To buy a book and read it is a pleasure reserved for one’s precious spare time, a moment to escape and nurture your personal interests. So, while I could tell you to read local simply to support our country’s authors, this would come across as unhelpful, patronising even. To position South African authors as in need of support intimates that the product on offer is possibly less competitive than its overseas counterparts.
The real reason to support South African writing is because the stories are damn good. We’re at an exciting place in local literature, with short story and poetry anthologies challenging the status quo, and a range of African experiences, from the everyday to the political, making it onto the page in fresh ways.
As a reader, there is something to be said for seeing yourself and the places you know in a story, to feel the story resonate with the land from which it was born, as if it was born from within you too. As a parent or teacher, there is a deeply important responsibility to give children access to stories alive with characters that look like them, in settings they can relate to, in a first language that they understand. These are all wonderful and exciting reasons to make the South African literature shelf your first stop in any bookstore.
But here is the harsh reality. Books, while romantic, poetic and essential, remain commercial products. That means that the print runs they receive and the prominence one title gets over another depends on retail interest and sales. In order for local literature to thrive, we need to buy books.
Despite the increasing efforts of retailers to display local titles, it can still be difficult to find a local book that’s on your radar. Maybe the book isn’t out yet, or copies have already sold out. We live in a world where it is easier (and we expect) to walk into a store and find the things we want, but if you have the time and foresight to order a South African title from your favourite bookshop or book dealer, it is a tangible register of demand.
Of course, there is also a larger issue at hand. In a contracting global economy, books are often an expensive luxury item. Yet stories are essential, especially those told by local voices. Our writers capture our country in all its facets, creating a legacy, making people feel heard and at home, or simply making us laugh.
If you are in the place to buy a book this Christmas and want to try a local title, here are a few things you can do, with some that don’t require spending at all:
- Ask someone at your independent bookshop to recommend a South African title to suit you or the person you are buying for.
- Join a local book club, or start your own.
- Support independent book dealers – there are a number of amazing entrepreneurs who can recommend and deliver South African titles to your door.
- Start a book club at your office. It’s a great way to build relationships in an informal manner, and, if you invite local authors, it helps them reach readers we wouldn’t otherwise.
- Support independent bookstores and publishers who are championing South African children’s literature such as Ethnikids. This is, arguably, where diverse representation matters most.
- Join a Facebook book club such as The Good Book Appreciation Society, which has a plethora of local recommendations across all genres.
- Be mindful that some of the big, hyped international titles are everywhere because they have a big marketing budget to match. Just because one book is extra visible doesn’t mean that others are less worthy of your attention.
- Pre-order your favourite author’s new title in store before it is released.
One of the most daunting and exciting prospects of local literature is the element of the unknown. It’s impossible to know every new South African author that comes on the scene, which books are good and which reads won’t suit your personal taste. I hope you take a chance on a local read this Christmas, and find something that delights and surprises you. ML