The book fair opens the door to the South African present

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Facts: The Gothenburg Book Fair

The book fair in Gothenburg opens on Thursday 22 September with a speech by, among others, South Africa’s Deputy Culture Minister Nocawe Mafu. This year’s South African theme has been brought forward from 2020 and has meanwhile grown. Hedda Krausz Sjögren, former cultural councilor in Pretoria (Sweden’s first on the African continent) has been the curator. The ambition has been to reflect the breadth, according to Oskar Ekström, Book Fair’s program manager:

— It has been very important for us not to get stuck in historical South Africa. At the same time, there will be a conversation about the apartheid era, which still characterizes much of the literature, it is included as an important part of the program, not least the strong relations that Sweden and South Africa had then, he says and talks about Swedish actors who themselves heard to participate in this year’s fair.

Among the many guests from South Africa are Damon Galgut, Ivan Vladislavic, Koleka Putuma, Lorato Trok, Siphokazi Jonas and Niren Tolsi. The fair also presents South African suspense literature (Deon Meyer) and “African futurism”, a genre that includes both dystopias and science fiction from the African continent.

There is not one South African literature – there are many. In a country that already today has eleven different official languages, life is so complex that you also have to invent new ones to be able to depict what is happening here and now, says Sylvia Vollenhoven on the phone from Johannesburg.

— One of the most exciting languages ​​for me is called “African Apes”. It is an example of how people take informal spoken language and start writing it. It’s a kind of rebellion against the colonial idea of ​​what is accepted and appropriate when it comes to literature, it’s extremely interesting to me. Colonialism and apartheid have silenced so many voices in this country, she says.

But the linguistic rebellion also includes Afrikaans, emphasizes Sylvia Vollenhoven. Outside South Africa, Afrikaans is often synonymous with white South Africans, but the language is also spoken by blacks and also has roots in the language of blacks, she underlines. She talks about poems and songs being written right now to take it back.

— For me, it’s very exciting, alongside the political changes in the country, a literary evolution is taking place.

Performance poets

The South African theme at the Book Fair in Gothenburg is arranged in collaboration with the National Library of South Africa, which among other things gives a lot of space to the lively South African spoken word scene with performance poets such as Koleka Putuma.

Among the fair’s guests is also the South African Booker Prize winner Damon Galgut, who writes in English. So does Masande Ntshanga, born in 1986, who lived his first years in a so-called bantustan, or homeland, where blacks were referred to gain autonomy, but which was in fact controlled by the apartheid regime.

When Masande Ntshanga discovered that his Bantustan, the Ciskei – like the others – was hardly depicted in fiction, he made it the main theme of his writing. He explains the literary invisibility with an education system whose purpose was to program people to serve. There was no literary schooling to speak of, and still today there are only a handful of writers from the Eastern Cape Province, which were formerly the homelands of the Ciskei and Transkei.

— The strangeness of this absence began to enter my thoughts as a way of looking at the present and the future. How will it go with South Africa? It became very useful for exploring what is happening now, he says.

“Slightly raw” novel

Also coming to Gothenburg is Marlene van Niekerk, whose novel “Agaat” (2012) about the relationship between a farm woman with ALS and her black caretaker became a big favorite for many Swedish readers. Now comes her award-winning debut novel “Triomf” in Swedish translation.

— It’s a little raw. I don’t know how people will perceive it, she says.

“Triomf” is about a dysfunctional and incestuous white-trash family, to say the least, living in a suburb of Johannesburg, built on what was once Sophiatown, a black cultural hub, razed to the ground by the apartheid regime.

Marlene van Niekerk began writing the novel when she herself lived in Triomf and, filled with shame, found remnants of Sophiatown in her flower beds while eavesdropping on a chaotic family across the street. van Niekerk writes in Afrikaans and the novel was named in The Guardian as something of a milestone in South African literature. The story of the incestuous white family is a dark comedy but also an allegory of a sick system.

— I think people thought it was an unusual way to make this point.

Criticized criticism of the ANC

“Triumph” is set at the time of the first free elections in 1994 when the enemy was still the apartheid system. Today’s social problems are enormous and difficult to tackle as a South African writer, emphasizes van Niekerk, who now lives in the Netherlands. As a white writer criticizing the shortcomings of the ANC government does not go down well, she says, something she herself experienced when she wrote an angry poem, “Mud school” directed at the government’s inability to remove primitive schools in the Eastern Cape whose buildings are made of just clay.

— I was contacted by a person from the Ministry of Education and classified as a racist colonial writer.

van Niekerk cites black South African thinkers and writers such as Njabulo Ndebele and Jacob Dlamini as his favorites and hopes to soon read “the great South African novel”, written by a black writer.

At the same time, she is deeply concerned about developments in the country.

— I don’t know what will happen to art in South Africa, I think the era of national allegories is over, and one reason for that is that South African society is so polarized and fragmented, with huge injustices. I think it is the most unequal society in the world.

This year’s book fair runs from 22 to 25 September.