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Writing a New World? -16th Time of the Writer Festival

“Writing a New World?”
16th Time of the Writer Festival
Centre for Creative Arts
University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa)
(18-23 March 2013)
A Response

 Writing a new world? This was the focus of the 16th Time of the Writer week.Nineteen writers, during the day, conducted workshops at schools, community centres and in Westville prison while, in the evening, read from their own work and offered reflections, or declarations, on the time of the writer in our ‘global-scape’. 

Sixteen years ago I was closely involved, as Dean of Humanities at the then University of Natal, in the formation of the Centre. It was envisaged by the Vice-Chancellor, Brenda Gourley, an accountant-academic who read Booker prize-winning novels, as a project to encourage dialogue between literary artists in South Africa and abroad. As is usually the case with vision statements, she gave a general sense of direction while remaining cleverly, or maddeningly, vague. I anchored the idea by persuading the recently retired publisher, Adriaan Donker, to lead the Centre while Gourley persuaded the poet, Breyten Breytenbach, to be writer-in-residence. The Centre achieved substance in two key events, Time of the Writer and Poetry Africa. 

Since then the time of the writer, the time of the University, the time of the country, have all changed. Peter Rorvik, who succeeded Donker and, in turn, was retired as director of the Centre at the end of 2012, addressed a changed vision, in which UKZN now aspired to be the premier University of African scholarship. (Cleverly, or maddeningly, vague!) Rorvik, accordingly, ‘Africanised’ the events. Local and Africa-related participation increased; ‘art’ writers met ‘people’ writers; fiction encountered creative non-fiction, or history writing, or social commentary. At the Poetry Africa week stage poets outnumbered page poets. Community outreach was extended, and the audience – 16 years ago accused of being predominantly of the Berea blue-rinse set – is now more youthful, more diverse, and encompasses both suburbs and townships. 

            Two publications have marked the African drive: Africa Inside Out (2010), stories by writers from Time of the Writer, and Amagalelo, a selection of isiZulu stories emanating from a competition organised by the UKZN Language Board. The publications explore, respectively, fresh perspectives of a continent in modernity and how to write in an African language in a way that captures our changing world.

 What then, according to Time of the Writer 2013, is our changing world? For Susan Abulhawa (US-based, born of Palestinian refugees) it is to invoke in her novel, Mornings in Jenna, the human dimensions of the Palestinian tragedy. (I refer in each case only to the writer’s most recent work.) Jackee Budesta Batanda (Uganda) pursues memory in transition (Writing the Frangipani Tree). Jude Dibia (Nigeria) asks sarcastically of Africa's Big Men, are you sure that there are no gays in Africa? (Blackbird). Elieshi Lema (Tanzania), who writes in both English and kiSwahili, brings to youth literature the issues of patriarchy, gender and HIV/AIDS (In the Belly of Dar es Salaam). Aman Sethi (India), an economic journalist, turns to creative reportage in Free Man, his study of daily wage-labourers who sleep on the pavements of Delhi. Creative non-fiction is also the preferred mode of the prominent South African writers, Jonny Steinberg (Little Liberia) and Graham Reid (How to Be a Real Gay: Gay Identities in Small-town South Africa). 

            Alongside social activism (Andile Mngxitama, Ashwin Desai) we have history, or prophecy, in Sampie Terreblanche's Lost in Transformation. There are fictional representations of the ordinary individual in society (Jo-Ann Richards’s The Imagined Child, Kagiso Lesego Molope’s This Book Betrays My Brothers) and extraordinary projections (Zinaid Meeran’s Saracens at the Gates and US/Nigerian Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch). Damon Galgut spoke of making the familiar ‘unfamiliar’ in order to disturb cliché or habit while Shafinaas Hassim has translated her academic research on domestic violence into a novel, SoPhia. Kabelo Duncan Kgatea, an ex-miner, and Bhekisigcino Khawula, a machine-operator at a sugar factory, both turn their work/life experience to stories of inspiration for young South Africans (Mmudubudu, in seTswana,  and Yihlithi Leli, in isiZulu, respectively). Interestingly, youth literature featured prominently with the highly articulate Molepe (born in Attridgeville and, until recently, a Human Rights Project Officer in Canada) declaring proudly that she wants “a publisher who works to bring my work into schools”. 

A picture – both fascinating and problematic – emerged over the week on writing a new world. It is a picture both predictable and unpredictable, a world of grand and small narratives, one in which populist rhetoric mingles with the unexpected insight. The grand narrative continues to pursue several well-trodden paths:

·                     The evil of the Washington consensus;

·                     The panacea of socialism;

·                     Fraudulent academics, anthropologists, neo-liberals, etc., etc. (In the pay of Big Pharma, Big Oil, etc., etc.);

·                     ‘Them’ versus ‘Us’ scenarios (whether local or global).

The small narratives wish to

·                     Move from a language of despair to a language of hope;

·                     Think outside categories;

·                     Imagine daringly;

·                     Encourage conversation to find solutions.


 On the last day I attended a particularly noisy session. If Mngxitama (Fools of Melville, his first venture into fiction) and Desai (Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island) exploded the Them versus Us categories, they offered no onward, achievable goals. Whether aligned to the ANC, the DA, social movements, to our families or ourselves, most of us were declared to be either exploiters or dupes. (Each speaker excluded himself from his own strictures!) As a critic once said of Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), we all know his negatives, but we don’t know his positives.  

A quieter moment arrived, fortunately, the next morning when I read of Mahmood Mamdani’s continual re-interrogation of his own views on living in our global-scape (Sunday Independent 24/3/2013:8): “Our challenge is not to separate victims and perpetrators, but to develop reform a political order where both can live together.”

As the Nigerian novelist, Dibia, said to the Durban audience, “I have come to realise that so much unites us as one race, the human race.” Or, as the Durban-based novelist, Elana Bregin (Survival Training for Lonely Hearts), put it succinctly on the opening night: “In societies with cruel and divisive histories, we need to learn how to love.”            

Such a challenge is not confined to the time of the writer. It involves all of us in writing, and living, a new world.

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