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Female writers in Africa enter an exciting new chapter

Taking a stanza: Literature professor and Jamaican poet laureate Lorna Goodison will deliver the Nadine Gordimer In Memoriam lecture at the African Women Writers Symposium. She will read from her latest collection, which tackles themes such as motherhood, racial identity and gender politics. Picture: SUPPLIED

Taking a stanza: Literature professor and Jamaican poet laureate Lorna Goodison will deliver the Nadine Gordimer In Memoriam lecture at the African Women Writers Symposium. She will read from her latest collection, which tackles themes such as motherhood, racial identity and gender politics. Picture: SUPPLIED

Female writers are being given a platform during the annual Arts Alive festival, funded by the City of Joburg and the Gauteng department of community development.

Now in its 25th year, the festival has played an important role in helping to transform Johannesburg into a Pan African, gender-equal city where the joy of writing and reading is reaching more young people.

Arts Alive curator Roshnie Moonsammy, who has been linked to the festival since 1995, helped start the African Women Writers Symposium in 2010.

Programmes are presented twice a year, during Africa Month in May and Heritage Month in September, to connect female writers from across the continent and the diaspora.

In 2001, the event celebrated Africa’s only female Nobel literature laureate, Nadine Gordimer, on her 88th birthday. It has since grown to include an annual Nadine Gordimer In Memoriam lecture. In past years, the lecture has been presented by Aminatta Forna and Gillian Slovo and in 2017, will be delivered by Jamaican poet laureate Lorna Goodison.

A professor of English language and literature in the department of Afro-American and African studies at Michigan University, Goodison’s life straddles the US and her birth country, Jamaica.

She credits her passion for jazz and blues music, together with theatre, philosophy, history, botany, religion and politics, as informing her poetry.

"As writers, we have to employ whatever strikes us as the most effective raw material to get our point of view across. I have a great interest in creating new forms and in writing in a variety of voices, mainly because I feel a need to bear witness, to speak for people who cannot, for a variety of reasons, speak for themselves," she says.

Goodison will be reading from her latest collection, Collected Poems, which was released in 2017. Her work on women, motherhood, gender, racial identity and politics is relevant to issues that are faced by South Africans.

"Much of my work is informed by issues that are of concern to women. As a daughter, mother, sister and wife, I feel a great need to understand the lives of my foremothers," Goodison says.

"I am very interested in reclaiming the humanity of enslaved people," she says. "I feel a need to write about the ways in which they coped under unspeakable conditions, the ways they found to subvert the system and how they managed not just to survive but in some instances to prevail."

There have always been African women with formidable voices and a few of them even managed to find their way into the history books

Lorna Goodison

The symposium is focused on world issues and writing and publishing for young female writers. The line-up includes poet and activist Diana Ferrus and 24-year-old performance poet Koleka Putuma.

Ferrus, who received global acclaim for her poem on Saartjie Baartman and the role she played in pushing for the return of Baartman’s remains from a French museum, has recently retired from the University of the Western Cape.

Putuma, a student of theatre and performance at the University of Cape Town, recently released an exciting debut collection, Collective Amnesia, which explores blackness, womanhood and history.

"There have always been African women with formidable voices and a few of them even managed to find their way into the history books," Goodison says. "In Southern Africa, two of the most powerful of those voices would be Miriam Makeba and Winnie Mandela, whose formidable presences functioned globally as constant reminders to the rest of the world of the inequities of apartheid," she says.

"Southern African women writers such as Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing, Bessie Head and Miriam Tiali are well known throughout the world."

The symposium creates a platform for dialogue, discussion and workshops for aspiring writers in a similar vein to the Jozi Book Fair. The theme of the ninth edition of the fair in 2017 was Women and Literature. The event facilitated dialogue between female authors from across the world and 5,000 participants, including 600 pupils from 30 schools.

Jozi Book Fair’s founder, Maria van Driel, says the event is part of a year-round programme that "engages children to write their own poetry and showcase their work through dance and performance".

"The link to education runs through all activities and all art forms. Education has historically alienated people — the Jozi Book Fair makes learning interesting and relevant to the world in which people live to encourage tolerance, critical thinking and deepen citizenship.

"The important challenge is to work with children, school youth and out-of-school youth on an ongoing basis to deepen the culture of reading, writing, developing cognitive skills and exposure to all art forms. We cannot change the deeply ingrained history of exclusion and underdevelopment with a quick fix."

As a result of the Jozi Book Fair 2017, a selection of school youth published their second book of short stories entitled Unbreakable and Other Stories: The Women in our Lives.

"This collection speaks to the conditions of youth and women in SA … how women exercise their social agency or lack of it, and the conditions under which they live," says Van Driel.

• The African Women Writers Symposium takes place from September 14 to 16 at Joburg Theatre.