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Book industry must change, festival told

Anastacia Tomson, Sylvia Vollenhoven and Sean Christie in discussion about their writing experiences at the 11th Franschhoek Literary Festival, which kicked off on Friday. Picture: Jason Boud

Anastacia Tomson, Sylvia Vollenhoven and Sean Christie in discussion about their writing experiences at the 11th Franschhoek Literary Festival, which kicked off on Friday. Picture: Jason Boud

Published May 21, 2017


Cape Town - Authors and publishers at this year’s instalment of the Franschhoek Literary Festival have called for the opening up of the book industry and for the retirement of those in senior positions who aren’t adaptive to change.

During a panel discussion titled “Is there a shortage of black fiction authors?”, guest speakers vented their frustrations about the lack of opportunities that black authors and publishers encounter.

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The festival was, on Friday, described as whitewashed, drawing an audience of an older generation.

Thabiso Mahlape, a publisher at BlackBird Books, called for the inclusion of black publishers “who are on the rise” in the market.

Mahlape provides a platform and a publishing home to both new voices and the existing generation of black writers and narratives.

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“The industry needs to adapt on two levels - the inclusion of more black publishers, (and it) also needs the people who need to retire, to retire. We are not working at the pace that we ought to be. Our industry is the least adaptive, we are moving at such a slow pace,” she said.

Phehello Mofokeng of Geko Publishing echoed Mahlape, saying there needed to be a vast improvement so that, “in 10 years' time from now, we don’t have to speak about this”.

“We don’t have a shortage of black fiction writers in the country The space is big enough for 10 other black publishers,” he said.

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One of the reasons why black fiction was overlooked, said the speakers, was that the industry was not open to finance black fiction.

Fiction and short story writer Lidudumalingani Mqombothi, who won big at the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing, Africa’s leading literary award, said there was little hope for black fiction writers in South Africa.

“There is a preference for non-black writers in the country when it comes to publishers.”

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According to the panel, exclusive bookshops made it impossible for people to purchase books owing to their high "model" costs, which prevented the black lower-income class from buying them.

Mofokeng said bookshops were inaccessible to the lower-income black community due to its geographical location. He offered an alternative to the problem, which cut out the middleman.

“If you can have spaza shops for books, where you literally go and buy bread and books, the pricing could be slightly different.”

Mahlape said the industry was in dire need of the support of the black middle class.

A striking tale of two spies sent chills down the spines of guests, who struggled to digest the brutality of two "villains" during the apartheid era.

Bridget Hilton-Barber, author of Student Comrade Prisoner Spy, and Jonathan Ancer, author of Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson, spoke about their encounters when they had to face South Africa’s most hated.

Hilton-Barber and Ancer gave blow-by-blow details about what it takes to research, remember and write about some of the villains and heroes of South Africa’s recent history at the festival.

Hilton-Barber told how Olivia Forsyth, a spy for the South African security police who was in her circle of anti-apartheid friends and activists, had betrayed her, leading to Hilton-Barber being detained.

Ancer - not giving away too much from his book - briefly described the first time he met Williamson, a former South African police agent who orchestrated a series of bombings, burglaries, kidnappings, assassinations and propaganda during the apartheid era. During the interview at a coffee shop, Ancer said, Williamson had not been remorseful for the acts he had committed.

Weekend Argus

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