Those of us who are in touch with South African literature still largely do not know what the industry looks like from the inside. We have seen the creation of a host of fantastic stories but we have little knowledge of what the processes, restrictions and benefits of being a writer in this country are like. By speaking to prominent figures in South African literature, a more personal encounter of the industry is exposed. This sheds light on where our industry stands at this point, along with some hopeful expectations of where it might go.
As with many other aspects of South Africa, we see that we have begun our journey on the back-foot due to the injustices of South Africa’s past. South Africa is in a constant battle which makes things that seem to come easily for our western counterparts more challenging for us. Emma Paulet, UP student and author of the short story, “Warm”, in Queer Africa 2: New Stories, explains that the mark South African literature has made on a global level is a start, but there is so much more that we can offer. The problem is generally not a lack of quality work, but rather a disinterest from certain international parties echoing a historical trend of a one-way flow of knowledge from the West to Africa.
In order to get published today, it is almost imperative to go through a publishing house, says the Publishers Association of South Africa (PASA). Royalties you can collect as a writer from publishers’ sales are usually 10-12%. In this technological age, PASA also suggests publishing both in print and as an eBook. South African writers have historically used their writing as a tool to express political and social criticism; however this does not mean we produce one-dimensional work. Established South African author, Deborah Steinmair, who has published five novels and one volume of poetry, points to the oppression in our country as being a great fuel for creativity, but Paulet describes a noticeable shift in writing styles that have emerged since apartheid, generating a multitude of new genres and topics. Steinmair explains that a key restriction for a writer in South Africa is that “the audiences are so disparate… If you happen to be an Afrikaans author, you write to a small audience and the same applies to Xhosa [isiXhosa] authors. Also, one would not dare to write from the point of view of a black or coloured South African, for example, while a writer likes to think that he or she should be able to imagine themselves in anybody’s shoes…We are all still worlds apart, and this is limiting.” Both Paulet and Steinmair encourage young writers to follow their dream because although remuneration in this industry may not be the biggest incentive, the country needs stories. We live in a time of critical readers who will dissect the work produced, and ultimately it creates a way for people to make sense of their world and relate to the experiences of people around them. The literary industry is undergoing a time of transformation, having outgrown previous restrictions, and positive things are predicted for the future.
Photo: Ciske van den Heever