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Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Air you can breathe

At the Wits panel on ‘decolonization’ the rage was palpable, the anxiety intense. Like many of the confrontations in our society, it was all about race, and racial identity. But is there more to the argument? Often the most important intentions that are communicated are obscured by the noise of fear and anger. The message comes out packaged in sparks because the flames need to clear a space and set the tone for urgent attention. Thando Mgqolozana is going down as a firebrand and a disrupter of cool and intellectual spaces because of some of his comments, but he is essentially calling for support for the black writer within his broader concerns for indigenous, original, literary fiction (and, I hope, poetry).

In a way, we are all trying to exist, to breathe the same air, to contribute to the sustained, organic process of creating a culture. These spaces exist, but usually briefly and because of culture, music, art or any other act of expression that brings people together to think and imagine and remember. Anger arises when a boundary has been traversed. The assumptions about what writers should be writing about and what readers want  – the creation of a literary culture – are stomping over how black people see themselves functioning in that space. I believe that this is because of the power of the white gaze despite the political transformation of South Africa.

One of the weird things about being a transracial adoptee is that your race is invisible. As one of my exes said to me “you’re basically white, right?” I think he meant that because of the material conditions of our lives, we have the same cultural references. But we grew up during apartheid, when I was black and he was not, sot the emotional texture of our experience can never be the same, because from a young age I knew that I was different. In the white way of thinking the quality of that difference was natural and genetic and therefore unchangeable. I grew up with socially acceptable values – we are all equal and at the same time the hidden values, i.e. African people are not as intellectually developed as Asian and European people. As a young woman I was told that I was adopted and had to come to terms with who I was – an embodiment of apartheid – as a black person I was inferior to white people and simultaneously as a white person I was superior to black people.

I have never wanted to attend the Franschhoek festival because just the idea of being in that space brought out a rash of anxiety. Anxiety because I am both – therefore I identify with the reports from my black colleagues who had various humiliating episodes and equally identify with the embarrassment of the hosts, whose intention is not at all to humiliate black writers. My condition of being in between the two ‘camps’ gives a  sense of somehow transgressing, being neither here nor there, impartial yet doubly mistrusted – a state of constant stress. It is simply a fact of our society that some areas remain stubbornly untransformed, and even if it isn’t said, the secret agenda of white supremacy can only admit to black inferiority. Even if we have old middle class offshore funded black folks filling the pews of the church, the system will be unchanged, so it’s not about race only. My idea was to stay away from such toxic spaces.  However this year Jackie Kay, also a transracial adoptee was invited to the festival and I have always wanted to meet her, so I gladly accepted the invitation and packed an extra dose of rescue remedy.

During the Franschhoek festival a writer asked me why I wasn’t enjoying it. “Where are you staying?” she asked, a sympathetic trapdoor opening in her voice, as if food or accommodation could ruin a literary festival for a writer, as if it’s a kind of holiday, which it is, in a way, for most of us. A working holiday. I had been accommodated in the Franschhoek equivalent of the Burj Khalifa. I wrestled with my in-built sense of black guilt (I got all this and I I have the cheek to say I had a kak time?) and said that I didn’t enjoy feeling complicit in endorsing a mediocre message about the realities of our society. Oh, she said, but I heard the doubt at the threshold of that trapdoor. “I enjoyed it, she said, “I mean it was interesting…”

I didn’t like being at Franschhoek because it felt like a toxic space to me. I don’t like being in places in South Africa that are consciously trying to look European – not even colonial – and consider that to be an achievement. I didn’t like the fact that the working class people were not invited to the festival and there was no attempt made to widen the reading public beyond old folks who can afford to visit Franschhoek. For me a toxic space is one where I have to constantly be made aware that because of my genetic make-up I was born indebted to the Western project, which gave me what I have now used to ‘better myself’ – the alphabet. I really enjoyed hosting a panel with Nathan Trantaal, Joan Metelerkamp and Bev Rycroft, and I really enjoyed the reading of Jackie Kay, and the other panels that I attended. I enjoyed talking about the poems that inspired me with Karen Schimke and Dan Whyle. But in between the small slights – the Sunday Times Award shortlist cocktail party, the cost of a meal, a slight sense of panic – where are the black people! By Sunday I needed to go to church – so I attended the panel Mandla Langa was hosting, to listen to Bongani Madondo and Hugh Masekela riffing off where they come from. I breathed easier in that – it wasn’t about being better than anyone. It was just, this is who I am. This is my contribution.

Although I am newly a lecturer at Wits university, I am still new to the idea of teaching outside of the workplace. I think one of the functions of these cultural gatherings is teaching – that is, unbundling concepts, giving examples, showing people different ways of thinking. Sometimes a sister just wants to relax, say what comes out of her mouth, be free and wild and challenging. Where people are so afraid of criticism, it is not safe to breathe without a mask on.

Growing up for me has meant accepting that the version of reality that I had been raised in was false. With the confidence which comes with a solid sense of superiority – of one’s culture, use of language and validity – I have expressed opinions and made statements and had to taste the vinegar of criticism. It is not death, however, so I am still here to make more mistakes and tread on more toes. However I’m a bit more circumspect about saying things aloud before I’ve thought about it. For self-preservation, yes, it’s true, but also because I am learning that sometimes listening is more important than talking. And thinking is the silent partner to all this activity.

So if you’ve been following the Wits panel (if you want to get a sense of it, you can look on you will understand that we have a situation of conflict in the literary scene which is racial. Black people are angry, but so are whites – yet our current way of reporting emphasizes the black anger and leaves out the white passive aggression that is also part of the communication breakdown. Another aspect of focusing on the black anger is a way of subtly ignoring it.

White people are also angry, but their anger is passive, for example a number of writers and other festival participants, who say that people who raise objections are obliged to come with solutions. Such an argument refuses to listen to Thando’s anger giving it the condition ‘to come with solutions’ so therefore seems more reasonable, and reasoned, as if the purpose of all discussion is to come to a peaceful resolution and those who are not engaging with that in mind are not playing by the rules. There are no rules however, because the game is being invented in the here and now, and I personally don’t feel that it is a debate in the strictest sense. In this instance, Thando’s position makes white people feel uncomfortable because it reminds them that they are receiving unearned privileges and continuing to benefit from a system that is fundamentally not equal. And for liberal white South Africans, the fears are rigidly constrained in the prison of political correctness – an explicit set of rules.

In the shadow game of racial dogma this is just an act however. White passive anger comes out of fear, the dread that whites have of being on the wrong side of history. When the Marketing Co-ordinator of Wits Press, Corinna van der Spoel had her chance to speak, she vented some of that white passive anger – and actively alienated the audience.

Humans in the academic environment have to rationalise their subjective, emotional views folding them into the origami of arguments, thereby creating a sane, objective context in which their idea can be sympathetically viewed. All humans rationalise fears by projecting them right back on whoever they come from.  Anger, when it is not used with political consciousness – is fundamentally uncreative – it is violent, tends to move quickly, is randomly destructive and supports and maintains mediocre levels of thinking.

Black members of the audience who reacted vocally to van der Spoel’s central argument, in which she stated that black bourgeois people don’t buy their children books, were reported as ‘angry’ but I wonder if she considered the violence of her statements before she made them, or if she just felt like she was explaining her point of view. She spoke with the assurance of experience, that ‘I know these people, I’ve worked with them’ because she was speaking with the authority of someone who once started an independent bookshop called Boekehuis. I am a bit bemused by her belief that black South Africans should flock to support an enterprise that proclaims its Afrikaner pride by way of its name. Nevertheless during its lifetime many black authors gave readings and launched their books there and bought books for their children and their friends and family. New audiences were created by friends of the authors mingling with Boekehuis’s usual clientele, and it was lively and beautiful and the beginnings of maybe an authentic indigenous literary culture – very much middle and upper-class, but a beginning nevertheless.

There were loads of problems – books were either in English or Afrikaans, so the many other languages in which South Africans express themselves were not represented. So before we pat ourselves on our backs about our literary culture, consider who else is in the room, and how many are outside this lovely dream.

This is the reality that writers who are socially conscious are experiencing. It is a violent reality that throws the validity of their work into question and it takes courage to complete the task of writing. Van der Spoel’s standpoint, that the book economy is not working because black people are not making it work, negates the worldwide trend of bookshops closing as the capitalist system crunches down on spaces that don’t show profit fast enough.

Publisher and writer Alan Kolski Horwitz started his intervention into the debate by asking why we expect Franschhoek to change, when clearly the resistance is too strong. Once again we have been distracted from key issues of Thando’s – and many writers – displeasure about Franschhoek and what that literary space represents. On the material side, books are still too expensive, our books are not in libraries or taught in schools. Black writers are funded to attend literary events where they explain themselves and generally mimic white writers in the west – when there is no will or resources devoted to the expansion of this chummy little club of readers.

A lot has been written about what was said at that ‘debate’. I was interested in the figure of Mandla Langa, who sat silently taking notes. Is this a short story, a poem or a book being conceived? or doodles? I was interested in Siphiwo Mahala’s sense of betrayal by writers associations, none of which has responded to Thando’s comments, and never responded to Siphiwo’s call for a boycott of white festivals in 2011. Dismissed as inappropriate, irrelevant or ‘not coming with solutions’, small wonder that black writers are frustrated.

It occurred to me that debates, to have any weight or force beyond the sensational venting of views, can go on for days and need to be revisited and replayed, and most of all, listened to.

Van der Spoel’s views, I imagine, are informed by the fact that her lovely and well supported independent bookshop had to close down, despite all the books that black readers bought from her. She felt so isolated and vulnerable, and the fear needed rationale that would not attack the supposed benevolent system that we are all working so hard to uphold – capitalism. She entered a risky situation and expressed her views – and hopefully will learn from the fiery response she received.

Black writers and readers have over 300 years of supporting, engaging and contributing to South African literature, and it is incredible that it is not a universably accepted fact that there is a gap in our understanding, a gap on our shelves. The fact that contradiction is only now becoming apparent is a measure of our weakness and our strength. Weakness because after 21 years of democracy and we still don’t manage to hear all the voices in the room, and strength because brave people are standing up and speaking, despite the negative vibe. Too often we need support and affirmation, but true growth comes from the sharp bite of criticism – no book gets written without the writer consuming kilograms of humble pie.

However, she was a scapegoat because she represented a white business model that has often said behind closed doors what she declared in public. But there is another aspect to this debate – and why I’m not sure it was a debate as much as a much-needed venting – and that is authority. White people often are on the back foot when it comes to speaking about our society. There are all kinds of trapdoors of complicity that they unconsciously fall into, there is a hesitancy in advancing an argument when you know you’ve got your own shit. As long as they think of themselves as white first and Afrikan second, they will always feel isolated and terrified. As long as they fail to identify with Afrika and craft their own responses to what that means, they will be unwelcome visitors in a hostile land. If they continue to negate the humanity of black people by ignoring their feelings because it makes them feel uncomfortable, they’d better be prepared for stagnation.

If black people hide their anger, it is not because they don’t feel it. They just don’t trust that it will be heard. There is no sense that their expression will be received with acceptance and understanding and willingness to daily do the work of making the imagined world real on all levels of life.

If white people hide their ignorance behind political correctness and don’t frankly expose their truth, as repugnant as it might be, it festers and keeps conversations unstable and insincere. If everyone is too afraid of being wrong, and for that reason says nothing, there is no progress either.

A debate is formal discussion of certain issues with the aim of coming to a vote, or a plan, a course of action. We have few debates in South Africa because we need therapy – hence most talking is about how people feel. It can’t be a debate because how can one person’s ‘feeling’ be more valid than another’s? This was like a pre-debate because it was a very necessary state of the sector therapy session, but we are still far from coming with a substantial, warm-blooded, full-bodied resolution of the bleak whiteness of our literary landscape.

For example, just say if the minister of arts and culture was genuinely committed to the people who he’s supposed to represent, and he took on the treasury to get them to remove the VAT on books. That could be a debate if those people had any concern about the people they supposedly represent. If more kinds of stories could be heard and read, in places that more people could afford, we could have liberated zones that could grow together and then maybe in the future, create a new country.

After Franschhoek Hugh Masekela said to me “you’ve got too much anger. you need to do that tai chi, deal with it.” I don’t agree. Anger and outrage can energise action; if not expressed they can percolate into bitterness and decay. We have to be able to listen to each other’s anger and let the anger out. It needs to be understood on its own terms and deconstructed in the terms of intellectual equality in South Africa. This way we liberate it, kahle kahle.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    June 18th, 2015 @00:45 #

    Thanks so much for this fine-grained piece, Phillippa. I think it's the richest contribution to the literary apartheid debate so far, of the snippets I've been picking up from a distance, anyway. I suspect that that trapdoor has often been in my voice.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    June 18th, 2015 @11:51 #

    I almost missed this. Been playing catch up at work. Have now reposted on SSDA's FB and twitter. Very good piece. I keep rereading part of it.


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