Fiona Snyckers
Fiona Snyckers

Franschhoek Literary Festival: Breaking the silence

I used to think it was okay that the Franschhoek Literary Festival was lily-white because the money it raised was used to fund libraries in disadvantaged communities. “Who cares where the money comes from as long as it goes to a good cause,” was my reasoning. I equated the literary festival with those charity gala balls held in New York City to raise money for the poor children of that faraway country called “Africa”.

Yes, the venue is exclusive and the cover charge astronomical, but that’s the whole point — to separate the wealthy from their money in the name of a good cause. I was happy to be part of the entertainment that the punters came to see and enjoyed taking part in the Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF) on the two occasions I was invited.

But as the years passed and the audience remained stubbornly white, the FLF became the elephant in the room that many of us tiptoed around, reluctant to engage with. This year Thando Mgqolozana dropped a bombshell that blew the elephant clean out of the room and into the forefront of national debate. His words have even been quoted in the New York Times.

Screengrab of flf.co.za

Screengrab of flf.co.za

Many black writers have weighed in on the discussion. Without exception, they have confirmed that Mgqolozana is not alone in feeling ill at ease in Franschhoek and other predominantly white literary festivals. His good friend and fellow writer, Siphiwo Mahala, bowed out of the FLF as early as 2011, and wrote about it here. The discontent has grumbled for years, so why are we only paying attention now? Perhaps it is because the literary establishment is finally coming to grips with precisely how important a writer Mgqolozana is. After years of being the go-to guy in any discussion on traditional circumcision, he is finally being recognised as a giant literary talent who stands, as Zakes Mda put it, “head and shoulders above the rest”. If he won’t be showing up to any further festivals, those festivals will be considerably the poorer for it.

While writers as diverse as Eusebius McKaiser, Karabo Kgoleng, Nthikeng Mohlele, Malaika Mahlatsi, and Hawa J Golakai have all joined the conversation, contributions from white writers have been thin on the ground. There has been much retweeting and reposting of articles, along with supportive comments and vague expressions of solidarity, but not much else. I can’t speak for other white writers, but I know why I at least have kept quiet until now.

If this were an issue affecting women, I would expect men to keep themselves in the background, offering support and little else. I would certainly not expect them to wrestle the mic away from the woman speakers and start mansplaining the issues to the women in the audience. I would especially not expect them to tell women that they are “overreacting” or “grandstanding”, or that the discrimination they experience is “all in their heads”. These are all accusations I have seen levelled against Mgqolozana in recent days.

Similarly, I would rather chop off my typing fingers than start whitesplaining the local literary scene to black authors. This movement Mgqolozana has started does not need my approval, my sanction, my acknowledgement, or my participation. I am not a protagonist in this story. At best, I have a non-speaking, walk-on part that requires me to shut up and listen.

So why am I breaking my silence? Perhaps because it seemed too easy an option to remain quiet — the lazy way out. I have nothing to add to the excellent columns written by the black writers I have listed above, but I can convey what I learned from them. From Mgqolozana, I learned — among much else — that it is not enough that money raised by the FLF goes to outreach programmes. It is not okay for black authors to be paraded before a white audience as proof of how “diverse” the festival is. It is not acceptable for a white audience member to shout out “Bullsh*t” at an invited panellist with who she happens to disagree.

From Mahlatsi (who also writes as Malaika wa Azania) I learned how traumatic it can be for a young black author to face down a room full of older white people who are tutting and shaking their heads while she attempts to recount her lived experience. I have spoken in front of black audiences more times than I can count, at schools and at festivals like the Jozi Book Fair and National Book Week. Never once was I made to feel anything but comfortable and welcome. Then again, I was not facing down my social and economic oppressors. I was not being told that my opinions were wrong or that my lived experience was invalid. No one was trying to silence me, to dismiss me. Mahlatsi refers to this as a form of violence, and that is precisely what it is.

From Kgoleng, I gained insight into the systemic and historical inequalities that lie at the heart of the ongoing, stubborn whiteness of most SA literary festivals. Perhaps most unnerving of all was the realisation that Mgqolozana is not seeking to “transform” or “diversify” the literary scene. He is calling for a complete revolution in ownership, funding and strategy in the publication industry. When that happens it will be the white writers and audience members who are attempting to negotiate a space for themselves at literary events. I have little doubt that they will be made to feel more welcome than their black counterparts are currently.

In the meantime, I am listening and I am learning. And I know I’m not the only one.

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    • Genie

      I think Ms Snyckers that you should do more than listen. With all due respect,if you write about a young black girl (I read your book and it seemed wrong to me) how can we tell our own stories? You need to leave some space for us to tell our stories. Listen but also act by standing back when you must.

    • Niels Colesky

      sorry, Fiona, but that woman apologised for her outcry and then explained it. She was coherent in her explanation. You haven’t really added much to Thando’s outburst. the root cause of his outburst is clear enough but the solutions he is offering are either none or impossible.

    • dandan.boshoff

      I find it difficult when told that it is not enough that someone is a bad person based only on the colour of their skin. This judgement seems to be compounded based on the skin colour of who you choose to associate with.

      I think that is called racism.

      Freedom of association. Freedom of movement. Right to determine your own destiny.

      These rights and freedoms are protected and are not limited based on any vague measure of culture, religion, or ethnicity.

      It may well be that many regular attendees of FLF are pretentious, wealthy, and arrogant. But that is their right to be such. Alternatively it may be that it is a place where even the best and brightest stand shoulder to shoulder and not head above the rest. A place where one is not automatically the best. And experiencing a challenge of ideas is not the same as oppression.

    • Romilia De Andrade

      I’m somewhat bemused by all this. Blacks don’t go to the FLF because it is “too white”, but the FLF remains “too white” because blacks don’t go. I don’t entirely buy the reason they don’t go is because the FLF is too expensive or difficult to access. Many black people seem to have no problem paying for tickets and travelling to the Cape Town Jazz Festival, for example. Could it be that the majority of black people, like the majority of white people (myself included), have absolutely no interest in attending literary festivals? It appears that the people who do go are mainly white middle-aged / elderly. They are the people who have a passion for reading, who can afford to buy books and keep the industry alive. Very few young people of any race.

      Of all those who have written on this issue, I think Karabo Kgoleng is the one who comes closest to the truth.

    • russell swanborough

      More bleeding heart emotionalism. When we are equal we will be equal, you cannot stop inequality or equality any more than you can stop stupidity or genius. As you said, stand back, but help where you can.

    • Jon Quirk

      Perhaps we should just ban books; too Eurocentric and over-demanding of intellectual input from the reader and as such totally out of tune and touch with today’s modern world.

      I read the article, also read the NYT article (I feel almost ashamed that I not only read books but the London Times, TLS, LRB, NYT, Spectator as well) and both Thando’s article and book and the comments certainly made me pause and think.

      I know it will offend many people, but there has in society at large already been too much dumbing down; Grahamstown is a pale shadow of what it once and I doubt that it will even exist in a few years in any meaningful form.

      Yes we need more China Achebe and Wole Soyinka’s – and we certainly need more home-grown talent telling their own stories, but when you cast your eye over the shelves of Exclusive Books they are a coming force, but let us not sacrifice the joys of reading on the altar of PC-thinking.

      That is the reason why our economy and society is in such a mess.

    • solitoliquido

      This is an interesting, welcome discussion indeed. There are several ways to interpret what is going on; but the best way is not to try and shut any voice out. No one is holly.

      Many of us, especially those who live in the Cape, have to get used to being the ‘only (symbolic?) blacks’ at many social events, and to navigate such spaces while pretending not to notice the stares; which can either be patronising or simply curious. Of course, they can also be totally disinterested.

      I think it’s up to all of us, individually and collectively, to develop a sense of empathy towards the other, acknowledging our own impact – silent or anyway expressed – on the other(s). That would be the beginning of wisdom. The next step would be to cultivate a better sense of listening to the silences and the voices of others….we’re all on a journey!

    • solitoliquido

      You make good points, Romilia. Where there is interest, there is money and action.

    • Mark Linderoth

      I feel the same way about rap music.

    • Jessica

      Nah, girl, this is purportedly a democracy we are living in. Let those suspicious or sick of what they perceive to be too whitey-ish litfests start their own, hopefully democratic ones. It’s about time.

    • Kgauhelo Dube

      You seem to miss Fiona’s point here, you CANNOT curate a black person’s sense of inequality and oppression – it is THEIR lived experience. Listen harder.

    • dandan

      What I am pointing at is the curation of excellence irrespective of their life experience.

      I would compare the works of art from Takashi Murakami and Vincent Van Gogh in the same way. This comparison would not account for who they are, how wealthy they are, life struggles, or determination. Their story is separate from their art.

      So in no sense would I curate a person when im experiencing the art.

      Participation and inclusion is therefore also a separation of individuals from their art. It is acceptable that an government be determined through an equal and fair election of its people. Is is acceptable that a government be determined through the inequality and oppression, or their lived experience? Rather we should make sure that development of talented individuals is provided for. It is even accepted that this development is slanted in favour people who have experienced inequality, oppression, or difficult life experiences.

    • Bokwe Mafuna

      Truth, that elusive monster. My truth, your truth, their truth….don’t know how many colours and shape truth can take to satisfy those who court it. Malaika’s truth is as real as Karabo’s in my book. And Fiona Snyckers’ listening and learning are my preferences for today. Listening also to your truth Romilia, and learning.

    • Bokwe Mafuna

      I also read that lady’s explanation of where she comes from and who she is; that helped me realise how many of us are truly hurting and bleeding. But some people just don’t get it.

    • RSA.MommaCyndi

      My gut reaction is to get more black people willing to go to these literacy festivals. You kinda seem to be blaming white people for reading. Open a Soweto Literary Festival or a Orange Farm Literary Festival, then start integrating them.

      Of course an elderly white person isn’t going to understand the work of a young (and rather militant) young black woman. They don’t have any connection points. The whole point of apartheid was to ensure that there were no connection points. To now expect there to be a life long understanding, is a bit unfair on all concerned.

    • Jason Reynecke

      Have you even thought about the actual publishing industry, representation of black authors etc… ag never mind