“Do I Make You Uncomfortable?” Writing, Editing and Publishing Black in a White Industry
by Zukiswa Wanner
But still I wrote. When a new editor came to the magazine, I decided the chance had come to try to get paid a bit more. I had first-hand knowledge of what a friend who was also writing for the same magazine was getting paid. I gave a figure similar to his, but was informed that there was no budget. I was worth nothing if I was writing, and still had to worry about submitting work
consistently that would not pay a single bill in totality. So I stopped writing for the magazine just as my third novel, Men of the South, came out.
With three male protagonists, the blurb still centred around the one woman they were all connected with, but at least I had graduated as a writer. A white male literary academic then at Stellenbosch University, while moderating a panel at a literary festival, referred to the books of Thando Mgqolozana and myself as ‘great books for black teenagers’. I generally dislike classifying books, but if I had to classify my work, and Mgqolozana’s up to that point, I would
be hard-pressed to refer to it as Young Adult. But yay, perhaps I should have been glad that he didn’t refer to me as a writer of ‘great books for black teenage girls’. I don’t put much stock in literary prizes, but I felt as though Men of the South gave a middle finger to this academic when it was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize: Best Book for the Africa region. Right up there with writers that I suspect this same academic would have shown respect to – like Aminatta Forna and Helon Habila – because they are not black South Africans.
Years later, I would recount this incident on Facebook. His then wife, also a literary academic, who had not been present at the panel, took umbrage, and decided to take Panado for his headache. Years later, after they got divorced, she would send me a message apologising for her defence of him. Then, on New Year’s Day 2019, I got a message of apology from the academic. I am still, as the young’uns would say, shooketh.
I was lucky that I had a group of writer friends who helped me (and still do) ensure that I get the best possible financial deals despite some of the disrespect outlined above. Someone once
referred to these friends of mine and me as the Brat Pack of South African Literature. Every time I was offered a job and I quoted an amount, I would blind-copy Angela Makholwa, Sihle Khumalo, Ndumiso Ngcobo, Thando Mgqolozana and Siphiwo Mahala. We had all had our debut books come out within the same two-year period, so are contemporaries in that way. When the person making the request stated that my figure was too high, I would respond, ‘I’m sorry but that’s what I charge. I am happy to give you names of my contemporaries so you can see whether they may charge less.’ Invariably, when offered the gig, they would go higher to
ensure I got the tender. I would do the same for them, and in this way, we learned that the strongest pillars of support for writers are other writers.
These solid writer friends notwithstanding, I am aware that there is a hierarchy in both publishing and freelance writing in South Africa.
Buy On Being Black and Feminist in South Africa: Amazon