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Centre for Creative Arts

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Changing Fictions, Changing Cultures at the Time of the Writer

Angelina SithebeLindy Stiebel, UKZN Professor of English and project leader for KZN Literary Tourism, sat down with authors Jo-Anne Richards and Angelina Sithebe for a thought-provoking dialogue centered on the topic, “South African Fictions”, on the penultimate night of the Time of the Writer.

Sithebe’s debut novel, Holy Hill, described as “powerful and unsettling” by Stiebel, took the verdant Valley of a Thousand Hills in KZN as the inspiration for its setting, Sithebe said. She wanted to bring to life the vividly textured nuances of the valley’s colours and smells in her story. But it was the city woman in her who wrote the book: born in Soweto, the “edginess” and vibrancy of greater Joburg have etched themselves into her psyche, and provide unequivocal comfort whenever she returns.

Victor DlaminiThe relationship of the writer’s personal life to his or her fiction was explored, with Richards adamantly denying any autobiography in her work (latest novel: My Brother’s Book, launched at the TOW), although she felt certain generalities and details were drawn from her experiences as a Joburger. Though both these accomplished writers appeared exacting in their methods, the inexplicable element of magic was regularly alluded to – Sithebe draws inspiration from dreams, and Richards’ sartorial superstitions are unfailingly obeyed: she wears the same pair of pants whenever writing!

Emmanuel DongalaIn the second half of the evening, Breyten Breytenbach (A Veil of Footsteps, Die Windvanger) and Emmanuel Dongala (Johnny Mad Dog) took to the stage with Victor Dlamini, a consistent and insightful presence at this year’s festival. Dlamini navigated the two participant’s commentaries on “Changing Cultures” with keen insight, clearly relishing the occasion to pick the brains of this “all-star cast.”

With Breytenbach writing variously in French, English and Afrikaans and Dongala a Francophone born in the Central African Republic, but calling Congo Republic (and now New York) home, the two not only shared a love for jazz and left-handedness, but more significantly live within cultural contradictions that clearly influence their art. After brief readings from each, Dlamini recalled the memorable words of the late poet Mazisi Kunene: “When a poet reads aloud, they can hear God in their words.”

Breyten BreytenbachBreytenbach and Dlamini both felt the notion of “culture” to be an oft-times perilous label to be wary of. Breytenbach said the concept attempted to “reify difference” and was often exploited to justify the perpetration of wrongs. Being something of a nomad himself, he explained that the idea of culture often barred the imagination from entertaining commonalities: “the wind is yours, the stars are yours and the sand is your.”

Dongala was also suspicious of culture-as-identity rhetoric, with good reason. Born to a CAF mother, whose people were patrilineal, he moved when young to the Congo with his father, whose people were matrilineal – and thus ended up a quasi-orphan in both places. Both he and Breytenbach spoke of the bravery of illegal aliens migrating from West Africa to Europe only to become, as Breytenbach put it, “second class, shadow people.” In search of the hope and human dignity deprived of them by corrupt leaders, the migrants’ cultural identity seemed so often be the most insidious of enemies – whereas “they should be getting gold medals” for surviving their treks.

Lindy Stiebel - South African FictionsClosing the evening, Dlamini expressed appreciation for the week of literary activities just gone by, and Breytenbach signed off the last moments with typical finesse: “The only way to lose yourself is to become part of the rhythm. The only way to never become attached is to get involved completely. The only way to never age is to live in the present.”