At DGMT, one of our key strategic priorities is to nurture and grow a culture of reading in South Africa, where only 14% of people are active readers of books – so I was excited to attend a panel discussion on “Getting born frees reading” at last month’s Open Book Festival in Cape Town.
At the event, three young South African authors – novelist Niq Mhlongo, comic artist Chris Beukes and memoirist Malaika Wa Azania – shared their thoughts on how to get young people reading (and why they don’t), the role of mother tongue, and (controversially!) whether African authors have a responsibility to write the stories we lack.
Much of what was discussed isn’t new. We know that inequality and economics matter when it comes to who owns and who reads books. We know that children and teens are more likely to read when they see role models reading, and when they can access stories that resonate with their lived experience.
Still, hearing about how these truths played out in the authors’ life stories was powerful. Niq Mhlongo told us why he started reading: because his brother would never turn off the light.
Growing up in a four-room house with nine siblings, he shared a room with six brothers. “There was this brother I used to not like earlier on, because he would always keep the switch on reading”, he said. “You would wake up in the middle of the night and the switch would still be on, and he would be laughing. I thought, what is this laughing about? And I picked up the book, and I laughed as well. That’s how I started reading.”
Reading is imitative, he stressed: “You see people reading, and then you can read as well.”
Malaika Wa Azania, a published author at 22, told us she was suspended 35 times in high school for bunking English: she simply did not see a reason to be there.
“My teachers decided from grade 8 right through matric, we are going to read Shakespeare – and if we were not reading Shakespeare, we were reading some other dodgy novels,” she said, drawing a laugh from the audience. “I loved reading. But what we were reading in class at that time did not inspire me to want to read. It had nothing to do with my lived experience.”
Part of the reason that young black people do not read, Malaika said, is that “books that are written have nothing to do with us.”
While one of the beautiful things about literature is that it can take us outside of our lived experience, the question of what “hooks” us is a crucial one. When I taught creative writing to post-matrics, I saw their eyes light up when I shared Lebo Mashile and Maya Angelou – and I learned that speaking to a person’s soul is the best way to spark an interest in writing and reading.
For me, this raised the question: what literature is being taught in our schools – and why don’t we place a much higher premium on South African and African writers, on stories that resonate with the lived experience of young people today?
This question led to the most heated topic of discussion: given that available literature is dominated by white and Western voices, can black authors write what they like? Here, the panellists disagreed.
“People should be allowed to be free,” Niq said. “If you feel there is a shortage of African language writers, write it! Don’t put pressure on other people. Everyone should be able to write in the language they are comfortable.” He himself writes in English, he said, because he grew up in Soweto – so while he speaks “half of every South African language”, he doesn’t speak any of them fluently.
But Malaika disagreed. “Writing has a role to play in society that goes beyond telling a story,” she said. “It has a role to claim or reclaim an identity for a people. I think there are people who must claim a duty, a moral obligation, of healing the brokenness – in particular in the black community.”
Though that debate wasn’t resolved, what shone through strongly in all the panellists’ voices was that each of them had an “Aha” moment – a book that hooked them, gave them a greater purpose, changed the way in which we see the world. For Malaika, it was Steve Biko’s “I Write What I Like”, a 16th birthday gift. For Niq, it was the African Writers Series that kept his brother awake late at night.
To get born frees reading, we need to ensure that they have these “aha” moments. To achieve that, we need affordable, accessible books in all South African communities. We need young people to see role models who are engrossed in stories. And we need to make sure young people are able to read stories that resonate with their lives and speak to their souls.