The first weekend of September, spring weekend as it’s affectionately called, has been known to give parents of mostly teenagers headaches and sleepless nights as young revelers leave home without parental consent to paint the town red and the police and emergency personnel usually bear witness to the sometimes fatal side of party people who’ve had one too many.
If you, like yours truly, spent your spring weekend tucked away at the Market Theatre at the 4th annual Mail and Guardian Literary Festival, then chances are yours was a relatively peaceful yet intellectually robust method of welcoming the warmers seasons. The festival, which was themed “Chinua Achebe’s Children: Africa’s Suspended Revolutions”, was attended by the crème de la crème of our literary and political world such as the Nobel laureate Nadine Gormdimer; national poet laureate Kgositsile Koerapetse; Ronnie Kasrils and George Bizos amongst others. Gordimer, in a session dedicated to Achebe, read excerpts from his works and said “his genius as a writer is a gift to us”. She was joined by the witty Imraan Coovadia and academic Aghogho Akpome in discussing the late literary statesmen’s legacy. Although Achebe’s legacy and influence weren’t in doubt it was the idea of him being the ‘father’ of African literature that the panel didn’t quite agree with especially when one considers the likes of Plaatje and Senghor who proceeded Achebe.
Jacques Pauw; Toni Strasburg; and Kasrils who penned Rat Roads; Fractured Lives and Armed and Dangerous respectively were part of panel chaired by Craig MacKenzie discussing memoirs and (auto)biographies in a session that borrowed from another Achebe’s quotes:“until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”. The session “It’s only the story (that) can continue beyond the war and the warrior” with Niq Mhlongo; Dr Mthuthuzeli Nyoka; Nthikeng Mohlele and Wally Mongane Serote with Coovadia as its chair drifted away from its theme and found itself dealing more with the country’s transition era politics wherein Nyoka said “we hero worshipped our leaders so much that we abdicated (our) responsibility”. He went on to further lament the post-colonial plunder and violence in places like Biafra; Rwanda and the Congo. He summed it up aptly when he said as Africans “we are complicit in our suffering” since it’s ultimately our actions that decide the continent’s fate. Serote spoke of a need to explore the stories of the uMkhonto wesizwe because he’s of the view that little is understood of what the former military wing of the ANC was about. For instance, the fact that they had to ensure that no white civilians in churches; schools and banks were to perish from an MK gun. Theirs, said Serote, was a “restricted armed struggle”, a kind he’d never heard of. In a way the conversation touched on the themes Wits vice-chancellor, Professor Adam Habib, spoke about in a debate on his new book Hope and Impediments: South African’s Suspended Revolution. He questions how “we got into the mess we’re in”. Habib further asked why we’re able to have functioning SARS and Reserve Bank but other departments are allowed to produce substandard work?
The M&G Literary Festival, and by extension the publication, as a brand that prides itself in its intellectual prowess continues to draw the finest writers and thought leaders to its increasingly popular gathering. The location of the venue, Newtown, ensures that everyone can access it with any mode of transport. In a Q&A with the M&G author of The Blacks of Cape Town, CA Davids said: “I would love to see a concerted, co-ordinated effort from civil society; writers; publishers; government and non-governmental organizations to alter our reading habits (and trajectory) and the space given to literature in our country.” I think she’d agree that the festival is a welcomed and important player in popularizing the reading of books in the republic.
And then there was Cape Town
Cape Town is a lot of things to many people. To some it’s a must-visit tourist hotspot with its renowned beaches and equally famous Table Mountain, while to others its residential geography is a stark reminder of the gross inequality that characterizes the history-steeped metropolis. To the bookworms amongst us, the Western Cape capital is home to one of the most exciting and innovative literary events: The Open Book Festival. Now in its third year, the festival was mainly held at the Fugard Theatre (and its annexes) with free shows being staged at The Book Lounge and the Central Library, with whom the organizers of the festival partnered to set a new Guiness Record for the most (2586 books previous 2131) domino effect using books.
The subjects and books discussed were diverse enough to cater to as many patrons as possible. From politics to media; crime writing; travel literature; indie bookshops and everything in between. Arguably the most attended session was that of Dr Mamphele Ramphele and her son Hlumelo Biko. Needless to say Agang SA was foremost on people’s minds and then there was judge Dennis Davis sharing the stage with the convicted druglord Glenn Agliotti along with the authors of Glenn Agliotti: A Biography, Sean Newman and Peter Piegl. Davis brought his A-game as he tore the authors, who also wrote the Lolly Jackson book, to shreds for what he called a poorly wriiten book that sought to portray Agliotti as a victim. Agliotti flashed ocassional wry smiles during that heated session.
The Belle of Ball had to be NoViolet Bulawayo, whose We Need New Names was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize while she was on stage. The organizers couldn’t have asked for better advertisement for the Open Book brand. A session termed “Location Location Location” that featured the very outspoken Teju Cole; Tope Forlarin and Mukoma wa Ngugi was certainly well attended in the wake of Bulawayo’s shortlisting.
Poet Toni Stuart curated the “Open Book is Poetic” which gave poetry its space during the festival, while the Open Book Comics Festival was overseen by Moray Rhoda. Perhaps the most praise worthy initiative has to be the festival’s Open Book Library Project which adopts a school annually and this year was Westridge High School’s turn in Mitchel’s Plain. Patrons were encouraged to purchase a book so it could be donated to the school. In a country that’s said to have more private security firms than libraries such initiatives can’t be overestimated. The outdoor events such as the District 6 Walking Tour and Richard Rive; Open Book Open City are what make the festival distinct since they fuse the event with its greater surroundings. Chief organizer, Mervyn Sloman, said he was pleased that they could introduce the “fresh voices of talent that’s coming out” to Cape Town audience that otherwise wouldn’t have known them. He counts the likes Angela Makholwa(Black Widows Society); Niq Mhlongo(Way Back Home); Kgebetli Moeli(Untitled) and Nthikeng Mohlele(Small Things) as some of the exciting voices that are re-shaping our literary scene. Sloman and his amazing team surely have to up the ante when they sit down to plan for the 2014 edition because there’s a higher standard to maintain going forward.