State of Our Literature
I was recently interviewed about whether there is a literature Renaissance in South Africa or not. And with the State of the Nation Address on Friday I decided to post my response on this blog about what I told a reputable newspaper about what I think is the state of our literature

Indeed yours is a broad question which I will attempt to answer in this little essay below;

The dawning of political freedom obviously came with a lot of other freedoms, especially expression and literature. Another one of those was the growing of the pool of books that one could use to model narrative styles and themes. Suddenly there were Wole Soyinkas, Ngugi wa Thi'ongo's, Tsitsi Dangarembgas and Doris Lessings. There was suddenly an explosion of opinions and expressions from people who otherwise couldn't have had the platform to speak. However the bigger question is whether post'94 there has really been the kind of reawakening that warrants being called a renaissance.

True, some genres, which were for some time marginalised either due to too much political attention were finally freed. Lesego Rampolokeng's Horns for Hondo was a good read in the dark days and Mzwakhe Mbuli's poetry book was a critical read but very few poets came out lest they invoke the ghosts of Verwoed and Vorster. However like I say they were just drops in a big ocean as many critical voices were either in prison or exile. The truth is that there were equally good writers then who decided not to offend the powers that be by writing their thoughts about the then status quo.

Most of the literature then was either banned or coming from exile as ownership of such thoughts was as criminal as possession of cocaine to possess.

I would be optimistic to allege that there is a renaissance, although very limited of it. It seems to either be moving at a snail's pace or to be stuck somewhere. With the scores of writers who have recently emerged there has also been a spirit of elitism that seems to be a spanner in the works of this train everyone is trying to move forward. Good literature has come out which has added much needed colour to the literary landscape of this country but we equally have bad literature which has dented the portrait.

The reason I say it has come with elitism is that some artists who would rather be contributing to the development of the landscape suddenly become celebrities the minute their books hit the shelves. And while literature is still in the trenches, they are already waving victory flags prematurely. At the end there is a serious celebration of mediocrity because if there are mediocre writers, there is a myraid of mediocre literary reveiwers who will pass off anything written by their circles as good. Thus, the quality is dangerously compromised.

That is the flipside of this beautiful toddler renaissance. Almost anyone with a story to tell can be published, often without adding colour to the landscape but simply because there is a Book Fair coming and the publisher has bought a bigger stand and it needs books to fill. Such literature comes and passes by without leaving footprints. We only hear about them during the fair and after that they are nowhere to be found. In this sense books are coming out for the sake of expediency but we are not moving forward. That we are moving will be determined by the quality of the literature that we produce and its staying power.

Again, that there is an awakening will be seen with the reading culture that characterised the 1970s and '80s, that is still there in some African countries like Kenya. The same spirit that saw young people (mostly boys) in schools battering and reading James Hadley Chase novels as if they were a passport to heaven should be recaptured before any renaissance can be celebrated.

Authors of note like Phaswane Mpe and Sello Kabelo Duiker came at the right time and left before we could see more quality work coming out of them. They were flickers of light that never really glowed to our satisfaction. Authors of the 1950s and '60s produced excellent literature that is still the benchmark for today's writers. Ken Themba's The Suit is still rated as one of the best short stories to the point that Siphiwo Mahala's The Suit Revisited couldn't cause a dent on its beauty. And Mahala's short story is actually very strong and the narrative is outstanding but it only suffers because of the benchmark.

Which should raise a question, if indeed we are right there is a renaissance, can today's writers rest assured that whatever they produce now will be as worthy as Down Second Avenue by Prof Eskia Mphahele or Miriam at the Marketplace by Miriam Tlali?

There is rather literary miscarriage unfolding. I should mention that there is something out there to celebrate but it comes once in a while and there is no assurance that it can be sustained if the foot is removed from the accelerator pedal. One of the reasons why I would say there is a miscarriage is the level of elitism that has engulfed the arts, most notably in Gauteng.

Recently at the South African Literary Awards there were notable absent faces which, based on their contribution to the landscape should value such occassions. People coming from other provinces perceived them to be the hosts and should have been at the awards but they were not. They were absent because they were not nominated or their friends were not nominated. They were absent because for them the SALA is not relevant until one of them is nominated. And these are the people who everybody thinks should be part of the renaissance or even steer it. However these are the people who are killing the baby before it's even born and christened.

Authors like Kopano Matlwa, Mmatshilo Motsei, Kgebetli Moele, Niq Mhlongo, Zukiswa Waaner and a few others are today's torch bearers who can only make the journey enjoyable and the renaissance feasible if, at all stages they remain rooted to the ground to simplify it for equally younger writers to approach them for mentorship roles. Otherwise, five, ten, fifteen years from now, it would seem, nothing has changed and we will be back to square one.


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