Save our stories: Why fiction matters in SA


Save our stories: Why fiction matters in SA

Jenn Platt

Our stories need to be told. Fiction in particular. As Zakes Mda said in his keynote speech at the Sunday Times Literary Awards last year: “Fiction pierces into the truth behind the facts.”Neil Gaiman explained why fiction matters in the world today in a landmark article: it is a gateway drug to reading (especially for children). What it does is build empathy. 
And we desperately need more of our stories to be told. And not just by wringing our hands about the deplorable stats on our children not being able to read.
There's a lot we can do – and now there is this: you can own shares in a publishing company to be a part of reinventing the local fiction space. It’s called Storied, and it's a first-time initiative from publisher Jacana Media. By nurturing creative talent and voices, Storied will meet a long-ignored readership. It's a live, equity crowdfunding campaign on Uprise.Africa.Investment is a minimum of R1,200, which will get you four Storied shares, with the price per share of R300. Just think of that amount of money and what it gets you these days. You can go out for dinner with friends or go shopping for clothes, or you can put your money into a publishing company that will publish our much-needed local fiction.
Owning Storied shares gives the investor a chance to be part of the efforts made towards turning fiction sales around and investing in emerging writers and editors.
Storied is an equity investment and a social investment, and although it will yield returns, investors have to be aware that it will not be similar to high-return companies, especially when weighed up against the industry’s performance in the past five years. Growth rates, when using general fiction sales figures, have averaged around 10%.
But it is the additional stuff that matters.
You'll be supporting writers and editors though the bursary programmes, and these writers will have a platform for their work. Books from the Storied Collection are being donated to libraries, making them accessible to people who would otherwise not be able to get them. You'll be giving writers opportunities to market their work at book fairs and festivals.
Storied wants to address all the elements on the book publishing chain, from the author, to marketing, to distribution, to creating more access, and to growing readership.Investment is all done online through the Uprise.Africa website – you have to have up-to-date Fica documents ready from when you log onto the platform (upload proof of residence and an ID document). This is a requirement by the Financial Services Board. There is also a series of questions to ensure that you are informed about what the investment is about, and within 10 minutes you can buy your shares. That investment will give you ownership of a part of Storied.
The power behind this initiative is Leabiloe Molapo. We asked her a few questions:How did you get into Storied?
I met the publishing director, Bridget Impey, of Jacana Media through the Wits Publishing Studies programme where she lectures. I was that student always asking about opportunities in the industry. I think I was such a pain that when the Storied initiative was first conceived, I was one of the first people she thought of. I had expressed an interest in fiction publishing, so she knew it was something I was passionate about.
What is your background?
At my high school we had a career day and one of the speakers on that day was the country representative for the United Nations Development Programme in Lesotho. She spoke about changing peoples’ lives though policies that addressed poverty, and the opportunities within the UN that made it possible to live in different countries and so on and so forth.
All I took from that talk was “save the world” and “travel’. I was 15 and impressionable. So at university I majored in economics, and after my post-grad I started working in investment management as a research analyst, then in investment banking. Not exactly a “saving-the-world” industry.
I did that for some years before my family moved to Ghana – because of my husband’s job – where we spent three years, after which we moved to France for four years. In that time I was a freelance writer and editor.
When we came back in August 2015 I was certain that my former banking/economist/marketer life was definitely not what I wanted to continue with. I was keen to get into writing and publishing.
How did you get into publishing?
In an indirect way. I had initially wanted to do a creative writing degree, but because of not having an extensive creative writing portfolio of work, I didn’t get in. Or maybe I was just not good enough, I’ll never know. Then in one of those serendipitous ways I found out about the publishing programme. I figured that if I couldn’t spend my days creating the work, I could at least spend them reading other people’s work. So publishing it was.
What are your hopes for this project?
That we raise the funding required and that Storied becomes synonymous with publishing great local fiction and being the incubator for young writers, editors and translators. I look at our independent publishers and how they are becoming these amazing, ballsy publishers of African fiction; Blackbird Books is carving out its name as an unapologetic publisher of black writers; Modjaji Books has always been the champion for feminist/women writers; Geko publishing has been adamant about publishing in both English and African languages; and the recently launched Khaloza Books has become this trailblazer by publishing those diverse stories about African heroes, for African children. Independent publishers are introducing that much-needed diversity by carving out their own spaces and niches in South Africa’s publishing world, which is great for the industry.
I think there is enormous potential for Storied to not only be a publisher of local fiction, but also this nurturing environment for writers. It would be great for writers to know that: Storied will take their work and refine it without stripping it off its authenticity. That the editors they work with will understand the nuance in the language used and not wish to change and make it understood for a Eurocentric gaze. But I would also like the project to highlight and bring more awareness to the fact that some of the numbers we’re seeing around fiction publishing reveal a fairly tragic scenario of how we’re losing interest in telling and reading stories. Maybe that awareness on its own will change the way we make our book-buying decisions, especially when it comes to local fiction.
Why fiction in particular?
It is through fiction that we learn about other societies. When I was much younger, I learnt about England though the Ladybird books, Roald Dahl, Charles Dickens, and Enid Blyton. The US became a country I got to understand though the writings of Toni Morrison, Harper Lee, F Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain. I grew up in Lesotho, so even South Africa was seen and imagined through JM Coetzee, Bessie Head, Nadine Gordimer, and Es’kia Mphahlele’s eyes. We got to learn about Nigeria through Chinua Achebe, and all those Heinemann African Writer series books opened our eyes to countries we had not even thought of travelling to. The importance of fiction cannot be underestimated when it comes to informing about other cultures.
Why are there not enough readers of South African fiction?
I have never fully examined why it is that South African fiction sales are so poor – and partly because I was never aware of the challenges around the dismal figures. There was a time though when South African fiction was synonymous with political themes, and it seemed that your average non-politically themed fiction that was just about a good story and escapism was hard to come by. We're getting increasingly more books that are just good reads and don’t task the reader with having a social or political awakening of some sort. And that is also good to see. Perhaps with those changes, in what writers and publishers are offering, we will get people reading more of our own fiction.
Besides publishing, what other goals does Storied have?
We want to grow readership. Though donating books to libraries and by creating better access to our books through alternative distribution methods. Some of the challenges are making books accessible to people in peri-urban areas, where distributors are reluctant to deliver to, or where bookshops are a rarity.
Favourite novel?Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje. I read it more than 15 years ago, and it’s the only book that has stayed with me. The plot is around this young forensic anthropologist working for a human rights group who returns to Sri Lanka to investigate political murders. It is a very random choice. Maybe where I was emotionally at the time when I read it influenced why it is still one of my favourite novels.
Favourite author?For a long time it was Jhumpa Lahiri. I loved her short stories in Interpreter of Maladies and her first novel, An Unaccustomed Earth. But that was years ago, and I have not read her more recent book, so maybe she is no longer a firm favourite. I have also read so many other new authors that I cannot settle on one. My more current favourite is Ayòbámi Adébáyò because of Stay with Me. I also have a thing for Chinelo Okparanta’s writing. Again, that bias towards short stories.
Are you are writer?
An aspiring one. I write short stories and essays, which only my family gets to read. I am still not brave enough to put my work out there. I started writing a book – which was my musings as a trailing spouse when we moved to Ghana. I found myself in this weird space where I was a bona fide housewife. Initially it was the most surreal and depressing period for me, while I was trying to figure out what to do with this new role and also trying to find my place in this expat milieu, where everybody else around me was loving that life. The writing was cathartic. I wrote a couple of chapters, sent it to a few friends to read, submitted it to a publisher, then parked it for some years. But it became, for those years in Ghana, my raison d’être ... as in, “I am writing a book”, versus “I don’t work, can’t work, and go by a moniker that’s a throwback to another era”. It’s still in my cloud storage somewhere and it is a very cringe-worthy read. I journal (a lot) and blog about books, food and travel.
If you could have four authors over for dinner, who would you choose?Zadie Smith – I have always thought there was this unrushed pace to her writing, and I imagine her being as equally calm in real life. Kopano Matlwa because I have a huge girl crush on her, and of course I love her books. Maybe she could reveal the secret to how she does it all as a doctor, a writer, a scholar, a mother – all with so much grace. Petina Gappah – I heard her speak at a book launch about two years ago and I think she has an amazing, self-deprecating sense of humour. I am also partial to her short stories. Zukiswa Wanner – I am currently reading London, Cape Town, Joburg and really enjoying her writing.
What book would people be surprised to see on your bookshelf?On my Kindle I have Fifty Shades of Grey. When the book came out, like everybody else I wanted to know why it was such a phenomenal success. I read all of it. But I think every other person I know has a copy hidden away somewhere and would never willingly admit to having read it. We’re always afraid to admit reading books that are not high-brow enough. It’s funny how we’ll read the most obscure, incomprehensible literary writing and never admit to not getting it. But with popular fiction, we’re so much more critical. I also have Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. I started following her when she was still blogging about trying to find joy in your daily life, no matter how mundane. Her writing is more self-help. Which, I think, is something people would be surprised to see on my bookshelf.
What book wouldn't you read?I read most genres, with some hesitation towards magic realism – even though I still read it. I also don’t restrict myself too much when it comes to subject matter. It would probably be any of Stieg Larsson’s books. I had to read one many years ago as a book club read and I swore, never again! Actually, Scandinavian crime fiction is a genre I will not pick up easily. It’s too dark, and often with such morally-ambiguous characters.
These days I am torn about not finishing books I do not like – there are only so many hours in a day, and so many other books out there to be read. But I think you can’t speak critically about books either if you don’t finish them, or if you rigidly police what subject matter or genre you do read. Barring themes of sexual violence and child abuse, especially when they don’t serve the plot that much, I read everything.
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