16 March 2005

Mobilizing South African writers across the globe

Have you ever thought about what it must be like to be a writer, and especially a poet, in a country where there is an 80 per cent total illiteracy rate? What a luxury or indulgence it must seem to spend your time penning verse while people around you battle with the invisible and tangible barriers that illiteracy causes. Enough to make Brendon Nelson feel happy about his job here in the land of Oz -- which by the way, is referred to by South Africans who have not migrated here as "the new country", and you can read that with a heavy dose of irony and sometimes, yes, bitterness I think -- because those writers who have elected to stay there do it tough. Even if they do have the best constitution in the world. There is no Literature Board or Arts Tasmania to cushion you or quibble about. No plethora of literary journals either, though a few decades ago there was a blossoming of small magazines of the kind we take for granted here. (See next post.)

Well, in South Africa, a great initiative by the web site, LitNet aims to mobilize South African writers through a massive chain interview that will stretch over a period of twelve months or more.

It's hoped the project will get conversations going between writers who work in different languages, and between authors who publish in various contexts and cultures. Importantly it will also bridge distances both geographic and linguistic in that land of many languages, and so "contribute to cultural debate in an open society".

The ABSA/LitNet Chain Interview project works like this: a writer sends another five questions to answer about their writing or approach, and that respondent in turn interviews the next writer, with multiple conversations happening simultaneously. I'm looking forward to receiving five questions to answer from Ivan Vladislavic, whom I knew through Lionel Abrahams when Ivan was a young writer starting out in the early 80s. I am in some trepidation as Ivan is one of the sharpest people I know, has a wicked sense of humour and is a satirist of the first order. As one of South Africa's most prominent writers, his work has won most of that country's major literary prizes. In one piece I read recently, he is said to be on par with Coetzee and Gordimer, and I would say that is no exaggeration. His work has been translated into French and German; you can read about him in this project interview series at LitNet

Organiser Etienne Van Heerden writes: 'Hopefully strong issues will be raised, e.g. the responsibility of the author, the state of South African writing, the problems with publishing and development of new voices, the language issue, reading trends, the training of new writers, etc. All LitNet’s material gets archived and this ongoing seminar will be a valuable source for researchers and readers'.

Last year, Litnet brought more than fifty writers, publishers and editors of 35 years and younger together in the '2004 Young Voices Online Writers' Conference, a historic multilingual conference which ran from October until December 2004.
LitNet is at: http://www.litnet.co.za

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