Youth Month is a good time to reflect on the past. Our past. It is when we take a moment of silence to remember those who died to liberate us. It is important to remember. And stories are an essential part of remembering.
Stories enable us to view past events as if we were part of it. As readers, we are able to step into the shoes of those who lived through difficulties we hope never to face. Stories help us see through the eyes of another person, to understand, and to feel empathy for what they went through. Stories are how we learn.
In short, stories help us to become better human beings. Because in understanding the past, we are able to better prepare for the future. Stories help us to be more considerate, kinder, good. Can you imagine a future made entirely of readers? It’s a wonderful thought, isn’t it?
This is why it is so important for South African stories to be told to our youth. Yes, The Hunger Games is a great series. It teaches us to question authority, to fight the good fight. But do we want our children to imagine themselves as Katniss Everdeen when they could learn the same lessons from true South African struggle heroes?
There are so many stories set in South Africa, fantastic stories about real South African issues, told from the perspective of our own children. There are also countless books written in indigenous languages, making these stories even more accessible. We need to hear our stories. It’s the only way we can work through our own daily struggles.
I recently read Blood Ties by Zimkhitha Mlanzeli, about an Eastern Cape girl who travels with her uncle to Khayelitsha to start a new life in Cape Town. The story touches on dark themes like gangsterism, rape and the sex industry - all very raw issues. Sadly, it is necessary to write about these horrible topics because they are a reality. But the real beauty of Blood Ties lies in how the characters overcome these realities through empathy, hope and a sincere desire to see justice done. This is the true value of South African stories. They teach us that we are able to overcome evil.
There are many books like Blood Ties out there. South African young adult authors write about boys trafficked from other countries and forced to work in mines, girls who look to sugar daddies to support them, gangsterism, drugs, HIV, homophobia and xenophobia - all realities our youth have to face every day.
One needs simply to look at the Sanlam Youth Prize and MML Literature Award shortlists to see the quality and variety of prize-winning work being produced. I don’t sidestep the harsh truth either. In Sharp Edges, I wrote about Siya, a young man conflicted about his own sexuality and how his family will react. It was an important issue to tackle because somewhere out there is a teenager suffering from the same debilitating fear.
Stories give us hope. They show us that there is always light on the other side of darkness. South African youth fiction is a celebration of our beautiful country and our people, our history and our future. They are a celebration of our voices and our stories. I rejoice every time I see a South African youth novel being prescribed in schools, or read and spoken about in reading clubs such as those run by initiatives like the Nal’ibali national reading-for-enjoyment campaign, because it means our children are being exposed to these books and, more importantly, reading them.
S.A. Partridge is a young adult novelist from Cape Town whose first novel, The Goblet Club, won the English category in the You/Huisgenoot I am a Writer competition in 2007 as well as the MER Youth Prize at the M-Net Via Afrika Awards in 2008.