The curator of the inaugural Abantu Book Festival, Panashe Chigumadzi, is more wide-eyed than travel-weary when I find her in the back corner of a Rosebank restaurant on Monday morning. A few hours earlier she’d stepped off a plane from the Ake Arts and Book Festival in the ancient, hilly city of Abeokuta in Nigeria, the birthplace of Wole Soyinka and Fela Kuti. I ask how the trip was.
“I feel like I’ve just come back from the future,” she replies.
“It was so fantastic to be at a black literary festival that didn’t have to declare itself to be black. Not for any respectability politics, but because this is all that it could possibly be,” says Chigumadzi over breakfast.
She had a similar glimpse into the decolonised future in Uganda recently when she attended The Writivism Festival. Arriving there as the hair protests rocked schools here, she was taken with a group of Ugandan schoolgirls displaying colourful uniforms and big, beautiful, natural hair that would be banned in South African schools. When she told them how happy the sight made her, they were perplexed. But this is their hair, what else must they do with it?
It’s this dream, of a future that contains a normalised space for black conversation in a black country characterised by overwhelmingly white literary events that sparked Thando Mgqolozana’s dream of the Abantu Book Festival.
The director of Abantu is also the writer who caused all the trouble when he stood up at various book events in 2015 and announced he was quitting the elite literary festival circuit, culminating with
the famous words, in Franschhoek, to the (almost entirely white) audience: “Look at yourself. It’s very abnormal.
“It just hit me that this time last year I was only still fantasising about Abantu,” he says when we chat over email. “A year later we’re launching an eagerly awaited first edition of the blasted thing. I should be saying it feels unreal, but I’m a fiction writer, I’ve been here several times before; imagining stuff into existence.”
LETTERS THAT NEVER ARRIVE
As a book lover and an admirer of Mgqolozana’s prescient work, I’ve been following the Abantu dream since it was a relatively random Facebook post imagining a different kind of South African literary event. His journey has left me inspired. Instead of just talking about it, Mgqolozana put his words into action. Fundraising was difficult and the budget is basic, but the dream is about to be realised. From the US, Liberia, Kenya and the provinces of South Africa, black writers are preparing to pack for Soweto.
I ask what had propelled him.
“There was not a single bookstore in any black community; our new, shiny libraries were not carrying our literature, and not in our mother tongues; the schools were not teaching our work; book festivals were organised by white people for other white people in the cities, in white-occupied communities. The publishers, editors, proofreaders, even interns, were white – and it had nothing to do with talent or skill. It ironed my nerves flat,” he writes.
“Two things occurred to me then: our problems were not due to bad luck, we were not unfortunate; there was a system in place that kept us in the ghetto of the literary community, and, unless we dismantled this system and formed a new one in which we were the priority, black writers would continue writing letters that never reach home, black readers waiting for letters than never arrive.”
THE PRESENT TENSE
It’s when we’re discussing the impact on black writers of this prevailing, post-colonial whiteness of the South African book scene that Chigumadzi quotes African-American activist Assata Shakur.
“It’s always feeling that you’re crazy [to keep raising it and fighting about it]. There’s that thing that Shakur says, ‘Only the strong go crazy. The weak just go along.’ In South African spaces that aren’t actively decolonising, you are more often than not left feeling exhausted. At the African festivals I’ve attended, you feel revitalised. The sincerity with which people engage as opposed to this particular toxicity that we have here right now as people resist and choose sides. There, it is what it is, it’s black. Then you can really move on.”
Chigumadzi raises the fact that at the time, few writers stood up in solidarity with Mgqolozana, who helped other festivals, such as Time of the Writer, implement a community-based, decolonised approach, but this week he again said that he wouldn’t take up a mic at a white book event again.
“I’m out, for good. I’m angry about the condition of black people, but it was never on the cards to make a career out of ‘performing anger’ ... When I announced my exit from the system, I was leaving myself no option but to succeed in getting the people I write for and about access to our work without having to jump high fences.”
He wrote a proposal in December last year, giving himself a year to raise funds and organise Abantu, with Chigumadzi falling in to help out.
“There were colossal obstacles and some miracles along the way, just like good fiction,” says Mgqolozana.
Back in the Rosebank restaurant where books hang from the ceiling as decorations, objects to prettify, not inform, Chigumadzi says: “The biggest thing about travelling outside South Africa – in fact, southern Africa, because a lot of the same pathologies circulate in southern Africa, such as settler colonial issues – but outside that it feels like, you know, this is possible. You’re not crazy. Blackness is the default. It’s a respite to not have to be constantly fighting the battles.”
Her dreams for Abantu are drawn from these travel experiences. In Nigeria she found a robustness of debate among black writers, a passion to discuss books from the rest of the continent, not just local books.
“Of course that doesn’t mean we’re just going to copy them. We need to build on the issues we have here. There will be different manifestations because we have a different history. But I honestly feel it’s a revitalising experience also to see how blackness varies within a black space. To see the differences between us as African people play out, but not in an adversarial way.”
It’s easy to understand, then, how the Abantu Book Festival came up with its pay-off line, “Imagining ourselves into existence”, but what can visitors to the festival expect?
The debut theme is Our Stories, but that doesn’t mean they’re just stories found in books.
“We want to debunk the hierarchy of books in the role of storytelling,” says Chigumadzi. “Because sometimes literature feels alienating. We’ve tried to incorporate all storytellers.” The line-up will include musicians, film makers, spoken-word artists and visual artists.
“In curating it we’ve really tried to have a range of expressions of blackness,” says Chigumadzi. “Some vastly different politics are represented in that group.”
There are popular authors, more literary authors, analysts and performance storytellers, Fallists and a former deputy chief justice in the mix.
Visitors, say the organisers, can take it for granted that women’s voices will be fully present, and that the conversation assumes that decolonisation of the literary space is the goal.
“When we say Our Stories, we’re hoping that this can be a space where we really start getting on with it, where we really start recognising ourselves in a loving, but also rigorous kind of way,” says Chigumadzi.
Says Mgqolozana: “The line-up and programme have been described as ‘crazy’, and I’ll be the last person to disagree with that. But I’m looking forward to the moments in between when I’ll be sneaking out quietly to see if everything is going according to plan in the other venue; the final moment when our travelling guests have landed safely back home; when the report has been audited and the proposal document submitted and I’m home worried only about sentences and my daughter’s nappies – I’m looking forward to that.”
Chigumadzi says that Abantu is aware that this is just one step. “We know that having black writers at a black festival in a black space is not enough. There’s a lot that we still need to do. Even Abantu is too singular. We need a range of black festivals, a range of publishers and all those different kinds of things.”
As they master the art of dreaming things into existence, they have been imagining next year’s event already.
“Next year our topic is language,” says Chigumadzi. “Anglophone Africans are not reading Lusophone Africans who are not reading Francophone Africans who are not reading our own local languages. Our vision for this is to be a global literary festival where we’re reading all the African writers, even in the Americas and the Afrolatino writers. That needs to happen. Step by step.”
And next year’s big news?
In Nigeria, Chigumadzi met legendary Kenyan Writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o. He has been invited to Abantu 2017 and no doubt the continued relevance of his 1986 essay Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature will form the core of the conversation.
. The Abantu Book Festival happens from December 6 to 10 at the Soweto Theatre in Jabulani and the Eyethu Lifestyle Centre in Mofolo, with the public programme starting on December 8
. For the full programme, visit abantubookfestival.co.za