Time of the Writer turns 20

Phelokazi Mbude and Charl Blignaut

Time of the Writer, one of the country’s more progressive book festivals – playing out in townships, schools, tertiary institutions and in town – is having a big birthday. We preview next week’s events and chat to two of the featured star writers


Phelokazi Mbude talks with Lidudumalingani Mqombothi

You won the Caine Prize for short fiction last year, but before that you were best known for your films. In your storytelling, does one medium offer more opportunities than the other?

Films, even the so-called low-budget or indie films, are expensive to make, so by default the writing becomes the less expensive thing to do. And writing has a quicker turnaround time. That said, without contradicting myself, the lengthy period it takes to write a screenplay and make a film allows the narrative to sit with me, to be altered by my own insecurities, altered by the environment and often that is what a narrative requires.

Is language a factor? Do you have any interest in writing solely in isiXhosa?

Language is important, in the way it both refuses and allows itself to be used in the ways that a writer wishes. It is, however, important to note, I always insist, that writing in one’s mother tongue is not enough, that the stories we tell about ourselves are far more important than the language we choose to tell them in.

Do you often use your writing as activism and why or why not?

It is one thing to write with the hope that the writing is activism and quite another for it to be. All a writer can do is to hope that the writing will have an impact in the world, but once the story is out in the world, regardless of what the writer hopes, upon encountering the reader it takes on a life of its own. James Baldwin, as he does most things, puts it perfectly when he said: “You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world ... The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimetre the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”

In South Africa white people are still the most visible and resourced writers; what opportunities would you say there are for black writers to gain visibility?

There are a few opportunities for black writers that grant us opportunities to write. The difficulty I feel is the publishing, the book shops and book festivals, which are still largely interested in a particular narrative from black writers.

What are you are hoping to take away from Time of the Writer?

Festivals are great places to meet other writers and readers, to finish off old conversations that had been abandoned elsewhere and begin new conversations. The chance to travel to any city is also an opportunity to study the city’s structures, its people and the interaction between the two and this is something I am always looking forward to.

Who are your favourite writers?

Phew, this is always a difficult question to answer. There are way too many to list. Picking up a book is an incredibly personal process and, as such, each book holds its own special place in my heart for varying reasons. I have lately been thinking about how choosing certain writers is a form of betrayal. It is false remembering because, often, I mention authors that only come to mind when the question is asked.

What are you currently working on?

On May 1, I start working on my debut novel, Let Your Children Name Themselves, and for the foreseeable future, this text is what will be occupying all my time. There should be, if everything aligns, time to make some images.


Charl Blignaut talks with Zakes Mda

We are running interviews with you and Lidudumalingani. You’ve met, of course, but what advice do you give young, black writers like him about the book festival circuit?

Unfortunately, I have not met Lidudumalingani. I like his name, though. Full of thunderous poetry. As lyrical as his story, Memories We Lost. But I have no advice to give to young, black writers like him about the book festival circuit. He will pick and choose which to attend or not according to his own ideological mind-set. I have had good and bad experiences at book events. There are famous book events I will never go back to because of previous bad experience there. But there are others I visit every year. One of those is the Jozi Book Fair because it is a progressive event run by a progressive organisation. It is grass roots in its orientation, the majority of its audiences being township and inner-city kids. It is a marketplace of ideas and of books, mostly by self-published writers. It is therefore shunned by mainstream publishers and hardly covered by the mainstream media. It’s been like that for years, actually from its very inception, long before it was fashionable to talk of decolonised book events.

What is your experience of Time of the Writer? Last year it decided to undo the formula and go to the people more?

I have had wonderful experiences at Time of the Writer. It is one book event that is inclusive. On the last three occasions I was there, my events were held at Umlazi and KwaMashu in addition to the campus ones.

You seem to be back home quite a lot. What are the things you’re seeing change or get stuck, literary or otherwise?

I am back home almost every month because I am no longer teaching at the university. I now devote all my time to creating art. I am encouraged by the wealth of innovative ideas in the art scene in South Africa. I always make it a point to visit young artists when I am in Johannesburg, for I am inspired by them. I even engage in collaborations with them, for instance, working on joint paintings with such young talents as Khehla Chepape Makgato.

Please could you tell us WTF! you’re doing to cope with the governing party.

Fortunately, Athens – where my family has lived for 35 years – is an island of liberalism in a sea of white nationalism that is Trump’s America. So, we only hear of and see his buffoonery on television like the rest of the world. Trump is merely part of a worldwide trend. You might have noticed that a lot of so-called Western democracies have drastically drifted to the right and have become nationalistic and conservative. We see #Brexit in the UK and the rise of white nationalism and xenophobia in each European country and in Australia.

South Africa has not been left out in that trend. The ANC has been taken over by its conservative wing, with strong ethnic-chauvinistic and narrow nationalistic traits. Therefore xenophobia has taken root, and in many communities it is led by young people in ANC regalia. Hence also the attempt by government ministers to placate these xenophobic tendencies instead of condemning them outright. So you see, South Africa is part of that trend that has given birth to Trump in the US.

But like all trends, it will pass. Trump and Zuma will be history, though they will leave their stench for generations to come.

I’m really curious to know what you’re working on, publishing or painting?

I am currently painting the Washboard Series, which are collaged narrative paintings on gender and domestic tensions – all featuring the washboard. I am also currently working on a movie script on Hugh Masekela and Father Trevor Huddleston, titled Warrior Monk and the Hornman. I’m writing a novel titled The Zulus of New York. But I am also engaged in a publishing venture for children with my son, Neo Mda, who is a graphic artist and animator. We published our first fantasy set in a volcano, which we are now producing as a feature animation movie, produced by Zola Maseko and directed by me.

Five must-sees at the fest

The main events at the festival this year, which runs from tomorrow until Saturday, are double bills that happen mostly at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre in town. They are repeated across the greater Durban area in townships, schools and tertiary institutions, including in KwaMashu, Chatsworth, Stanger and Amanzimtoti. For the full schedule, visit the TimeoftheWriter page on Facebook.

1. Memory and future

Sangoma Unathi Magubeni, and academic and publisher Bronwyn Law-Viljoen discuss being first-time authors. This is juxtaposed with a session in which the past is brought into view by Fred Khumalo on the SS Mendi, and by Usha Roopnarain on depression and inequality.

- Tuesday, Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, 19:00

2. Forms of storytelling

Nomsa Mdlalose is a storyteller. Sibongile Fisher and Megan Ross are masters of short fiction. Lidudumalingani Mqombothi and Busisiwe Ntintili write for film. Together, these genres are opened up for discussion.

- Wednesday, Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, 19:00

3. Masculinity and political futures

Political analysts Dale McKinley (South Africa’s Corporatised Liberation) and Ralph Mathekga (When Zuma Goes) are compulsory listening, especially when offset by Nkosinathi Sithole and Khethani Njoko on masculinities, and EKM Dido on issues of community.

- Thursday, Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, 19:00

4. Language and land

Zakes Mda and Folu Agoi tackle the heated issue of land and landlessness, while Nakanjani Sibiya and Sabata-mpho Mokae discuss writing in your mother tongue.

Don’t miss this!

- Friday, Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, 19:00

5. Book launches

The final day of the fest offers launches of new books by Durban writers. Krish Govender’s memoir Finding My Family is a story of a successful businessman who finds himself. Hazel Tobo’s Psych Ward Blues tracks her return from depression.

- Saturday, Ike’s Books and Collectables in Florida Road, 10:00

A big deal on the same day is the Mazisi Kunene Foundation’s release of the first isiZulu translation of Shaka the Great. It will also exhibit the original text. Stay for the festival’s closing ceremony. – Charl Blignaut

- Saturday, Durban International Convention Centre, 17:00