Almost a decade ago the dream that consumed me was to pioneer a Booktown in South Africa. Now, with some 80 literary festivals behind my name, I am on another quest: to find the literary capital of South Africa. My research reveals I am not alone in my thinking. For none other than Unesco has created what they term Unesco Cities of Literature.
Unesco's City of Literature programme is part of its Creative Cities Network which was launched in 2004. The network was born out of Unesco's Global Alliance for Cultural Diversity initiative which was created in 2002. Its aim is to "promote the social, economic and cultural development of cities in both the developed and the developing world". The cities in the network promote their local creative scene and conform to Unesco’s goal of fostering cultural diversity.
An important aspect of the Creative Cities concept is that the cities foster public/private partnerships particularly by encouraging the entrepreneurial and creative potential of small enterprises. Literature is just one of several categories of Creative Cities. Others include music, film, media, gastronomy, crafts and folk art, and design
To date, there are 19 Cities of Literature around the world. They are:
- Edinburgh, Scotland (2004)
- Melbourne, Victoria, Australia (2008)
- Iowa City, Iowa, United States (2008)
- Dublin, Ireland (2010)
- Reykjavík, Iceland (2011)
- Norwich, England (2012)
- Kraków, Poland (2013)
- Heidelberg, Germany (2014)
- Dunedin, New Zealand (2014)
- Granada, Spain (2014)
- Prague, Czech Republic (2014)
- Baghdad, Iraq (2015)
- Barcelona, Spain (2015)
- Ljubljana, Slovenia (2015)
- Lviv, Ukraine (2015)
- Montevideo, Uruguay (2015)
- Nottingham, England (2015)
- Óbidos, Portugal (2015)
- Tartu, Estonia (2015)
- Ulyanovsk, Russia (2015).
However, when I decided to chase the dream of a Unesco City of Literature for South Africa, there were a mere 4 Cities of Literature. Yet no matter how many politicians I approached (because Unesco status is dependent on the mayor of the chosen city endorsing the project), not a single one was impressed. Most never even answered my e-mails. These were dark days. Afrikaans was being closed down at UKZN. Every Afrikaans Department in the country broke every equity rule on their books and employed candidates in most cases with not a single day’s lecturing experience over me.
Yet through it all one man believed in my vision: Ashwin Desai, author of, among others, Shakespeare on Robben Island; 150 Years of Indian indenture in SA; Gandhi – Stretcher-Bearer of Empire; and most recently Reverse sweep – Transformation in SA Cricket after 1994. Not only did he believe in my vision – he was obsessed by it. He would always ask politicians if they were interested in the idea. They always were – for the five minutes they spoke to him. And then last year – the hand of God. Ashwin found himself in an elevator with the mayor of Durban and a few high-ranking officials. Ever alert to the possibilities of the situation, he asked the question: “Would you be interested in Unesco City of Literature status for Durban?” To their credit they were ecstatic and arranged an interview with key stakeholders in the presence of Ashwin, I believe. The rest, as they say, is history.
The other champion of this project was Frances Chisholm, US Consul-General based in Durban. I met her when I took the Midlands Literary Festival to Durban. I could sense this was a sincere person and took her into my confidence. For two years she worked tirelessly to get the project off the ground. The inaugural brainstorming sessions last year were hosted at her residence in Umhlanga Rocks with a sea view that challenged our powers of concentration. If we get Unesco status, I will name a lecture series after her. What a selfless person.
The third person was Durban writer Priya Dala, author of What about Meera, longlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize. I invited her to the Midlands Literary Festival in 2015 after she was struck with a brick in her face for praising Salman Rushdie while returning home from the Time of the Writer Festival. For months, while UKZN handled the incident in a most atrocious manner, the media was abuzz with this incident. Besides feeling sorry for her due to the assault, what was even sadder was that no one would remember her book. So I invited her and told her to come to Howick and just talk about her book. No talk of Rushdie, no talk of the brick. Just the book. And then, in 2016, she wrote to say she had been accepted on the Iowa Writers’ Program. And I just smiled. Because Iowa is America’s Unesco City of Literature. When things like this happen, you start believing that the planets are starting to align.
And now we find ourselves two months away from the cut-off date for final submission. We have lodged our formal announcement with Unesco that Durban is going to bid to become South Africa’s and Africa’s first Unesco City of Literature. Iowa has agreed to act as mentor city to Durban, and it has really been a huge help having a team who have walked down this path before. Dala has also canvassed cities like Krakow and Baghdad and a few more to support our bid. Iowa advised we should form a very small exco – they had a mere three, I believe. In the end, the following individuals will work with me on this groundbreaking project: Ashwin Desai, Priya Dala, Tebogo Mzizi (acting head of Arts and Culture at Ethekwini), Fikile Hlatshwayo (author of Blacks do caravan) and Betty Govinden, my lecturer when I was 18 years old and a walking encyclopaedia on literary Durban.
Durban is/was also home to the likes of Chris Nicholson, Gcina Mhlophe, Johan van Wyk, Sifiso Mzobe, Marguerite Poland, Ronnie Govender, Carol Campbell, Anant Singh, the Mazisi Kunene Foundation (Mazisi Kunene was South Africa’s first Poet Laureate) and Chris Mann. In the months ahead I will be relying heavily on writers of this calibre, as well as the legacy of fallen heroes like Alan Paton, Lewis Nkosi, Fatima Meer, Douglas Livingstone, Mahatma Gandhi, Roy Campbell, Aziz Hassim, Miriam Makeba and many more.
Around these histories we will attempt to craft a Durban Literary Festival should we be awarded Unesco status. Durban does not have a truly iconic book festival. Yes, they have Time of the Writer and Poetry Africa. But a festival like Edinburgh, a festival like Jaipur, a festival like Vancouver – that we don’t have. We hope that Unesco status will open the doors to international writers for Durban. That is, after all, the rationale for Unesco’s Creative Cities Network. And through this cultural exchange we hope we can create something memorable in Durban. Should we be granted Unesco City of Literature status, of course.
But I am quietly confident. Our exco is peopled by a good blend of imagineers and pragmatists. We are hopeful that come October 31 it will be Durban’s time. Recently Durban’s popularity among tourists has been on the increase, having been voted as the “coolest city you’ve never seen” by CNN and as one of the New 7 Wonders Cities at the end of 2014. In 2015 Durban made it on to the New York Times places to visit list and in 2016 was voted one of the best street-food destinations in the world and as being the city with the best quality of life in South Africa.
In 2017 we would like to add Durban as Unesco City of Literature to this impressive list.
Darryl Earl David