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Why South African authors need to tackle taboo topics

Nakanjani Sibiya is an award-winning author of a number of isiZulu books across various genres. Contributing most significantly to the short story category, his works often reflect the people of his rural KwaZulu-Natal hometown, depicting their sense of humour, despair, triumph and determination to survive. In this piece, Sibiya tackles just how crucial it is for South African writers to take on uncomfortable and taboo topics:

Writers in local indigenous languages have, for many years, played an invaluable role in instilling good morals and Ubuntu principles in our society. This is because books and stories are very effective in engaging the youth on these sorts of topics, particularly if they can identify with the characters. But, while there are many books in African languages that comment on the evils of substance abuse, immorality, jealously, witchcraft and so on, there is still a glaring dearth of books on pertinent issues such as corruption, xenophobia, abuse in its various forms, and many other social ills that wreak havoc on the society’s moral fibre.

Writers need to be more vocal and tackle taboo themes such as incest, homosexuality, corrective rape, virginity tests and so on without being worried that they will be regarded as corruptive. As a writer who has both been chastised and applauded for commenting on sensitive issues such as homosexuality, I believe that it is imperative that our books reflect conditions that are part of our everyday, albeit sometimes sad, reality, so as to create awareness, debate, and even suggest feasible solutions for our young people.

In a conservative society such as ours, I understand that writers may be wary to touch on sensitive issues; but the silence should be broken so that stories in indigenous languages depict plausible real-life settings and imagined possible alternative ways of being and doing. This is vital in helping the youth confront their fears, demystify unfounded convictions and affirm a sense that local youth belong to a global village.

This can be done without necessarily using bawdy, explicit language and graphic descriptions as writing critically about issues that are close to the readers’ hearts will make stories appeal, engage and inform. For instance, the youth enjoy coming-of-age stories as they identify with the characters’ reactions to events as they unfold in the story – as do children of all ages.

The educative role of stories in indigenous languages should not be overlooked, and a cursory look at stories in mother tongue shows that writers still portray women primarily as victims of social ills and patriarchal intolerance. Challenging even just this in our books can go along way towards affirming women as active participants in our country’s socio-political landscape and beginning to nurture assertive women and tolerant men for future generations.

And, if we can get our children hooked on reading, right from birth, by telling and sharing good quality stories written for them in their home languages, by the time they are young adults, we can not only grow a culture of readers, but a nation of upstanding citizens.

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