As long as books are expensive, they will remain a privilege of the middle class and the elite, writes Malaika wa Azania
Johannesburg - I have been an avid reader since I was very young. In my childhood, books served as an escape. I grew up in a very poor family that could barely afford to give us privileges. There was no television in my home until I was much older.
For me, therefore, books served more as an escape than anything else. I read not only because I was fascinated by the world of literature, but also because there was nothing else to do. Books comforted me through much turbulence.
In the works of Danielle Steel, Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham – to name but a few – I found solace. It was easier to deal with Grisham’s courtroom dramas than to navigate the difficulties of my life. It was only much later that I started to read for a purpose other than escape. To this day, I am incomplete when not immersed in a book.
Because of my love of reading, I have always found it strange when I came across people who did not read. At first I used to think that there was something quite not right about people who were repelled by books. I could not comprehend how anyone could fail to appreciate the power contained in the written word. Anyone who reads a lot will corroborate my view that the only thing better than reading is going on a book-shopping spree.
One of the tragedies of growing up in a township is the non-existence of a reading culture among young people. My peers would often give me odd glances when I opted to sit alone to read. I was made to feel like a snobbish person for spending my weekends in the company of David Morell or Jeffery Archer as opposed to going out partying or “doing what other young people do”.
As I grew older, I started wondering why young black people, in particular, do not read. My preoccupation with this issue became more pronounced when I had my book published two months ago. Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation has been so well received and is in such high demand that my publisher, Jacana Media, has had to have it reprinted.
This reality has forced me to revisit my cynicism and engage the question at a much deeper level than the simplistic analysis I had always employed.
My initial view that young black people simply do not have an appreciation for literature faded as I began to interrogate this matter further. I don’t think I have the complete explanation, but I believe I have a thesis worth engaging. This thesis points to two main reasons why young people do not read.
First – and this might be an uncomfortable submission – the education system plays a role in the problem. From primary right through to secondary level, prescribed reading books do not nurture a reading culture.
Many of us are forced to read books that do not resonate with our lived experiences. In primary school we read about young Rapunzel whose name we can barely pronounce. As if that is not damaging enough, we get to high school and are subjected to Shakespeare, with his stories about English life in the Victorian era. And so, not only is the plot far removed from our lives, the complex language makes it a herculean task to follow the stories with interest.
I have found that one of the reasons why so many black people are reading my book is not that I am an exceptional writer, but rather that I narrate a story that they relate to.
Most black people in Africa and in the diaspora relate to a story about the black condition in post-1994 South Africa. This assertion is proved by Kesewa John’s review of Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation. John teaches English at the University of the French West Indies in Guadeloupe.
The review was published in the Steve Biko Foundation’s FrankTalk publication.
Because the black condition is universal, a story that narrates the unbearable heaviness of trying to be human in a world characterised by white racism and dispossessed black humanness will resonate with any black person to some degree.
Although the book is written in English, it is far from complex. It is written in a way that even people with an average command of the language can understand it.
The use of Sotho and Zulu words and phrases used in the townships also makes the book understandable to most black people.
The book simply flows, which is very different to most books, including those written by our African intellectuals. They tend to be overly academic and too polished in their writing, thus, alienating ordinary people from the content.
Second, the price of books is a factor. The claim that blacks do not read is questionable. The number one selling newspaper in South Africa is the Daily Sun, which, according to official statistics, is read by more than 5 million people, blacks being an overwhelming majority of the publication’s readership. The Daily Sun, interestingly, is also the cheapest daily newspaper in the country.
I am one of many people who hold the view that the Daily Sun is a dismal publication whose unrealistic and sensationalist stories serve to project black people as mindless and uneducated.
The kinds of stories contained in that paper nurture the soporification of our people, creating fertile ground for the fermenting of philistinism and defeatism.
But the Daily Sun, with its non-existent intellectual content, must be commended for getting two things right: that most of our people do not have money to spend on expensive publications and that people only read stories they can relate to.
This does not mean that black people are inherently philistines, but that for the poor, disenfranchised working class on the receiving end of unemployment, inability to access higher education, poverty and disease, stories about tokoloshes and witchcraft are more reasonable. They offer some kind of escape. They also give “sense” to the nervous conditions that our people are subjected to. They tell our people what our people want to hear: that they are poor because they are bewitched.
This serves an even greater white supremacist agenda of demobilising our people by taking away their agency, a tool with which they can fight the systematic constructs that are the cause of their suffering.
So for as long as books are expensive, they will remain a privilege of the middle class and the elite to whom resources are not an issue.
A copy of Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation costs R200 at Exclusive Books.
But while R200 is change to the middle class, for some families, it is what stands between them and complete starvation.
The reality is that more than a million people in this country live on less than $1 a day. For them, the choice is between putting a meal on the table and buying a book that will not satisfy their hunger.
Of course, there are those to whom this explanation does not apply, even in working class townships like Soweto.
There are many young people who would rather purchase the latest gadgets and fashion items than invest in a good book.
I have witnessed with my own eyes young people splashing lots of money on those fancy Carvelas known in the township as Nami ng’hlala eSoweto (I also live in Soweto). I have seen young people opting to spend money on alcohol and partying than on buying books.
This can be attributed to the first point I raised about how the education system with its anti-black academic curriculum is the root of a non-existent reading culture.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to inculcate a reading culture in a teenager who went through his or her childhood uninterested in books. When you feed a 7-year-old black child books about Rapunzel, you are unlikely to have a 17-year-old black child who will have a love affair with books, because that love is killed before it can even be born. As we say in Sotho: “Thupa e kojoa e sale metsi.”
We have a responsibility to reintroduce a reading culture among black youth, particularly in our townships and rural areas, where this culture is almost dead. From where I sit, there are three solutions to this crisis.
First, the academic curriculum needs to be challenged right from primary level, where the cancer begins. Literary and social activists alike need to wage a struggle to have the curriculum reformed, so as to include literature that speaks to the black child through stories he understands. Books by black writers the likes of Thando Mgqolozana, Moses Mtileni, Sabata-mpho Mokae to name but a few, must replace the European content that dominates primary and high school literature books.
Second, for this to happen, those of us who have been bestowed with the ability to write must produce books that are reflective of the lived experiences of our people.
Black people need to stop relying on white people to tell the black story. We need to own our own stories, to rewrite the black narrative that is as colonised as our land. It encourages me to see books such as Alone: Growing up in Alexandra by Lebo Pule on our bookshelves, but more need to be written.
Third, books need to be accessible. Production costs need to be lowered This will make books affordable for those who want to read. Let’s make reading fashionable!
* Malaika wa Azania is author of Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation, and a regular columnist.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.