Laughter, tears and collective exhalation: why we need the Abantu Book Festival

    When journalist and novelist Zukiswa Wanner first experienced the joy of finding oneself in a safe space that embraced people like her, she made sure she returned again and again. But when it disappeared, Wanner found the joy and comfort in another literary space, the Abantu Book Festival.

    She told The Daily Vox what the festival in Soweto means to her and what it has to offer for bibliophiles and storytellers of all ages.

    Image by Abantu Book Festival on Facebook

    A little over ten years ago, I was invited to Time of the Writer in Durban. My first novel was a few months old then. When I got there, I found a space that embraced writers and where I got to know people like Fred Khumalo, Lebo Mashile, Menzi Maseko, Tiny Mungwe, Zuki Vutela, Smilo Dlamini, Thishiwe Ziqubu and others.

    Thereafter, I would save money every year to ensure that the second week of March found me in Durban. Most of the time, I wasn’t invited, so I would camp with friends or offer to moderate a panel or some other thing so I would get one or two nights. I wasn’t the only one. Thando Mgqolozana, Siphiwo Mahala, Ndumiso Ngcobo among others often found a way to ensure that they were in Durban for Time of the Writer.

    And then sadly something happened at the Centre for Creative Arts and Time of the Writer ceased being what it was. I felt the loss.

    And then last year, my friend and brother Thando Mgqolozana invited me to the inaugural Abantu Book Festival in Soweto. I was going there to support but I went there without expectations.

    I was pleasantly surprised. The programme was beautifully done. The media conference was on time. Yes, there could have been more meat at the media event but the caterer also had ting (ok just kidding Tswana friends, kante why don’t you take jokes?)

    But on a more serious note, Abantu 2016, as I said in an article in New African, was the first time I ever felt free as a black South African. Free to have conversations that mattered with other black people without apologising, free to air my concerns to black men about patriarchal bullshit, and free to just laugh and cry at will without explaining. My partner and son were there too.

    Every day, I cried and it was not tears of sorrow but tears of relief that in a country where we don’t have much, we had at least this one thing that allowed us a collective exhalation.

    I moderated one of the last panels where I had Koleka Putuma, Rehana Roussow, Bongani Madondo and Lidudumalingani Mqombothi as my panelists. Like all the panels at Abantu, it was packed. In the last 45 minutes, we veered from talking about the writers and their work. After all, this was a festival for abantu, both on panel and off. We asked each other questions: Fees Must Fall, feminism, violence against women and children, the myth of the black middle class, and and and. I am still surprised how I managed to hold myself together because many, including my panelists were openly weeping. And as soon as we were done, I excused myself, ran to the bathroom and cried for these much-needed conversations that we had not been having with each other.

    On the final day as we checked out, we all lingered around Soweto Hotel, keen to make the experience last a little longer, to take another photograph, to sing one more song together.

    And so as we count down to the second Abantu Festival, although I am due to do a workshop, my uninvited partner and son who were there last year already have their tickets. My little nieces from Orlando West Ext who had never attended anything literary before last year’s Abantu fell in love with Xolisa Guzula and Gcina Mhlope’s storytelling and they have been sending me voice notes since January asking me when I am coming again to take them to Abantu. One of my cousins is flying in from New York because she was awed by the photographs and videos she saw from last year.

    My family and I know we will be there for as long as it exists (and forever may it last) for however many years – invited or not – because we have never needed an invite to funerals, weddings or parties.

    For this much-needed initiative in South Africa’s landscape; for the tough, beautiful, maddening and joyful conversations and the safe space you created for us all; for what I can only term the Moria of our generation without aboBishop, thank you Thando Mgqolozana.

    And if you failed to make Abantu last year, don’t die inside. Come through from 7-10 December.
    You won’t regret it.

    Zukiswa Wanner will be leading a Creative Writing masterclass alongside Nthikeng Mohlele at the Abantu Book Festival on Friday 8 December. Click here if you want to be a part of it.

    This post originally appeared on Zukiswa Wanner’s Facebook page and is republished with permission.

    Featured image via Abantu Book Festival on Facebook