‘Write for social change’ says Ama Ata Aidoo
Ghanaian author and poet, Ama Ata Aidoo, South African novelist and poet, Zakes Mda, and poet-laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile spoke about the challenges facing African writers in the literary world, their shared history and politically loaded works in a panel discussion hosted at the newly opened National English Literary Museum in Grahamstown during an Africa Month Colloquium titled ‘Africa, Literature and the Cultural Renaissance’.
They were joined by spoken word poet Lebo Mashile who emceed the evening; as well as Lesedi Thwala, Thembani Ma’at Onceya and Nathaniel Nyaluza, from the local Grahamstown poetry group called the Cycle of Knowledge. Vangi Gantsho, a Creative Writing Master’s Student at the University Currently Known as Rhodes, was also present. All the literary greats dissident poetry spoke back to the current ruling elite’s failures and corruption.
300 people squeezed in to hear the panel discussion, with the brand new state of the art venue filled to twice its capacity. Speaking to the idea of the African Renaissance, Aidoo commented that Africa is “important to the future of our galloping humanity”. Both she, Mda and Kgositsile emphasised the importance of their positions as African writers, due to the limited publicity they had previously received in the literary market, gesturing to the historical and institutional erasure of black excellence.
“If you are African, I can’t see how we don’t write for social change,” Aidoo said.
Kgositsile spoke about their long history as friends and colleagues, and Mda added to this by reading from his memoir and recounting stories of Aidoo’s unwavering ethical framework as a political minister and writer. Aidoo commented that she is often described as ‘too political’, adding, “I don’t apologise for that by the way. I just have a politicised imagination.”
Aidoo told a story about an English teacher she had had as a girl, who gave her a typewriter after she expressed desire to become a poet. Aidoo added that she “became a writer by being a reader”, referring to her love of a literature that began at a young age. “I am an old-fashioned scribbler,” she said humbly, explaining her dabblings in multiple literary forms including flash fiction, novel writing and poetry.
Mda echoed Aidoo’s position when he argued that “all art is political precisely because art and literature is about social relations and power relations”. He spoke about his work being inextricable from political motivations.
“I am a story teller and those stories are set somewhere, and my characters interact with other characters and those characters also interact with their environment and whether I like it or not that interaction is political,” he explained. “Organically the work will be political.”
Kgositsile added that the role of the artist is to represent society, not to reflect it but to articulate it so that we can see ourselves more clearly. “Mirrors are not creative, they are static,” he said, adding that the responsibility of using art for social change belongs to all artists alive today.
The talk brought Kgositsile, Aidoo and Mda together to reflect on the growth of Modern African literature, inspire cultural revolution and encourage succeeding generations to use literature as a tool for social change.