Books on the Bay 2023

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On the steps of the Simon's Town Museum

Like the weather, it was unpredictable. Rain poured down all night long before the first session of the day, but then the sun rose and bathed the Simon’s Town bay in its glorious light. We all sensed that a literary festival in the Far South of the peninsula could have plenty to offer for readers from near and far, but no one could tell for sure. Although, judging by the crowds that attended the opening event, which was held a month in advance in the presence of such literary greats as Antjie Krog, José Eduardo Agualusa and JM Coetzee, we could have counted on friendly skies. And so they were. As were the crowds that descended on the story-rich Simon’s Town like the kind morning light.

Nancy Richards and Barbara Mutch

The girl from Simon’s Bay was first on stage in the Dockyard Chapel when acclaimed broadcaster, journalist and writer Nancy Richards interviewed the novel’s author, Barbara Mutch. Set in wartime Simon’s Town, the novel focuses on the story of a forbidden romance between a local nurse and a British naval officer. Although now based in the UK, Mutch often returns to her native South Africa and lived in Simon’s Town while writing and researching the book.

Books on the Bay book bag

Each event I went to was full or nearly so, even in such large venues as the Dockyard Chapel or the Methodist Church. Clearly, the longing for such a gathering of writers and readers must have been in the salty air for a long time, and hopefully Books on the Bay can still it every Cape autumn from now on.

David Attwell

The festival is the brainchild of Darryl David and David Attwell, and they roped in Karin Cronjé to help organise.

Erica Lombard tweeting

Erica Lombard was responsible for the great publicity that Books on the Bay received in the lead-up to the two-day festival, and throughout. One could observe her photographing, live-tweeting and instagramming for the comfort of those who could not attend, but who wanted to get a taste of the individual sessions via social media, and to whet their appetite for next year.

The organisers shared their passion for stories, their own and those of others, during the festival: David gave a talk about his A platteland pilgrimage – 102 country churches of South Africa, and Attwell was in conversation with Elleke Boehmer about JM Coetzee and all matters autofictional and self-revelatory. Cronjé, who in There goes English teacher captured her experience of teaching in Korea, spoke alongside Nancy Richards, whose The skipper’s daughter tells the story of her adventurous mother. They, too, discussed the fictional elements inherently embedded in memoir writing.

Nancy Richards, Elleke Boehmer and Karin Cronjé

“To write memoir is to create images; it becomes fiction,” said Cronjé, referring to the crafting of the past into a coherent narrative that can be shared with others.

“We all have family stuff,” concurred Richards, remembering how she’d needed many years and eventually the “gift of time” that the lockdown provided to face the family stories and memorabilia – in the form of newspaper cuttings, correspondence, diaries and the ship’s logbook which her mother, as captain’s clerk, had kept on board the SS Nailsea Manor when she sailed the world’s seas with her father at the age of 16 in 1938 – to write the remarkable story.

“Confronting the past takes a huge amount of courage,” remarked Elleke Boehmer, who chaired the session. Boehmer herself is currently working on Southern imagining, a major literary history that explores responses to the early myths and legends of the far southern hemisphere by a range of its modern writers, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Darwin and Olive Schreiner through to Borges, Coetzee, Janet Frame, Alexis Wright and Terry-Ann Adams. Placing emphasis on stories of the south about the south, the book will question, through literature, the frameworks of thinking that the north has imposed on the south, such as the hostile antipodes and the distant “Global South”, and the environmental consequences of this imposition.

In the Noorul Islam Masjid

At the heart of the festival – for me, and several others I spoke to – was the free session held in the Noorul Islam Masjid (Thomas Street Mosque), during which Zeid Baker spoke about his father, Imam MA Baker.

Zeid Baker's memorabilia of his father

The Baker family’s history is deeply rooted in Simon’s Town. Imam Baker served at the mosque between 1952 and 1968, during which time he translated the Holy Quran into Afrikaans – “a cultural event of enormous significance”, said Attwell in his introduction.

More of Zeid Baker's memorabilia of his father

Zeid Baker is the principal of South Peninsula High School, with 35 years of experience in education and public service. Together with his nephew, Ihsaan Adams, who has written a book on the Baker family to “celebrate those who shaped our lives”, he took us on a fascinating and painful journey into their personal past, and revealed how the individual lives of their people sculpted the socio-historical reality of the country. The way the family preserves and holds this incredible legacy was moving to experience.

Attracting South Africans of all ages and backgrounds, including Minister Ebrahim Patel, and quite a few foreigners, the soulful event was profoundly inspiring. With his clarity of vision and the humility of remembrance, Zeid Baker shared the vivid memories of his father and this turbulent time with his captive audience. The translation was executed during a period of enormous pressures for the community – a period of indignation, resistance and indescribable loss. The Baker family was evicted from Simon’s Town when it was declared a white-only area on 1 September 1967 – “the dark blotch in the history of our country”, in the words of Zeid Baker. A blotch that will not be forgotten. The forced removals permeate the consciousness of Simon’s Town and were referred to in many sessions of the festival.

The Noorul Islam Masjid

When Zeid Baker mentioned that his name does lead to an actual baker in the distant branches of their family tree, and David Attwell remembered a Cape Town baker of the past whom he is related to, I couldn’t help thinking how fitting these connections were in the context of the nourishment that words, like bread, are for any community. And we shared a feast of great sustenance in the Noorul Islam Masjid on the second morning of the festival and at the free lunch organised for the community after the talk.

Henrietta Rose-Innes, Finuala Dowling and Jo-Anne Richards

The impression was reinforced when another local, Finuala Dowling, recalled how “words were king in our household” when she was growing up. “Being small in a large family, I wanted to be heard,” she said, but it was only when her heart was broken at the age of 38 that she started writing the iconic debut poetry collection, I flying. Dowling spoke to Henrietta Rose-Innes and Jo-Anne Richards about writing. Rose-Innes, who admitted to a “conflicted relationship with the idea of writing as vocation”, mentioned how being a writer was a “charmed profession” because it allowed you “to dip your toes” into all kinds of other professions and lives. Inevitably, writing nurtures curiosity, understanding and empathy.

All three authors recalled growing up in homes full of books. Their memories were a strong reminder of the importance of the festival’s outreach literacy programmes. With the assistance of such sponsors as Standard Bank, the initiatives offer opportunities for young people in the area, especially from disadvantaged communities such as Ocean View and Masiphumelele. Getting kids and local schools and libraries involved was essential for the organisers, and the particular programme will extend into the year. The festival hosts a big book drive, with the Simon’s Town Library as a central point for collections. Distribution to schools in the region will focus on two schools at a time.

Mignonne Breier and Bongani Kona

Another personal highlight of Books on the Bay was Bongani Kona’s interview with last year’s Sunday Times Literary Award winner for nonfiction, Mignonne Breier. Her meticulously researched Bloody Sunday: The nun, the defiance campaign and South Africa’s secret massacre sheds light on a nearly forgotten massacre by the police at an ANC Youth League event in East London in 1952. Never properly investigated, the massacre of dozens, if not hundreds, of people is another “dark blotch” on South Africa’s history. Breier’s interest in the horrific event and its fallout grew out of a personal story. A picture of the nun of the subtitle and Breier’s own lock of hair shared the pages of her mother’s Bible. “I tried to get to the truth,” she told Kona. “I know it’s impossible, but I wanted to. I wanted the story to be known.” Her intensely personal recollections evolved into an act of retrieval that, thanks to her research and efforts, now forms part of the nation’s archive.

Gabeba Baderoon taking photographs

I could not listen in on all sessions of the festival, but many attendees raved about one I missed: the conversations between Damon Galgut and Wahbie Long, with Anastasia Maw chairing. They examined the impact of memory and psychological inheritance which shape South Africans today. “Love is the best emotion humans are capable of,” Damon Galgut said. “But it’s involuntary. It’s a state of grace. It can’t be chosen. Kindness is always chosen. We can’t love a stranger, but we can be kind. It’s the best emotion easily available to humans.”*

Empathy – nourished by stories – is a key to the kindness Galgut encouraged us toward. And literary festivals offer spaces for such encounters, with long-lasting effects on the lives of people they touch.

Karina Szcurek with Austrian academic, Gabriele Dau, enjoying Simon's Town's seafood

Books on the Bay was a wonderful example of how these opportunities can be created. Poetry was read, coffees and meals shared, and at the end of it all, Mooiplaas Wine and the SA Navy Band delighted those present to celebrate the success of the festival (and delight was needed after the sobering last session of the festival when Jacques Pauw offered his take on the “mafia” state).

“They were so good!” Henrietta Rose-Innes tweeted about the SA Navy Band. “More jazz ensembles, fewer submarines, I say!”

More Books on the Bay, too! Please.

Clarke's Bookshop at Book on the Bay

Books on the Bay

*As quoted by All About Writing on Twitter, 10 March 2023.

  • Photography by Karina Szcurek
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