Beating the colonial book industry

Thando Mgqolozana has quit the South African literary system.

The acclaimed author declared this at this year’s Franschoek Literary Festival, calling the system white and colonial. And he’s not far wrong. In an article I wrote recently for The Oppidan Press I discussed the way our major bookstores in this country are flooded with American and British books, but the literary content from our continent is confined to one small bookshelf, and is comprised of one repetitive canon. This leaves very little room for new African authors to develop onto the scene.

Mgqolozana went into this in a series of Tweets published recently about how revolutionising the South African literary industry is not only an absolute necessity for our country, but the challenges that will be faced in approaching a solution. These solutions prioritised making literature accessible to the black majority of the country that do not live within many kilometers of a bookstore or library, and the literature in both is far too expensive to be realistic for them to access.

He has a point. Nigerian author Helon Habila discussed similar things at a talk given at the Eastern Star Gallery in Grahamstown last month, describing them as essential for writing Africa.

The question arises, and went unanswered by Mgqolozana, as to who can possibly fund this revolution. Certainly not the poor black majority it would primarily serve. The ridiculous price of books, and the extent of revolution required, would make this endeavour almost certainly a poor business decision, and one unlikely to make much money. Making a bookstore that is the business equivalent of Pep is different to Pep itself, because while making clothes and crockery can be reasonably inexpensive, books are literary art forms that require many hours of good labour, and are rightly expensive because of this.

It would take a truly dedicated and literarily passionate philanthropist to make this work, perhaps too good to be true in fact. And so we must call on that old favourite dependable once again: the government. This is not an unreasonable request though; it has been done before. Cuba went from an incredibly uneducated country, to becoming the world’s most literate country over the past several decades. Although there are many reasons not to be learning lessons from Castro’s Cuba, why not this one? Literacy is indefeasibly one of the integral cornerstones of a democratic country being successful, and this is surely our government’s greatest goal.

It is time to revolutionise our literature indeed, and we cannot hope to hide behind the inability defense.

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