Thando Mgqolozana: “The audience does not treat me as a literary talent, but as an anthropological subject”


On the opening night of the Time of the Writer festival in Durban in March, author THANDO MGQOLOZANA announced that he’d forsworn white colonial literary festivals and that he’d be attending only one more such event. Mgqolozana was, of course, referring to the Franschhoek Literary Festival, which kicks off on Friday. He told Theresa Mallinson his reasons.

Thando_Mgqolozana [Time of the writer]Rejecting white colonial literary festivals is not a sudden decision I’ve made. The decision has been growing in me since I first published a book, A Man Who is Not a Man, in June 2009. I’ve been thinking a lot about it and I decided the situation was too uncomfortable for me to not do something.

The discomfort comes from being invited to a literary festival where the audience is 80% white. It’s in a white suburb in a city. I feel that I’m there to perform for an audience that does not treat me as a literary talent, but as an anthropological subject – as though those people are here to confirm their suspicions that somehow I am inferior to them.

And if they find I’m not, it’s a wonderful surprise! But if I am, if I stutter when I speak, if I find difficulty in explaining a phenomenon, then it’s a confirmation. “Ja, ja, okay, sorry, no, we love you, hugs.” It’s not an engagement.

People also say, “You’ve written a book about circumcision, let’s hear about that,” – it’s not about literary talent. It’s an uncomfortable position to be in. And I realise there’s nothing I can do as an individual to change it. But what I can do is to remove myself from that situation – to honour myself, so that I do not participate in something I’m vehemently opposed to.

I don’t think I am as important as to be missed in the literary landscape. In South Africa we’ve never had as many writers writing about the diverse things that they’re writing about as now. It’s not like, hmm, this literary festival is missing Thando.

If I thought this decision would affect my writing, I probably wouldn’t make it, because my writing means everything to me. But it won’t affect it – at least not negatively. I’m not suddenly going to be a poorer writer in terms of aptitude because I don’t go to literary festivals.

I believe that festivals have their part: you come to festivals to meet other writers, to meet readers, to hear ideas and to see what direction and shape the literary landscape is taking. All those things are important to a writer; all of those things have an impact on the reading experience.

But the reading experience is an outcome of two factors. One, the writer with his and her experiences sits down and writes the story. That’s half the job done. The job is complete when the reader, bringing his or her unique experiences, reads the story. That’s it. It ends there. Festivals, critical analysis, all of those other things – they are wonderful; they can make a book’s life longer or more glamorous. But these are things without which the reading experience will still be complete.

The South African literary landscape is physically based in the cities, and in the white suburbs. That’s where the publishers are. That’s where the bookstores are. I grew up in a township and I grew up in a village. There are no bookstores there. Here, you’ve got all the literary activity; there, you’ve got absolutely none.

The majority of the people in our country are black, they are poor – and these also happen to be people that I am writing about. And these are the people that I would like to read my work.

The best thing that I can do is to write stories in the best possible way. I have always assumed the role of an activist in terms of campaigning for the establishment of the reading culture. I don’t have a lot of money where I can open a bookshop in Khayelitsha. I’m hoping somebody will hear what I’m saying and do something about it.

I don’t think the current situation is sustainable: it will change. I’m hoping when it does change, it won’t be more black people running to Exclusive Books in Gateway; that instead books and bookstores will come to the townships and rural areas.

– As told to Theresa Mallinson.
– Featured image: Via Wikimedia Commons. Additional image: Supplied by Time of the Writer.


  1. Dude, I suggest you don’t give up whatever Day Job you have. Because writing is certainly not your vocation.
    Franschoek has no suburbs and is no City. And serious… You write like a Grade 3 pupil.

    • James, you’re intellectual bankruptcy seems incurable. You also fit the profile of what and who Thando’s protest subject. That’s for responding!

    • James, his day job is to WRITE, so you are on the right track by saying he shouldn’t give that one up. I am challenging you to start writing as well, perhaps you’ll come to reason a lot more better than the grade 3 you have presented yourself to being.

      By the way, no grade 3 can adapt a bible methodology into such brilliant works of art like Thando did in ‘Here me alone’. “Unimportance” is beyond many layers literally advanced than watching your Inception, I suggest you go check it out.

      I am yet to see grade 3s that are producing counter-dominant ideologies about society’s hypocrisy when it comes to culture. Till now I have not seen such who have actually challenged the notion of circumcision and its side-falls of harming people and their lives. This is captured in “A man who is not a man”, by the way.

  2. Hear hear, Thando. For a related literary interpretation of his experience at writers’ events, see Chimamanda Ngozi Ndichie’s “Jumping Monkey Hill” in the collection “Thing Around Your Neck.” Her piece sounds eerily like a place in Noordhoek…

  3. I think you should keep writing for the people you want to write for. And I think you should keep reminding people at white colonial literary festivals that there’s more out there than white literature. The best way to change someone’s mind is to demonstrate repeatedly that they’re wrong.

  4. I don’ git it… what did Larry King jokingly say about the then popular gripe of women (probably in American
    society) : ” they control 75% of expenditure and 100% of the pussy and they call themselves oppressed?!!”..
    I mean WTF? There are plenty plenty black multi- shmulties who could easily put up the money for semi- portable (shipping container) libraries that could be placed in impoverished or other areas. They could have their name on the side an start a legacy, say, like Carnegie or Rupert. It requires effort persistence and perhaps a little blackmail (if you will…), so just do it! Anyway, I dont agree with your very materialist paradigm, the one that you are stewing in, Jesus spoke of the ” poverty of the wealthy” … you”re a f***g artist man ! liberate yourself! The wealthy also need love and liberation, don’t you know that?
    We are ALL fuck-ups , that’s why we are here and that’s why the world is the way it is….
    you don’t have to thank me…. ha ha ha

  5. Thando,

    Books and book stores will not just magically come to the townships and rural areas – you have the power (and hopefully some influence) to make this happen!

    Approach publishers. Approach local government. Approach NPO’s. DO something.

    I really hope that over the next few years you realise that boycotting and feeling belittled isn’t going to get this situation ANYWHERE – You have identified the gap, now you have to become selfless and put in the hard work to make it happen. I honestly have a good feeling about it!

  6. Writers want their books read, talked about and hopefully, sold. That is the principal reason for having festivals like Franschoek. Its difficult out there to get exposure so take it or leave it. Most people would be pleased to have any audience.. dont keep using the colour thing. I can use the age thing now and once upon a time Jews were obsessed with blaming everything on being Jewish. Even if u got yr blacks only audience u would find something wrong with them too. So stop whining and be pleased u have been published. And people might read you and listem to you …

  7. […] the illusion of stability underpinning the fragile thing we call South African literature. In an article published by the Daily Vox, he explains his position, which is effectively that he no longer wishes to participate in South […]

  8. Hi Thando! Perhaps you already know this, but Binyavanga Wainaina is also really interested in how Africans can get to read his books, especially when big outside-of-the-continent publishing houses keep the Africa rights to a book, but are utterly incapable of distributing them so that they are actually read across the continent. Just thought you might like to know of his work on that front, just in case you didn’t already know. So glad you write!

  9. Your views are understandable, some of them true to everyone in South Africa. Although to be a writer of your stature and say, “I’m hoping somebody will hear what I’m saying and do something about it.” is a shame. Initiate the change you want to see in the world. Bring writers to the township, hold your own festival if needs be, because at the end of the day you are, in essence, the mouthpiece of the people you want to represent. I would hope that rather than sit around and wait you would do something about it. As a young person I know I would follow you.
    Other than that it is very admirable of you to speak up and against what you feel is wrong.


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