A new African literary award and anthology celebrates the work of photographers and writers addressing gender issues, human rights and sexuality. Writer and activist Sisonke Msimang, (pictured above), on the boards of the International Women’s Health Coalition and the Graça Machel Trust, is one of three judges for the inaugural award and explains the need to showcase these emerging voices.
Why did Jacana Literary Foundation and The Other Foundation feel the need to create a new award and anthology for gender, sexuality and human rights issues, specifically?
“This generation of Africans – those who are activists and writers and artists – have been finding the most incredible was to express themselves about gender and all the ways in which we have sex, and love sex, or are shy about sex, or pretend we aren’t doing it. This anthology serves as a sort of pulse check, a way to say we are here and we are complicated – and these issues matter to us.”
What are some of the biggest issues Africa finds itself facing in 2016 and beyond, when it comes to these issues?
“Homophobia is as significant an issue on our continent as it is anywhere. We’re having this conversation the day after the Orlando massacre [at a prominent gay nightclub in Florida, USA]. We can’t wish homophobia and transphobia away. There is no question that misogyny and the hatred of ‘queer’ people are some of our biggest problems. At the same time, we have seen significant progress… when I travel this continent, I am amazed by the ways communities of rebellious, non-gender conforming, feminist, pro-rights people are just flourishing.”
The award and anthology is named after Gerald Kraal, a struggle activist who believed South Africa’s transformation should be inclusive of all people, including the LGBTI community. Can you tell me more about his legacy, and why the foundations decided to name the award in his honour?
“Gerald was a friend to many – this award and anthology are a tribute to him and the legacy he left behind. He was an incredible human being. I only met him a few times but was always struck by the depth of his commentary. He was also an incredible writer; Ice in the Lungs – which I only read recently – is an amazing work of fiction and it is so tender and nuanced. He was warm and deeply committed, and after the end of apartheid he worked in philanthropy to make sure that communities were able to benefit from the fruits of our liberation.”
Tell me more about your journey – what drew you to write about issues of money, power, race relations and sex?
“Like Gerald, I come from a background as an activist and then a funder. I worked on HIV/Aids and gender issues in the late 1990s and early 2000s, took a job with the UN, and then finally the Open Society Foundations – helping fund the work of activists around Southern Africa. In 2012, I decided to go bucket my first love – writing – so like Gerald, I have sort of weaved my way in and out of various spaces and done different things. The writing though, is in some ways, my true love.”
What is your hope for this award – but perhaps more importantly – the anthology of works?
“I hope we can put together an anthology that both speaks to the now and helps us imagine a future in which love wins, in which rights matter, and in which our bodies aren’t on the line every time we enter public spaces without covering up who we are as women, as queer folk. Already the entries are spicy and funny and poignant and a fantastic mix of fiction and non-fiction.”
What advice would you give young writers, artists and photographers who are interested in covering these types of issues?
“I think the main thing is to be authentic to be respectful. Gender and sexuality are both private and political – so writing or taking photos or whatever requires us to think deeply and to feel deeply, but then to act with a serious sense of responsibility to the issues and the people whose lives are at stake. Resisting the urge to be a voyeur, or to do the quick and easy take – spending time, investing in getting smarter so that you can be braver.”