The world of publishing is small and elite. Bookshelves are filled with the literary representations of a minority, restricted by limited opportunity for both writers and editors. Meanwhile, a wealth of South African stories are struggling to take form on paper, in need of a champion to give them voice. And now they have one. A pioneer in publishing, Thabiso Mahlape is intervening with her own imprint, creating a platform for emerging black writers to share their identities and experiences. She has been in the news recently for controversy surrounding the quality of Bonang’s book, but Mahlape’s life is a story deserving of respect and admiration.
When Jacana Media took her on as an intern in 2010, Mahlape clutched at the chance to make her mark. After completing a publishing degree and spending two years battling to get a job, she believed the internship was her way into the industry she was so desperate to change. But the first few books she supported received lukewarm reactions. Despite the initial disappointment, an inner voice guided her forwards. She soon realised that the stories written by black writers for black readers could become best sellers. Intuition and an ever-burning passion for the publishing industry helped her navigate away from conventional standards and toward a dedicated path. She co-founded BlackBird Books in 2015, becoming the first black woman to own an imprint within Jacana. The focused subsection of the publishing company aims to provide relatable and relevant stories for readers who feel excluded by local media. “My work is to make sure that stories that have been previously marginalised have a platform to thrive,” Mahlape says.
In the two years since it took flight, Blackbird Books has published some of South Africa’s most compelling and perception-changing narratives, including Panashe Chigumadzi’s Sweet Medicine and Nakhane Touré’s Piggy Boy’s Blues. A few years back, these voices would have gone unnoticed. There’s a Nina Simone song about the struggle to be heard and cared about as a black woman. It is the inspiration behind the name, BlackBird Books. “Why you wanna fly, Blackbird?” Simone asks. Providing an avenue to succeed, Mahlape is asking South Africa’s aspiring writers, “why not?”