Local heroes fight back

<p>Back in 1984, a year after I arrived in South Africa, I was approached by some students conducting research on opinions about South African writing, to which I gave the answer: &quot;It's awful!&quot; I can no longer recall how I came to form that opinion, but for many years there has been a kind of cultural snobbery in South Africa that has relegated local writing to the inferior, mediocre and not-as-good-as-overseas categories.</p>
<p>This low opinion is mainly the result of a colonial mindset, which regards products from the colonised land as being inferior to the &quot;genuine articles&quot; produced in the mother country. It is not a strictly South African phenomenon. Recently, Australian poet and publisher Philip Hammial complained about how Australians prefer US or British authors to their own.&nbsp;Chilean poet Rodrigo Rojas has said that in South America, locally produced books only sell well provided they have the &quot;endorsement&quot; of being distributed via the mother country, Spain.</p>
<p>In South Africa, this mindset has been reinforced by a number of factors, including the literary syllabi of schools and universities, whose English literature courses have, until recently, consisted of about 95% US and British authors, and a mere 5% of locals.</p>
<p>In addition, the practice even in post-apartheid South Africa is for bookstores to stock South African authors&mdash; and African authors in general&mdash;separately from overseas authors (this is also, incidentally, the same practice with local music in CD stores). While the bookstores would argue that this separation makes it easier for customers to find local writing&mdash;as it certainly does&mdash;a number of writers and publishers in South Africa have suspected that the colonial mindset is in play, regarding African writing as somehow different (read inferior) from that produced elsewhere.</p>
<p>A few years ago, a manager from South African national bookstore chain Exclusive Books openly admitted to being unenthusiastic about local literature. She has since changed her mind, but today, even Nobel Prize-winning authors Nadine Gordimer and J M Coetzee are usually stocked in the South African fiction section and not in the general fiction section.</p>
<p>Thankfully, the reading public's attitude is slowly but surely changing and they are beginning to respond positively to the wealth of local writing being published. There has also been a vast increase in print publishing in the country in the past few years, with an astonishing number of new titles and imprints, from both commercial and independent publishers, coming on to the market.</p>
<p>Jacana Media and Kwela Books have been active in publishing local fiction, while University of KwaZulu&ndash;Natal Press has been producing a number of quality poetry titles. A new imprint, Oshun, focuses on women's writing, and Penguin SA has published the highly successful novel, <i>Spud</i>, by John van de Ruit. Published in 2006, <i>Spud</i> has sold more than 100,000 copies and was the top selling fiction title over Christmas week.</p>