Better than ever: Open Book Festival 2023

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Daniella Djan (left) and Busisekile Khumalo

“There is something about this festival that is so self-affirming,” book lover extraordinaire Beryl Eichenberg told me, as we sat in the audience of one of the last sessions of this year’s edition of Open Book. I knew exactly what she meant. We have been regular attendees and participants at the festival since its inception in 2011, and we had just listened to a soul-nourishing conversation about friendship in literature and life – “Enduring connections”, with Sven Axelrad, Sam Beckbessinger and Busisekile Khumalo speaking to Daniella Djan about complex friendships. The way the four authors on stage engaged with one another was testimony to how vital such events are, for the panellists and audience members alike. They touched on the nature of change in relationships, various types of friendships with humans and animals and oneself, curiosity about others, and kindness – kindness featured a lot. And there was laughter, and the sort of sharing among writers that only festivals can facilitate. It was beautiful, one of my personal highlights during the three-day literary extravaganza that took place between 8 and 10 September at the Homecoming Centre of the District Six Museum.

Sven Axelrad

“Social cohesion is what happens when the Springboks win the World Cup,” Jeanne Bodenstein said when discussing the National Strategic Plan with Nechama Brodie and Joy Watson. “Or when readers and writers gather at Open Book,” I thought to myself, while crossing fingers for the opening game of the Springbok campaign.


Once again, the festival featured two of my favourite events that I would not have missed for anything, not even World Cup rugby, and neither disappointed: “Conversations with Mohale” and “Writersports”. In the latter, Diane Awerbuck, Sam Beckbessinger, Sara-Jayne Makwala King, Wanjiru Koinange and Bongani Kona competed for the title of this year’s champion. Erika Bornman volunteered from the audience to assist the event’s MC, festival director Mervyn Sloman, with keeping time and score. Despite obvious attempts at match-fixing from all sides, the trophy travelled – rightfully and joyfully – to Kenya, with the fabulous Wanjiru. And her debut novel, The havoc of choice, travelled home with me, along with a bag full of marvellous books that I have been indulging in for the past few days since the occasion. “You guys create magic,” Erika said. They do, they really do!

Conversations with Mohale

This year, the multi-talented Mohale Mashigo spoke to Pumla Dineo Gqola, Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, Lebohang Masango and Maneo Mohale about sex, pleasure and consent. The next day, I interviewed Diane Awerbuck, Zibu Sithole and Sue Nyamnjoh about their writer’s journeys. When I got my copy of Sue’s debut poetry collection, Un[ravelling], signed after the event, she shared with me how much “Conversations with Mohale” had meant to her, and what listening to Maneo, in particular, had made her realise about how to approach her next poetry adventure, how to combine the pleasure of exploration and constraint in her work. These encounters inspire way beyond the literary.

Joy Watson with Zoe Maralack

Qarnita Loxton shared with me how special it was for her to chair the session “Burden of secrets”, in which Marina Auer, Sarah Isaacs and Jane van der Riet discussed breaking the silence about difficult topics in their work. All three writers are debut novelists, and this was the first time they had ever spoken about their books at a festival. “It was a privilege to hold that space,” Qarnita said, remembering exactly how intimidating and exciting those initial steps into the literary world felt for all of us. Knowing what an insightful writer and reader she is, I could not imagine anyone better to welcome the three debutants.

Sarah Isaacs

For me, Open Book was special in a different way. I have been attending literary festivals around the world as a reader for a quarter of a century, as a writer for almost two decades and as a publisher for the past four years, but never before have I felt that I truly embodied all three of these roles simultaneously and so fully at an event.

Farai Mudzingwa

As a reader, I delighted in the flow of ideas that this festival facilitates so well. Open Book creates spaces for readers to be enlightened, challenged and entertained. The festival opens minds and hearts. I loved hearing one of my favourite authors in the world, Craig Higginson, talk about his latest novel, The ghost of Sam Webster, and meeting Zimbabwean writer Farai Mudzingwa, whose debut novel, Avenues by train, has the most spectacular cover (and it was published in hardcover, with the publisher, Cassava Republic, pulling out all the stops – it is such a beautiful book as an object, one simply has to have and read it!), and discovering the work of Ghanaian feminist writer Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah. At the end of every day, I went home exhausted, but with a smile on my face, feeling that I had grown inside.

Joy Watson and Busisekile Khumalo

As a writer, I was thrilled to hear how much my work has meant to readers over the years. And when Pumla Dineo Gqola, who inspires me to get up and do my best every single day, asked to have one of my books signed, I was in literary heaven. To be recognised by your literary heroes is encouraging beyond words. Listening to Dawn Garisch, Busisekile Khumalo and SJ Naudé speak to Joy Watson about approaching death and grief, I thought of my work in progress, and two quotes in particular made me want to dig even deeper and finally complete No and other contradictions. “Grief is an education – you have to deal with change in every aspect of yourself,” said Dawn. And towards the end of the conversation, Busisekile commented: “As women, we have the illusion of choice, but when we choose, we expose ourselves to judgement.”

Gail Gilbride and Liza Scholtz

As a publisher, I beamed with excitement when my authors spoke about their latest books. I know we make these amazing objects happen, but even though we go through this process together every step of the way – from manuscript to warm pages fresh off the press – it remains magical, utterly ungraspable, how all these stories come to life between the covers of our books. Karavan Press had six new titles at the festival – What remains by Dawn Garisch, Inside your body there are flowers by Diane Awerbuck, Everyone dies by Frankie Murrey, The bitterness of olives by Andrew Brown, Striving for social equity, edited by Joy Watson and Ogochukwu Nzewi, and Sindiwe’s gift, compiled by Thokozile Sayedwa and Nancy Richards – as well as two which we distribute – Cat therapy by Gail Gilbride and Glass tower by Sarah Isaacs. Five of these were among the 15 bestselling books of the festival. Frankie Murrey’s authorial debut, which she calls “a series”, came second on the list, just behind Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah’s The sex lives of African women.

Mervyn Sloman and Frankie Murrey

Those of us who were lucky enough to be in Frankie’s audience when she was “Compelled to speak” by Mervyn about her exquisite book will remember the moment for the rest of our lives. The love and respect – Frankie’s for the written word, and the audience’s for her – lighted up the entire space. I feel deeply humbled and honoured to work with someone like her. She is the soul of Open Book and has been showcasing our creativity for over a decade at the festival. It is time for her own words to shine.

Sarah Isaacs

Although we published A crowded lonely walk earlier this year, it was the first time I had met Sipho Banda in person. And to hear him read and sing his poetry at Open Book’s “Salon Hecate” brought tears of joy to my eyes. I remembered last year, when I heard Lethokuhle Msimang speak at the festival. It changed something inside me. We published her stunning debut novella, The frightened, together in April. She is spreading her wings and continuing her studies in the US now, but her next book is in the making, and anyone who has encountered her writing is waiting with great anticipation.

John Maytham, Marita van der Vyver, Farai Mudzingwa and Ron Irvin

After Mbali Sikakana of NB Publishers, Eugene Ashton of Jonathan Ball Publishers and I spoke to Mervyn about the future of publishing, someone from the audience thanked me for my “heart”. I know I should be thinking more about the bottom line, but “heart” is the best compliment imaginable. Thank you. At the event, I met a young editor from Botswana. She dreams of becoming an independent publisher in her own country. Listening to her, I felt that the future of publishing has nothing to fear.

Patric Tariq Mellet, Sindiwe Magona and Erika Bornman having a book signed

Other memorable quotes from the festival:

I don’t know how to write any book without death in it.

– SJ Naudé

We are conditioned to thinking of our bodies as sites of violence.

– Joy Watson

She’s got an itch to scratch, and he happens to be the penis to scratch it.

– Busisekile Khumalo

There is political will to be seen, not to solve the problem. If we had political will to solve the problem, we would.

– Nechama Brodie

On the Cape Flats, children associate a butter knife not with food preparation, but with violence.

– Irvin Kinnes

All of us need massive psychological intervention. We are all damaged people and we need to look at one another with compassion, and past blame.

– A woman in the audience

We don’t receive only generational trauma; we also receive generational joy.

– Liza Scholtz

Shame kills.

– Wisani Mushwana

This is a safe space for difficult conversations.

– Nancy Richards, quoting Mervyn Sloman

It’s a panel about sex and consent, and I say no.

– Pumla Dineo Gqola

I used to date this basic starter pack, but he could recite poetry.

– Mohale Mashigo

Sihle-isipho Nontshokweni

Someone told me that they got divorced after reading my book, which I consider a success.

– Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah

I was named after my mom’s dead pet monkey.

– Sam Beckbessinger

My favourite quote: “I am a tampon accountant in my other life” – Sven Axelrad. He also said: “Many of my friends left the country. I am auditioning for new ones.” Karavan Press is in the process!

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  • gail gilbride bohle

    Thank you for a superb article!

    Karina Szczurek has captured all the highlights of this fabulous festival and recreated the ambience exactly as it was.

    I am already excited about the 2024 OBF.

  • A beautiful article; so wonderful to have all these quotes too, listening even to the audience members! (Szczure you didn't omit any letters from Karina's name? 😉

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