the diaspora are routinely chosen as winners over writers living and working in Africa?

Debates have been raging over these issues in recent years, especially relating to the lucrative Caine Prize for African Writing.

The words ‘award’ or ‘prize’ imply that there was a selection process and the best emerged as winner. The awarding of value to a text through the literary prize industry involves selection and exclusion in which some texts and authors are foregrounded, becoming the canon.

The scholar John Guillory argues, in addition, for the need to

reconstruct a historical picture of how literary works are produced, disseminated, reproduced, reread, and retaught over successive generations and eras.

The issues are complex and the landscape is changing. My research covers how prizes create taste and canon – but also the increasing role played by literary organisations to shape those prizes and hence the canon.

Writers’ organisations mainly provide a social space for writers. There are dozens across the continent. Sometimes they include a publishing avenue, workshops, fellowships and competitions. In general, they have aimed to fill gaps left by mainstream literary bodies such as publishers, universities and schools, and book marketers.

To understand the process of creative writing on the African continent it’s useful to focus on the interrelationship between prize bodies and writers’ organisations in contemporary literary production.

The Caine, the Commonwealth and writers’ organisations

The Caine Prize for African Writing and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize are two major awards for contemporary Africa that have been cited as significant in promoting up-and-coming writers to become global writers. Both trade in the short story.

The Commonwealth, an initiative of the Commonwealth’s agency for civil society, awards unpublished fiction. The Caine, a charity set up in the name of the late literary organiser Sir Michael Caine, only accepts already published work. The cash reward that comes with winning these prizes is a major factor in their popularity on the continent.

But they are also significant in the growth of the short story genre. This is why I am interested in the partnerships that have emerged between prize bodies and writers’ organisations. Together they are influencing literary production structures from creative writing training to publishing and marketing texts.

Both the Caine and the Commonwealth prizes have partnered with African based writing organisations – like Uganda’s FEMRITE and Kenya’s Kwani? – to organise joint creative writing workshops.

The Caine holds annual workshops for its longlisted writers. These mostly take place in Africa, working with local writers’ organisations. Sometimes the resulting writing is entered into competitions and in this way, the prize body both produces and awards literary value.

Many of these writers’ organisations are headed by people who were canonised through the international prize, and sometimes the writing trainers and competition judges are also previous winners.

With such links it then becomes important to analyse the literary texts produced within these networks with the awareness of the importance of a text’s social, cultural and political context. The literary product becomes a reflection of the different systems of power at play.

Power at play

A good illustration of this power play can be found in best-selling Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story Jumping Monkey Hill. It tells of a fictional creative writing programme for African writers run by the British Council. The story, set in South Africa, narrates the experiences of the writers, who are all expected to write about African realities in order to have their stories published internationally. The writers come to the workshop ready to learn how to improve their skills but encounter setbacks mainly because the trainer has a preconceived idea of what ‘plausible’ African stories should be. These writers have to understand the power play in place and then make a choice.

Jumping Monkey Hill acknowledges the role played by the creative writing institution in the production of literature as a commodity that must fit market demands. For this reason, the increasing investment of African based writers’ organisations in the literary production scene can also be understood as a political move. It is also an effort to influence the literature coming out of the continent and shape the canon.

An advert for a workshop run by writers’ organisation Short Story Day Africa.
SSDA

Why writers’ organisations matter

Contemporary African writers’ organisations are deliberately involved in canon formation by taking an active role in the production and distribution of literature. They understand that the uneven distribution of economic and cultural capital results in misrepresentations, or lack of representation, within the canon.

Writers’ organisations such as FEMRITE, Kwani?, Farafina, Writivism, Storymoja and Short Story Day Africa, among others, are active in the literary industry through publishing, creative writing programmes and providing access to major award organisations and international publishers.

They are, in the process, contributing to canon formation.

Short Story Day Africa, for instance, pegs its yearly competitions on the promise that the winning stories will be automatically submitted for the Caine Prize. In fact, the 2014 Caine winning story and one other shortlisted story were initially published in its anthology Feast, Famine and Potluck (2013).

In the African academy, creative writing is usually offered as a single course within a larger programme or is available only at selected universities. This has resulted in a market gap that has been quickly filled by writers’ organisations. They fill this gap by offering short term courses on various aspects of creative writing. This is in part because the local literary organisation possesses the cultural capital necessary to link writers to prize organisations and publishers, and therefore to global visibility.The Conversation

Doseline Kiguru, Postdoctoral research fellow, Rhodes University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

South Africa’s copyright bill is good for digital archives. Here’s why



Digital archives.
Shutterstock

Denise Rosemary Nicholson, University of the Witwatersrand

To fulfil their mission in the 21st century, libraries, archives, museums and galleries must engage in a wide variety of new activities.

Libraries, for example, house collections of printed works but must now also provide access to online journals, e-books, multimedia, Africana and archival treasures, images, government publications and legal material, posters and artworks. Collection, development, cataloguing, lending, preservation and replacement must take place online as well as in hard copy.

Academic libraries – and even some school ones – are now embedded in core teaching programmes. They support education and innovation and provide services for people with disabilities. Library services include teaching, literacy programmes, research support, data management, and copyright and plagiarism awareness training.

As knowledge hubs, libraries must meet the various information needs of a country’s citizens. In addition, they promote authors and publishers by purchasing, collecting and preserving their works for perpetuity.

Without access to library and archival collections, creativity and innovation would be almost impossible.

But South Africa’s current copyright law dates back to 1978, and is completely inadequate, outdated and irrelevant in a digital world. It has been a barrier to access to information for far too long.

South Africa’s Copyright Amendment Bill is waiting for President Cyril Ramaphosa’s signature. The bill has been strongly contested. Academic Sanya Samtani, for example, supports the bill with an argument based on her PhD research. For its part, the Coalition for Effective Copyright strongly opposes it.

There is merit in all these arguments. But my view is that there is positive news in the Bill’s provisions for libraries, archives, museums and galleries. For example, it will ensure that valuable documentary records and cultural heritage can be preserved for future generations.

What has been missing

The current Copyright Act has no provisions for libraries, archives, galleries and museums. As an afterthought, limited provisions were included in Section 13 regulations for libraries and archives.

Digitisation is the main form of preserving material in the 21st century. Yet the country’s copyright law doesn’t permit it. This causes serious problems for libraries, archives, museums and galleries. They are currently unable to digitise any of their works without first having to get copyright permission, and to pay high copyright fees.

Such entities have large collections of fragile material which can no longer be handled. The only way to preserve this material – and to make it accessible – is to digitise the content. For example, there are media libraries full of Beta and VHS video tapes, film reels and other material that can no longer be accessed as the technologies are obsolete.

To convert these works to current technologies, libraries and related entities must first get copyright permission. In many instances, rights-holders ignore the requests, or are impossible to trace (making them orphan works). In some cases permission is denied. Collections end up with gaps in them.

These issues affect access to archives, which are used for research, teaching and learning, creating and innovating and sharing information. They get in the way of the civic right to access information provided in the South African Constitution.

Lack of adequate and appropriate copyright limitations and exceptions for libraries, archives, museums and galleries have inhibited or prevented them from carrying out their statutory mandates. They have large collections of valuable documents, posters, artworks, artefacts, newspapers, recordings, and images that cannot be reproduced or even accessed. Often this is because the rights-holders cannot be traced, and there are no provisions for orphan works in the current law.

On top of this, restrictive licences and contracts often prevent libraries and similar entities from carrying out their duties. Cross-border exchanges aren’t permitted. Interlibrary loans are permitted in the current law, but this does not extend to digital sharing.

Positive news

The new Copyright Amendment Bill takes cognisance of existing international conventions and treaties, treaty proposals and foreign laws. It also draws on the country’s Constitution and the excellent EIFL Model Copyright law, drafted by information specialists in various countries, including South Africa. This document is a practical guide to assist librarians, as well as their legal advisors and policy-makers, when national laws are being updated. It is designed to support access to knowledge and the public interest mission of libraries.

The Bill also implements the principles of the 2015 Cape Town Declaration, signed by South Africa and 12 other African countries. This includes the commitment

to encourage the implementation of fair and balanced copyright laws to facilitate access to information for all.

The Bill doesn’t use the word “digitisation” specifically. But it will allow libraries, archives, museums and galleries to engage in preservation, digital curation and format-shifting. This will ensure their collections are preserved and made accessible for future generations.

They will be able to share information and replace lost or stolen works. They will also be able to provide information, images, recordings or other media for historical events, exhibitions and educational purposes.

Legal deposit libraries will also finally be able to carry out their statutory mandates. These include that they collect, preserve and make accessible the country’s cultural heritage and historical documentary records in the digital space.

The Bill has been given the thumbs up by the International Federation of Library and Institutions – the leading international body representing the interests of library and information services and their users. It represents over 2.3 million libraries worldwide, serving over a billion users. It has labelled the Bill both progressive and practical. The International Council of Archives, the umbrella organisation that promotes international cooperation for archives and archivists, has also formally supported the Bill.

This suggests that South Africa is about to have a copyright law that could serve as a precedent for other countries.The Conversation

Denise Rosemary Nicholson, Scholarly Communications Librarian, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ghana’s copyright law for folklore hampers cultural growth



Ghana is very protective of its cultural heritage.
Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Collins, University of the West of Scotland

Ghana has a rich folkloric tradition that includes Adinkra symbols, Kente cloth, traditional festivals, music and storytelling. Perhaps one of Ghana’s best known folk characters is Ananse, the spider god and trickster, after whom the Ghanaian storytelling tradition Anansesem is named.

Ghana also has some of the world’s most restrictive laws on the use of its folklore. The country’s 2005 Copyright Act defines folklore as “the literary, artistic and scientific expressions belonging to the cultural heritage of Ghana which are created, preserved and developed by ethnic communities of Ghana or by an unidentified Ghanaian author”.

This suggests that the legislation, which is an update of a 1985 law, applies equally to traditional works where the author is unknown and new works derived from folklore where the author is known.

The rights in these works are “vested in the President on behalf of and in trust for the people of the republic”. These rights are also deemed to exist in perpetuity. This means that works which qualify as folkloric will never fall into the public domain – and will never be free to use.

The 1985 Act only restricted use of Ghana’s folklore by foreigners. The 2005 Act extended this to Ghanaian nationals. In principle, this means that a Ghanaian artist wishing to use Ananse stories, or a musician who wants to rework old folk songs or musical rhythms must first seek approval from the National Folklore Board and pay an undisclosed fee.

This is deeply problematic. Following independence in 1957, many artists have explicitly and habitually drawn on Ghana’s folk traditions to develop today’s creative industries. The 2005 Act means that the current generation of cultural practitioners must either seek permission to use and rework their cultural heritage, or look elsewhere for inspiration.

There is clearly a balance to be struck between safeguarding and access when it comes to the protection of a state’s cultural heritage. However, it is important to acknowledge that while Ghana’s legislation appears to tip towards protection at the expense of access, it restricts growth in the creative industries by discouraging artists from engaging with their national cultural heritage.

History of protection

Ethnomusicologist and musician John Collins has noted that the development of the 2005 Act was partly in response to US singer Paul Simon’s use of a melody taken from the song ‘Yaa Amponsah’ for his 1990 album ‘The Rhythm of the Saints’.

Simon attributed this melody to the Ghanaian musician Jacob Sam and his band the Kumasi Trio. But on further investigation the Ghanaian government asserted that the melody was a work of folklore and so, belonged to the state.

From this, two things are clear. Firstly, in Ghana folklore belongs to the state and not the originating communities that predate the modern state. Secondly, Jacob Sam received no recompense for Simon’s use of the work, with all royalties owed on the work flowing back the government.

There are a number of issues here that set Ghana apart from other African states.

Many states allow for the use of folklore by nationals and if a fee is applicable then it is paid as a royalty based on revenue raised. This is the case in all three states bordering Ghana: Togo, Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire. Consequently, if an artist in one of these countries reworks folklore but makes no money, then no money is paid for that use. If the work becomes successful then the artist and the rights holder benefit.

However, in Ghana, the law states that payment is paid prior to use and so prior to any profits made. This potentially adds to the cost of production and so discourages use of folklore.

The other issue here is who owns the rights in national heritage. In many countries, such as Kenya, the originating communities retain the rights to their expressions of cultural heritage.

However, in Ghana the rights are vested in the office of the president. This means that any moral or financial benefit that results from uses of folklore flow to the office of the president, rather than being used to support continued safeguarding and growth of cultural heritage within communities.

Guarding against exploitation

Though Ghana’s present regime may appear draconian, there are compelling reasons why such protective measures are required.

Firstly, Ghana’s cultural heritage – its traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions – have been and continue to be exploited by non-Ghanaians in international markets with no beneficial interest flowing either to the state or to the originating community.

To give this some context, Simon’s use of Yaa Amponsah was only one use of Ghana’s cultural heritage in the developing of a new, and commercially successful, work. More recently, there were a number of press reports in Ghana that the Ghana Folklore Board intended to sue the producers of Marvel’s Black Panther for the unauthorised use of kente cloth in some of the characters’ costumes.

The Folklore Board clarified these reports in a press release, saying it did not intend to sue – but rather, wished to discuss attribution. Kente is specifically named as an object of protection under the 2005 Act and the current proliferation of unauthorised cheap kente designs entering global markets from China presents a significant challenge. Attribution, in this case, would ensure that cinema goers across the world would associate kente with Ghana, bringing a traditional craft to a global audience.

The board faces a particularly complex challenge. It must balance safeguarding traditional heritage with allowing creative artists room to reuse and rework elements of that heritage in a way that does not add to the cost or complexity of production.

Though the threat of unfair exploitation is real, equally real is the potential threat to the creative industries and the future development of Ghana’s living heritage if the country’s artists move away from their cultural heritage.The Conversation

Stephen Collins, Lecturer, University of the West of Scotland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Science fiction offers a useful way to explore China-Africa relations



Science fiction can serve as an imaginative production of political theory.
Shutterstock

Nedine Moonsamy, University of Pretoria

In 2007 the then President of China, Hu Jintao, delivered a speech to South Africans acknowledging the benefits of a strategic partnership. He also stressed that the connection is not merely pragmatic. It must, he argued, serve to honour and deepen the countries’ long abiding friendship in the future.

The idea of friendship has undoubtedly informed the nature of Sino-African engagement. But if we use contemporary science fiction as a barometer, African sentiment towards China appears more inclined towards dystopian forecasts.

Science fiction writing often serves as a thought experiment that explores shared and hidden beliefs whose material and political reverberations lie further in the future. Various short stories portray how China’s economic ascension, operating under the guise of African development, uses technology as a means to invade and control Africa.

Narratives of this kind surface neo-colonial fears that a “new scramble for Africa” seems imminent. But they also provide a speculative arena to interrogate how we ultimately perceive the value, use and future of Sino-African political friendship.

As I’ve explored in my research, this means that science fiction can serve as an imaginative production of political theory. It intercedes in ways that international relations cannot because of the confines of diplomacy.

Three stories

My research focused on three short science fiction stories from Africa.

In the first, Tendai Huchu’s “The Sale”, China has taken control of Zimbabwe through the production of a corporatised state called CorpGov. It’s a surveillance state that leaves no room for political dissension. Zimbabwe has been purchased by China in a piecemeal fashion. It is now set to lose its last free portion of land in a final sale. When a young Zimbabwean man fails to prevent the sale of this remaining plot of land, he succumbs to despair and puts himself in the path of a Chinese bulldozer.

His suicide evokes a sense of profound helplessness and warns that China will need to be vehemently counteracted in the near future to protect Zimbabwe’s already breached borders. Huchu’s narrative provides a sharp sense of clarity that makes the story incredibly impactful.

The pathos of “The Sale” holds a mirror up to China. It communicates an earnest appeal for more humane engagement. Yet the heaviness of its dystopian narrative also breeds a spirit of nihilism or Afropessimism. This overrides any sense of African accountability in the degenerative state of future Sino-Zimbabwean relations.

Abigail Godsell’s “Taal” (an Afrikaans word meaning “language”) is self-conscious in this regard. It’s set in the year 2050, after a nuclear war between China and America has left the entire globe in a state of desolation. As a result, the South African government willingly signed over ownership of the country to China in exchange for protection.

The central protagonist, an especially resentful young woman named Callie, has joined a militant rebel group in a covert attempt to overthrow the Chinese. But after injuring a soldier, she pulls off his helmet and is surprised that he converses in Afrikaans because, to all other appearances, he is Chinese. The fact that he speaks Afrikaans implies he is a South African. She is stupefied by the exchange: it highlights her simplistic understanding of what the enemy should look like.

This uncanny revelation undoubtedly draws attention to the spectral presence of Chinese-South Africans who have not received due recognition as bona fide citizens.

Callie, who is initially critical of Chinese propaganda, begins to read her positionality as a South African freedom fighter on equally problematic terms. Her defensiveness drops and she confesses that South Africa was caught off-guard amid a global crisis. The country did not have a sufficient national security plan; China has offered significantly more protection than the South African government was capable of at the time.

Godsell’s introspective narrative shift focus away from Chinese agitation. It allows the reader to consider the nature of South African apathy by conveying that the country may not lack a fighting spirit but, unlike China, lacks the necessary foresight and organisation to bolster the nation.

Negative representations of China in the African imaginary gesture at the idea that a certain amount of envy informs the continent’s responses to China. They also suggest that African countries can benefit from emulating China’s uncompromising nationalistic and commercial drive. This possibility is more fully explored in Mandisi Nkomo’s “Heresy”.

Nkomo’s narrative is set in the year 2040. South-South interactions challenge the global status quo. China has risen in global economic rankings. But South Africa has not fallen under its sway: the nations are caught up in a highly competitive space race. South Africa is determined to not be outdone by the Chinese and channels its resources in meeting this goal.

“Heresy” conveys how Africans can construct an invisible enemy out of China by exponentially accelerating South African development. This light-hearted narrative assumes the challenge of imagining the current tension of Sino-African relations otherwise. It shows how friendly rivalry can inadvertently lead to African progress.

Rethinking friendship

In their book Friendship and International Relations, academics Andrea Oelsner and Simon Koschut write that it is:

necessary to think of international friendship not as something that is merely being performed at the intergovernmental level but as something that is being enacted in the day-to-day activities and imaginations at all levels of society.

This certainly includes science fiction narratives that present us with a “succession of literary experiments, each one examining a small part of a much larger image and each equally necessary to the greater vision”.

Through these short stories, it immediately becomes possible to consider how China-Africa relations need not result in Chinese neocolonialism and African exploitation. They offer us more creative approaches to political friendship by reinventing and reinterpreting the roles of both parties in their narratives.

Similarly, pursued in this way, the future of China-Africa relations need not be seen as a singular act of solidarity that demands repeating. Instead it could be viewed as a more fluid encounter that allows for mutual investment in world-building projects while also providing enough objective distance to nurture difference and autonomy.The Conversation

Nedine Moonsamy, Senior Lecturer, University of Pretoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How Toni Morrison’s legacy plays out in South Africa’s universities



Toni Morrison’s legacy echoes across the world.
EPA-EFE/Arturo Peña-Romano

Aretha Phiri, Rhodes University

I first encountered Toni Morrison during my undergraduate years at Rhodes University in South Africa where her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved (1987), was taught as part of an American Literature course.

It moved me in ways that no other academic account of transatlantic, African American slavery had. Beloved is set in the 19th century. It tells the story of a runaway slave who commits infanticide rather than seeing her child returned to slavery. As with Morrison’s entire fictional oeuvre, the novel profoundly embodies and humanises black life.

Part of what motivated Morrison – who has died at the age of 88 – was impatience at how black literature was typically taught as sociology but was considered intellectually and artistically bereft.

In her Tanner lecture series delivered at the University of Michigan in 1988, she defiantly stated, in defence of a generically marginalised African American presence:

We have always been imagining ourselves … subjects of our own narrative, witnesses to and participants in our own experience … We are not, in fact, ‘other’. We are choices.

The inspiration provided by her fictional writing and critical scholarship around the ideological, artistic and scholarly place of black literature helped carve out an imaginative and actual space for the likes of me – a black African female – within a predominantly white and male, largely Eurocentric literary and intellectual establishment.

Today, I teach at the same university where I first read Beloved and discovered this remarkably talented, intellectually formidable African-American woman novelist. And her work continues to echo. Not just for me, but for the new generation of literature students who cross my path each year.

A complicated place in the canon

In some ways, perhaps Morrison is even more relevant in South African universities today than she’s ever been. Race is a topic that’s simultaneously sanitised and amplified in the country’s everyday discourse. Morrison’s determined refusal to shy away from race reverberates across the Atlantic, resonating with students who still live the enduring political and economic legacies of racial colonialism and apartheid.

On the face of it, the country’s demands for social redress would seem to align with Morrison’s thinking. But a closer reading shows how her fiction strains against the confines of parochial societal interpretations and exercises. It makes the demand for more than superficial change implemented along purely racial lines. It insists on an interrogation and re-imagining of the entire architecture and workings of race.

This reveals how Morrison’s place in both the African-American and global literary canon is quite complicated. It also makes clear why it is that she appeals to so many of my students, across the (proverbial) divide. Each year I watch students from varied racial, social, cultural, economic and gender (or gendered) backgrounds engage with her novels in my classroom. Their readings are intuitive and discerning. This yields often interesting and vigorous discussions, and even heated debates, that reflect the complexity and applicability of her experiences and intellect – and theirs.

Take her debut novel, The Bluest Eye (1970). It provides a delineation of racial self-hatred, incest and familial violence that critiques the deleterious effects of white hegemony. But it also controversially explores and confronts the internalised delimiting contours of black counter-narratives.

The book’s feminist focus on the sexual abuse of women speaks to the damaging effects of patriarchal ideologies and practices within black communities. It resonates with all people in South Africa – a country with incredibly high rates of gender violence.

Jazz (1992) is another Morrison novel whose complex existential narratives require equally complex interpretations. Structurally, it mimics the musical genre’s polyvocal, sometimes cacophonous, intonations to trace the lives of African Americans across time and space. It’s a tough read for two reasons.

First, it requires that students have an appreciation of the technical workings of the artistic cultural form that is jazz. Second, the novel demands from them a critical inquiry into and participatory reading of the experiences of “a people”; of histories that are both outside of and intersect with their own.

This is particularly important at a time when calls are rampant in South African higher education circles for the “Africanisation” of curricula. These calls appeal to contemporary nationalist demands and are in direct contrast to Morrison’s stated intolerance of “lazy, easy, brand-name applications”. Instead, she and her work insisted on the painstakingly “hard work” of non-prescriptive and interrogative, “border-crossing” analysis.

The measure of a life

In her 1993 Nobel Prize speech, Morrison stated:

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

And that is the measure of Toni Morrison’s life. Her dense, demanding prose reflects our continued need – in post-apartheid South Africa’s university classrooms, and elsewhere – to meditate critically and consciously upon our own fragile and imperfect existences. Her narratives put forward morally responsive and socially transformative ways of being in the world. Morrison’s legacy, then, is not just to literature: it is to the imperatives of social justice and to the ideals of humanity not yet realised.The Conversation

Aretha Phiri, Senior lecturer, Department of Literary Studies in English, Rhodes University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why nonfiction books dominate bestseller lists in South Africa



File 20190423 175510 1w4md7.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s “Gangster State” is one of South Africa’s top sellers.
Charles Leonard

Beth le Roux, University of Pretoria

Books in South Africa don’t often make headline news. But a controversial subject, protests and disruptions at a book launch, and threats of book burning are sufficient to get South Africans talking about the place of books in society once again.

This is exactly what has happened with investigative journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s latest book “Gangster State”.

“Gangster State” is an exposé of current African National Congress (ANC) Secretary General Ace Magashule’s alleged murky dealings as premier of the Free State province, and his rise to one of the governing party’s most influential positions. The book has stirred up passionate reactions, both for and against its contents.

This last happened in late 2017 when another investigative reporter Jacques Pauw published a similar book, “The President’s Keepers”. That book dealt with South Africa’s previous head of state, Jacob Zuma, who’s been closely linked to massive corruption. Zuma denies the allegations.




Read more:
Two books that tell the unsettling tale of South Africa’s descent


Clearly, this kind of book touches a certain chord in South African society. A quick glance through the top-selling books in the past few years shows that non-fiction, and particularly political non-fiction dealing with very topical events, is the most popular genre.

The trend can be traced back through a number of years, with nonfiction consistently dominating the Nielsen’s BookScan sales charts – the most comprehensive figures collected on book sales through commercial booksellers. This raises the question: why do political books do so well in South Africa?

Celebrities

This isn’t a uniquely South Africa phenomenon. Nonfiction is popular around the world. Celebrities’ memoirs or biographies, as well as history titles, are more likely to become bestsellers than any other kinds of nonfiction. Indeed, Michelle Obama’s memoir “Becoming” caused a paper shortage in the US towards the end of 2018, as it was reprinted in such large quantities and at short notice to keep up with audience demand. This title has now sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.

Where South Africa differs is in the balance of sales between nonfiction and fiction. In most of the largest publishing markets, fiction is bought at much higher rates than nonfiction. In the US, for instance, average sales for fiction titles are between 4 000 and 8 000 copies, while the nonfiction average is lower, at 2 000 to 6 000 copies.

In South Africa, it’s the reverse. Nonfiction outsells fiction. This is not a new trend, either: political books found a ready audience throughout the apartheid period.

There are a few categories of nonfiction that do particularly well: political nonfiction, South African history (especially political history), religious books – and the ubiquitous cookbooks. The authors that have the edge tend to be journalists rather than academics, probably because their writing is so much more accessible.

Statistically, too, men write more nonfiction than women in South Africa, and so are more likely to produce top-selling titles, as was found by one of my post-graduate students, Kelly Ansara, in her Master’s study of the gender balance in SA publishing.

South African trends

In analysing the publishing lists and sales figures of the local nonfiction publishers – Pan Macmillan, Jonathan Ball, Penguin SA, Tafelberg and Jacana, on the whole – another difference becomes apparent. Books by and about celebrities are not as popular in South Africa as in the US and UK. Their sales are thus less predictable.

For instance, while former Springbok rugby coach Jake White’s “In Black and White” sold more than 60 000 copies in a week in 2008, star rugby player Joost van der Westhuizen’s “Man in the Mirror” was less successful. Comedian Trevor Noah’s memoir, “Born a Crime”, has been extremely successful, but titles by local musicians and actors such as Bonang Matheba and Somizi Mhlongo have sold comparatively few copies.

The raft of competing titles that hit the shelves after the murder conviction of former Paralympian athlete Oscar Pistorius did not take off as well as expected. Excellent titles on topics as diverse as climate change and South African art sell a respectable number, but don’t make the bestseller list.

Many of the country’s nonfiction titles sell several thousand copies very quickly, but few of them have staying power. Current interest is intense in topics like state capture and corruption scandals. But it fades quickly, leading to a short shelf-life for a number of political books. Only a few gain the perennial interest and staying power of a title like “I Write What I Like” by Steve Biko or Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom”.

Making sense

Many commentators suggest that the interest in political and current affairs titles reflects a nation trying to make sense of its tumultuous political environment. The huge political and social shifts of the past 20 to 30 years are still influencing South Africans’ daily lives. With one corruption scandal following another, trust in the authorities is low. But citizens still seek authoritative overviews and answers – in the nonfiction titles that line our shelves.

There is little reason to predict that the trend will change. However, if the threats mount, then we may see authors and publishers shifting to less controversial topics. For now, it’s great to see books in the news again.The Conversation

Beth le Roux, Associate Professor, Publishing, University of Pretoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A must-read list: The enduring contributions of African American women writers



File 20190221 148520 ceix1w.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen are on this short list of enduring must-read writers.
Left to right: Nobel Prize, U.S. Library of Congress, Yale archive

Nancy Kang, University of Manitoba

In Mules and Men (1935), anthropologist, creative writer and Harlem Renaissance upstart Zora Neale Hurston relays the evocative folktale “Why the Sister in Black Works Hardest.” Fatigued after the work of Creation, God casts a massive bundle onto the earth. Intrigued by the mysterious object, a white Southern woman during the antebellum era asks her husband to retrieve it. Reluctant to tote the load himself, the master instructs a slave to fetch it.

Soon wearied of the task, the slave then commands his wife to shoulder the burden. She does so, excited at the prospect of exploring the contents. When she opens the package, however, what leaps out at her and Black women for all posterity is none other than hard work.

Ann Petry (right) was interviewed after she won a fiction award for ‘The Street.’
All-American news 4 / All American news IV / All-American news reel no. 4/Library of Congress

African American women writers have tackled the hard work of representing a diverse spectrum of lived and imagined experiences, including and especially their own. This labour occurs against the backdrop of centuries-long struggles with racist oppression and gender-based violence, including — but not limited to — slavery’s culture of endemic rape, forced or interrupted motherhood, infanticide, concubinage, fractured families and egregious physical and mental abuse.

Hard work as groundwork

Renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass recalls in his 1845 slave narrative how witnessing the serial whippings of his Aunt Hester impacted him “with awful force.” He explains, “it was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle.”

These ordeals also emerge in slave narratives by women. Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) emphasizes such travails. A target of relentless sexual harassment by her much-older master, Jacobs laments, “When they told me my new-born babe was a girl, my heart was heavier than it had ever been before. Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women.”

Once emancipated, African American women still faced staggering impediments when pursuing educational, entrepreneurial and employment opportunities. Political participation meant restrictions on voting rights both as women and as people of colour. Racist caricatures impugned everything from a woman’s intelligence and moral capacity to her skin color, texture of hair and body shape. Stereotypes like the docile Mammy, the Tragic Mulatta, the clownish Topsy, the oversexed Jezebel, the greedy Welfare Queen, the amoral Hoodrat and the Mad Black Woman (still prevalent today) remain testaments to a history of disrespect and erasure.

Hurston’s tale symbolizes the enduring social struggles Black women have faced living in what feminist critic bell hooks has termed white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

In addition to influential autobiographers like Maya Angelou, dramatists like Lorraine Hansberry and poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, fiction writers have consistently demonstrated how imaginative art can simultaneously inform, persuade, entertain, catalyze social change and address individual as well as collective concerns.

Here is a short list of pivotal texts by African American women from the past century. These writers are but a small sample of the artists and intellectuals whose output resisted the force of what contemporary feminist critic Moya Bailey has termed misogynoir, or the corrosive fusion of anti-Blackness and misogyny prevalent in popular culture today. These women have completed the groundwork — and hard work — of envisioning a more just, inclusive society going forward.

Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen

These novellas follow mixed-race women whose uneasy status on the colour line (including the lure of passing as white) complicates their lives in dangerous, even fatal ways. Passing is revolutionary for its depiction of homoerotic tension between two upper-middle-class Black women. Quicksand offers insight into the exoticization of African American women abroad and the contest between art and domesticity as viable avenues for a fulfilling life.


Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston

This story is the lyrical account of thrice-married Janie Crawford who finds a mature vision of love and fulfillment amid incessant gossip and a difficult family history. The all-Black township of Eatonville, Fla., and the rich “muck” of the Everglades contribute to a portrait of community health, daily striving and resolute self-awareness.


The Street (1946) by Ann Petry

This social realist novel follows single mother Lutie Johnson as she attempts to make a life for her young son in a predatory urban space. Weathering sexism, racism, classism, poverty and intense personal frustration, Lutie attempts to resist the brutality of the environment that gives the novel its loaded name.


The Bluest Eye (1970) by Toni Morrison

This book is a searing portrait of a young girl’s coming-of-age and eventual undoing in the years following the Great Depression. Tumultuous family dynamics, psychological trauma and incest, the quest for compassion and self-love, and the toxic myth of Black ugliness coalesce in this first novel by the Nobel Laureate and author of neo-slave narrative Beloved (1987).


Kindred (1979) by Octavia Butler

Oscillating between the 1970s and the early 19th century, this science fiction odyssey (re)connects a contemporary Black woman writer and her white husband with her ancestors on a Maryland plantation. The novel is buoyed up by the dramatic tension of time travel and the juxtaposition of the pre-civil War Antebellum-era with Civil Rights-era racial attitudes, including those about interracial love and allyship.


The Women of Brewster Place (1982) by Gloria Naylor

Structured like a narrative quilt, these interconnected experiences of seven women span different generations, professions, class backgrounds and understandings of their place in the world. The eroded apartment complex that links them is the backdrop for unbearable pain as well as the promise of transformation and reconciliation.


The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker

A tale of two sisters, Celie and Nettie, this novel constellates their love and longing via letters and imagined conversations across the Atlantic. Unsparing in its critique of domestic violence and toxic masculinity, yet tender in its treatment of various human weaknesses, the novel underscores Black women’s need for self-regard and mutual care. Not only are these acts revolutionary, but they also offer a glimpse of the divine.The Conversation

Nancy Kang, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Canada Research Chair in Transnational Feminisms and Gender-Based Violence, University of Manitoba

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.