When Selome Payne is 12 years old, she decides to take a college exercise book of her writing to a librarian who lives in her neighbourhood in Port Elizabeth’s northern suburbs. The librarian is also a respected local writer, and she would like him to give her feedback on her poetry and short stories.
After flipping through her work, he tells the future author of GauTrained that her writing is no good. Afterwards, Selome stands at his gate, laughing to herself, as if to say, yeah right, I’m so going to be famous one day. It is 1996 and as she walks home, Selome can hear her ancestors whispering: “This is your calling.”
Fast-forward 24 years and Selome Motaung née Payne has been baptised by the stage and her life’s work, taking on the name Flow Wellington, her first name an acronym for For Love of Words. Talking over email and WhatsApp, Flow punctuates her messages with emojis and LMAOs (laughing my ass off). She is nothing if not straightforward, but her frankness often belies a sensitivity, the same quiet energy becoming a generative power within Flow at the mic, where she transforms her poems into full-throated performances whenever she takes to the stage.
A signature of Flow’s work as a publisher and writer is the exploration of journey: psychic and physical, in particular, her move from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg. In her second book, GauTrained, she details relocating with only a suitcase and R100 to her name.
“When I moved to Johannesburg, I found myself living in an abusive relationship simply because I had nowhere to go. Much of my childhood was spent navigating abuse and isolation. I didn’t even think to call it survival because of how years of childhood trauma gave me a warped sense of love,” says Flow.
This has partly inspired her vision as a publisher: to validate stories about struggle that are told by people who have experienced it. Stories about poverty, abuse, oppression and xenophobia, experiences that sell when they’re fiction, but often aren’t elevated to the same publishing heights when they’re not.
Her press, Poetree Publications, was partly a response to this inaccessibility. “It’s not easy to convince the right people to take you seriously, but you always have to take up space. And that often means creating that space,” she says.
In collaboration with Californian art director Jowhari Trahan, who has spent years cultivating creative ties between the United States and South Africa, Poetree Publications published the first anthology in what is set to be The Looking Glass Anthology series in 2019. It’s called Through the Single Gal’s Lens, and in it, authors explore singledom across class, culture and race divides.
What are gals made of?
This is the question posed by arts journalist Karabo Kgoleng, who wrote the introduction to The Looking Glass Anthology. Her intro is all affirmation, a celebration and exploration of singledom with a no-holds-barred frankness that sets the tone for the anthology.
Later on, she writes that “African women have been creating stories for longer than the establishment has cared to acknowledge. It is only now that women themselves have created a kind of social mobility through story on the screen and the stage that capital – the establishment in its crudest, naked form – has begun to take notice.”
In 2014, Flow curated the first Eastern Cape Book Festival, where she met Trahan. “We talked about a project for women, by women. We wanted to connect women across the globe to women in South Africa.” The book is a hybrid of fiction, poetry and visual art. It features work by Busisiwe Mahlangu, Kerry Hammerton, Jeannie McKeown and Dineo Mahola alongside other new and exciting voices.
It is a book you’d imagine on a shelf of an indie bookstore, and one you’d find with the YOU magazine at your aunty’s house. “The submissions were so diverse and so real. Because it was also not demographic-specific and completely global, it widened the scope.” This is important because feminist works in South Africa should be accessible and appeal to all women, not just those with expendable income.
“We wanted writing and art about being freely single to date or not date, without traditional or cultural pressure or that sodded biological clock; about being single in your older years, and if it is different to a younger single woman’s experience,” says Flow. The authors address domestic violence, abuse and rape, which Flow says is the lived experience of most black women. When she was growing up in an abusive home, abuse was so normalised that it wasn’t named.
“As much as we are seeing more black women’s stories, the top shelf is always looking at sales projections and not necessarily what the lower level is hungry for.” Flow’s frank take on everything from singledom to motherhood is what gives her personal difficulties a generative power. Her goal has been to create safe environments for her peers, child and community, and publishing has formed an important part of that.
Gathering voices at the edge
Acknowledging privilege may be a buzzword, but when it’s not done, it makes disclosing and writing about poverty and hardship a challenge. Visibility and representation in the arts is vital in marginalised communities, especially in post-democratic South Africa, in which financially stable career paths have traditionally been assigned more value than arts careers. “We need to go into our own spaces, among our own people, so that women can say, ‘That could be me, too,’” says Flow, who, as a child, was scorned for writing.
“I felt isolated as an artist in a community with few artistic motivations. It was never really encouraged. I never fit into that mould – ‘the coloured dream’ – in my hometown.” Being a queer, mixed-raced publisher from the Eastern Cape has helped Flow accept her identity. “Growing up through ‘why must you be so different?’ to eventually be celebrated for that difference helped me discover who I truly am.”
Flow situates Poetree Publications alongside presses like Impepho Press, Ntsuku Publishing Consultancy, JahRose Productions and Amazwi. To her they are outfits amplifying women’s voices in publishing, which can expand the possibilities of a literary world for writers who wouldn’t have considered this an option owing to race or class or gender divides.
“I also think of Current State of Poetry in Gauteng, The Lemon Tree in Durban, RadioActive Blog and the Charmza Lit Club in the Free State, as well as The Ar(t)chive, who do multidisciplinary art among women and the queer community.”
Smashing the patriarchy
In an industry dominated by the white middle class, publication is difficult when gatekeepers look to work which appeals to middle-class sensibilities. It especially affects women, who are kneecapped by the intersections of racism, classism and sexism. Publishers that value those voices and provide publishing opportunities, a foot in the door of a competitive, cut-throat industry, are significant.
“People don’t want to believe that gatekeeping exists,” says Flow, “especially when we consider the journey our country has been on, and how we’re trying to decolonise everything. We want to believe that when a book is published, the same opportunities exist for everyone: media coverage, entry to popular bookstores, distribution opportunities.”
The reality is different for writers from marginalised communities, which Flow says you see when you’re working on the ground. “It’s so much harder to get a foot in the door when you’re not well-known, or if the right people aren’t endorsing your work.”
And yet, this is the era of the Abantu Book Festival. African authors are being snapped up by literary agencies. And it’s been said that we are in the golden age of book clubs. But how does this translate for the writer without access to opportunity? Or the author living outside of Cape Town or Johannesburg?
Opening the gates
The writer and founder of the BookWorms book club, Lorraine Sithole, says that presses like Poetree Publications have made the procuring process of new work shorter because it accepts submissions directly from first-time writers. “Flow has opened up an avenue for debut voices to reach a reading segment which would ordinarily have been inaccessible to them because poetry is a niche offering.”
In Through the Single Gal’s Lens, we see writers lamenting cultural pressures and reproductive injustice, the angst of dating in middle age or time wasted on men, while others praise the reliability of vibrators. And in Flow, we see what the Mbokodo Award-winning poet and writer Myesha Jenkins described in her Californian accent as “a poet, publisher and writer, plus some”.
“When I was a kid, we had a saying,” says Flow. “‘A touch is a move’, which implies that even if the movements are small, the impact is there.” Author by author, book by book, Flow and publishers like her are changing the publishing landscape “one book at a time, one workshop at a time”. As Flow tells me, “We cannot flip society on its ass if we don’t do the flipping. Literally.”