Festival rewrites colonial narrative and plots future of black literature
Abantu event is a place of healing, celebration and emancipation
The consensus about the second Abantu Book Festival, which took place in Soweto at the weekend, was that it was a space of healing for black people.
There is so much power and delight about a literary event that allows black people to be themselves freely, with all their cultural idiosyncrasies and without compromise. To see this can be emotionally overwhelming.
Doyen of Zimbabwean literature and film-maker Tsitsi Dangarembga, who was a keynote speaker and opened the festival last Thursday, had to hold back tears as the audience broke into a praise song just as she was about to start speaking.
"I’ve never been to a book festival where the entertainment comes before a keynote address," she said.
The preamble made sense. In most black African cultures, a light prelude always precedes a weighty conversation. But there was nothing light about the poetry and music on the opening night.
The political implications of the festival are stark – it’s primarily a black book festival where black writers and readers are the priority. It was the response of founder and director Thando Mgqolozana’s to the whiteness of SA’s literary scene, after he had spoken out against it in 2015 at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, which he has boycotted since.
With the slogan "Imagining ourselves into existence", the Abantu Book Festival is about building where there is a void. It is essentially Mgqolozana’s performance of anger turned into a tangible decolonising act.
Taking its cue from the fallist movement, it is well designed to be a safe and inclusive space for all black people, including feminists and queers.
Staging it in Soweto speaks to its accessibility and its name – that it is for the people.
The free daytime events at the Eyethu Lifestyle Centre in Mofolo and the R20 tickets for the night sessions at the Soweto Theatre, which included a hot meal, attracted black people who had not been to a book festival before.
The line-up included an intergenerational mix of literary giants and geniuses such as Zakes Mda, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Sindiwe Magona, Mandla Langa, Pumla Dineo Gqola, Nadia Davids, Shubnum Khan, Ayobami Adebayo, Mohale Mashigo and more.
The children’s programme was curated by Gcina Mhlophe.
The sessions were complemented by poetry, music and screenings of new documentaries that reveal hidden political truths of our history, such as Sifiso Khanyile’s Uprize! and Winnie, by French director Pascale Lamche.
Decolonisation was the overarching theme that ran through the 2017 festival and will probably be an issue preoccupying speakers and audiences for a long time.
Dangarembga’s keynote address, titled "Decolonisation in the context of African literature — an historical approach", examined the links between the strategies and human products of colonisation.
By reflecting on the reality that Africa was not the first continent to be colonised, Dangarembga sought to free Africans of their victim mentality and help them better understand their colonisers.
Highlighting the fact that Africans are dealing with a colonising system that is 2,800 years old, she reiterated Frantz Fanon’s sentiments that there is no way Africa can return to a precolonial state.
"The only remedy to the self-perpetuating system of violence that is colonisation is an opposing force that can act peacefully, but is of significant magnitude to counteract the violent force of colonisation," she said.
"Literature and other art forms enable us to negotiate equalising identities and procedures of both the colonised and the coloniser. To the extent that we celebrate our everyday lives and experiences in literature, we are celebrating ourselves — and celebrating ourselves is definitely a decolonising practice.
"However, we must be mindful of the trap of recreating the colonial project if we are not conscious of the relationship of the contents we write about."
Given the political changes taking place in Zimbabwe and the enduring relevance of her classic 1980 novel, Nervous Conditions, which delved deeply into the colonised mind, the politics of decolonisation and women’s rights, Dangarembga’s presence at the festival and her topic were apt.
The importance of and, at times, lack of cultural accuracy and the domestication of English came up in a panel discussion on "The art of editing", featuring editor and publisher Phakama Mbonambi and editor, author and senior lecturer in the English department at Stellenbosch University Grace Musila.
Their dialogue helped to demystify the practice of editing and highlighted the need for a balance of demographics and dismantling of the colonial mind-set in publishing.
It was a relevant discussion following the public furore earlier in 2017 about the poor editing of Bonang Matheba’s biography, which was published by Blackbird Books.
The Kids Zone, a new feature of the Abantu Book Festival, was a fun and heart-warming affair despite the recently released bleak literacy statistics by the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, which revealed that South African children cannot read at an appropriate level.
Children were read to by greats such as Magona and Mda and enjoyed performances by storytelling practitioners. Each child attending the sessions received a free book in their mother tongue from Magona’s collection of children’s books.
The nurturing of young black readers is now urgent. This and the establishment of libraries that reflect African communities and their experiences are part of the legacy the Abantu Book Festival is hoping to create.
The festival plans to rotate to other South African cities in the future after they have grown the event in Soweto. Interested cities will be asked to submit proposals to host the event.