Recently I read an article by Jennifer Malecówna in which she talks about a black South African man, Fort Helepi, who opened a bookshop, African Flavour Books, in the small town of Vanderbijlpark in South Africa. (http://bookslive.co.za/blog/2015/06/11/i-wanted-to-prove-a-black-person-can-open-a-bookshop-not-a-tavern-african-flavour-books-owner-fort-helepi/)
Helepi saved for three years before opening his bookshop. It’s his passion, his legacy in progress, you could say, and he had 3 reasons for starting it:
- Like most people who run independent bookshops, he’s passionate about books, about literature (and African literature in particular.)
- He would also like to dispel the misconception that exists in South Africa that whites run bookshops and blacks run shebeens (taverns). This stereotype is deeply entrenched in our country – if it’s got to do with culture, with reading, with pursuits of the mind then, by default, there’s a white person behind it, and if it’s a shebeen, a hairdresser or a car wash then the initiator will probably be black. (Yes, it’s hard to believe, but twenty-one years after democracy, we’re still a nation clinging desperately to our stereotypes.)
- The majority of the books Helepi stocks in his shop are by black authors. This too is to dissipate a misconception: the assumption that black authors are somehow second best to white authors.
Helepi’s venture is a brave one in a world where independent bookshops are being wiped out by chain stores like cherry blossoms in a hail storm. And he’s doing it without any help from government or the cooperation of the distributors. I, for one, wish him the best of luck with his undertaking and hope that it goes from strength to strength.
But this article also got me thinking about my own reading habits. I am also a huge consumer of African literature, at least half the books on my sagging bookshelves are by African authors. But do I, as a white South African, subconsciously also hold the view that black authors are second best to white authors? I improvised a little test to check this.
Armed with pen and notebook, I drew up two columns: White and Black. I went to my bookshelf and noted the names of the various authors in a particular column according to the colour of their skin. Under the White column I listed the usual suspects; Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee, Andre P. Brink, Donald Woods, Laurens van de Post, Eugene Marais, Athol Fugard… Under the Black column I wrote down names like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zakes Mda, Vusamazulu Credo Mutua, Moeletsi Mbeki, Chinua Achebe and Chris Van Wijk (though strictly speaking, Van Wijk is a coloured author, a term we use for people of mixed race, not deemed insult like it is in some other countries.) The two columns were equal in length, but does this, in itself, prove anything?
So I asked myself the next most obvious question: Which of these African authors is my favourite?
Alan Paton, without a doubt. I read his Cry the Beloved Country as a teenager and for the first time in my sheltered white life I saw a side of my country I hadn’t known existed. It made a huge impression on me and sparked my lifelong love for African literature. But does that necessarily go on to mean that I think white authors are somehow superior to black authors because Alan Paton is white?
Looking at my list of authors, I asked myself another question: Which of these books made a lasting impression on me? The answer: Too many to mention here, or, perhaps I should say, all of them in one way or another. These authors have made me taste the red dust of Africa on my tongue, made me feel the relentless sun on the back of my neck, smell a stew being prepared on a paraffin burner or take a bite of the injustice of racism. These authors are black, white, coloured, Zulu, Sesotho, Xhosa, South African, Nigerian, Botswanan and Kenyan, none of them second best to any other, all of them, in their own unique way, telling our continent’s story.
It could be that on the international literary scene more white authors have walked away with the prestigious prizes than black authors, but this possibly says more about the international literary scene than it does about the quality of African writing. I, for what it’s worth, believe the voices of Africa’s most creative minds goes beyond colour. I think the continent can and should be proud of the authors it’s produced and that they are by no means second best to anyone.
Is this something you’ve thought about? Do you subconsciously believe black authors to be second best to white authors? What’s your favourite African book? Which African books have made a lasting impression on you?