Durban Literary Festival: An interview with Darryl David

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From the 21st to the 23rd of June, Ike's bookstore in Durban is hosting the first edition of the new Durban Literary Festival. And it's free! Here is some information on the festival.

Joanne Rushby of Ike's bookstore on the left, pictured at 2015's Mad Hatter's Tea Party at the bookstore (photo provided)

Joanne Rushby, owner of Ike's bookstore elaborates on the Durban Literary Festival: 

The first edition of the Durban Literary Festival anticipates bringing not only books alive but an environment in which there will be a free and urgent flow of ideas. The fact that some of the country’s finest writers will put themselves up to public debate makes for an enticing and intellectually rewarding experience. The mix of older and younger writers speaking across the generations and to each other allows for a singular and pioneering festival. Now more than ever, when the world is ruled by a man who relies on Twitter, and when biographies have become an instant selfie, books are returning with a vengeance.

For Ike’s it is the highlight of a rewarding few years which has seen in the growth of the bookshop and a revival of reading. I have received incredible support from all corners of South Africa, and anticipate a festival of goodwill and laughter. I am confident that the Durban Literary festival, which has been organised on zero budget, will go from strength to strength and become one of Durban’s great literary events.

Darryl David (photo provided)

Darryl David, co-organiser of the festival, talks to Naomi Meyer about this year's Durban Literary Festival.

Hi Darryl! Please would you tell me about this year’s Durban Literary Festival?

Hi, Naomi. Yes, the inaugural Durban Literary Festival is set to take place from 21 to 23 June 2019 at Ike’s Books. Ike’s is an institution in Durban. It was the first bookshop to be owned by a black person, Ike Mayet. It was opened by none other than JM Coetzee (that must have been during John’s pre-hermit phase). The walls of the bookshop are adorned with the signatures of all the great South African and international authors whose words have echoed off these hallowed walls.

In fact, whenever I visit, I spend my time trying to spot the signatures of famous writers. It is a place with soul. In fact, most writers who have agreed to speak at the Durban Literary Festival invariably commented to Joanne Rushby, owner of Ike’s, “We’ve heard such wonderful things about your bookshop. We would love to speak at your festival.”

The Mad Hatter at Ike's bookshop's Mad Hatter Tea Party (photo provided)

Darryl, you organise so many literary festivals throughout the country. Please tell me about the role players at this specific festival? And, which authors will be there?

This festival is the co-creation of Joanne Rushby, Ashwin Desai and myself. My role was predominantly to ensure that Ashwin and Jo did all the work. My role was to nag them until they could endure me no more. And, it worked a treat. Naturally, we all sat down together and said, “These are the must-haves.”

We knew that the success of a Durban Literary Festival hinged on big names for the inaugural year. And, boy, were we surprised at our success rate.

Ivan Vladislavic – tick

Ronnie Kasrils – tick

Fred Khumalo – tick

Ronnie Govender – tick

Gcina Mhlophe – tick

Erica and John Platter – tick

These were the household names around which we crafted the festival. All the while, I kept a low profile. These are my last days as a KZN man. I felt that this festival needed Durbanites as its custodians. I felt that Ashwin and Jo needed to own this festival. I rate Ashwin Desai as one of the most brilliant minds in South Africa. He is probably the only person who makes me think: “Now, why didn’t I think of that?”

Frances Chisholm (pictured on the right), previously the US Consul General and a driving force behind Durban's Unesco City of Literature designation (photo provided)

Do you think the fact that Durban was named a Unesco City of Literature in 2018 has drawn more attention than usual to Durban as a literary city, and did this play a role when you were planning the Durban Literary Festival?

Unesco City of Literature? I don’t know whether it was on the minds of my co-organisers. I suspect that Jo may be more excited about the prospect of drawing more book lovers to her bookshop on an annual basis through the festival. But, I would be lying if I said I did not have the designation on my mind with this festival. This is the festival that I hoped would carry the hopes and aspirations of Durban as a Unesco City of Literature. I also do think that it played a role in enticing some of the big name authors and their publishers to participate at the festival. However, sometimes death is needed for there to be rebirth. I realise now that in order for this festival to grow, I need to walk away, to step back. I feel that Ashwin and Jo have a chance here to create something special. I come with baggage. I want to pass the baton on to the only man who believed in my Unesco dream – Ashwin Desai. I know he will succeed, because he is one of the greatest writers I have had the privilege of meeting on my journey as an organiser of literary festivals. And, he was the driving force behind Durban’s successful designation. Of course, this festival has received no financial backing from the city. We have pulled this off with not a cent in our pockets. But, it is a festival that must never die. True to Unesco City of Literature ideals, it must champion freedom of speech. The city of Durban is never going to invite authors exposing ANC corruption to its book festivals. They have never invited Jacques Pauw, for instance. The Durban Literary Festival carries these hopes: inviting whom we like, without fear or favour.

In your opinion, who are the most famous writers from KwaZulu-Natal? And, will they be there?

Most famous writers from KZN? I have always rated Ashwin Desai and Chris Nicholson as two of the greatest writers, especially of non-fiction, in South Africa. It is scandalous that audiences in the Cape have never heard Ashwin Desai speak. His books on Indian indenture, on Gandhi, are books that will stand the test of time. But, his book, Reading revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island – that is one of the greatest books to come out of South Africa. Chris Nicholson? Go out and buy his biography of Papwa, the Indian golfer who beat Gary Player and was then forced to collect his trophy in the rain, because Indians were not allowed to enter the whites-only clubhouse. One day, this book will be made into a film. It will be an international bestseller.

Of course, two of KZN’s most famous sons will be at the festival: Ronnie Govender and Fred Khumalo. Ronnie Govender is one of the most unsung dramatists in South Africa. His plays, At the edge and The lahnee’s pleasure, are indelibly imprinted on the minds of Durbanites. In fact, Jailoshini Naidoo, the most famous face from the movie, The Kandasamys, will be performing extracts from Ronnie’s plays. I always say that Jailoshini is to Ronnie Govender what Patrick Mynhardt was to Herman Charles Bosman.

Then, there is Fred Khumalo. I really thought that his book, Dancing the death drill, about black soldiers on the SS Mendi, would win The Sunday Times Fiction Prize. Sadly, it did not, but it is garnering great reviews overseas. Good things come to those who wait, it would seem. Fred comes to the festival not only with a Zulu translation of the SS Mendi tragedy, but also with a new short story collection, Talk of the town. And, let me go on record and say: something is wrong in English academia when a man of Fred’s stature, on the brink of his PhD, can’t command a lecturing post at a single South African university.

And Gcina Mhlophe. Poor woman! She is such a great storyteller, but no one buys her printed books. To listen to Gcina has been one of my great pleasures as an organiser of book festivals. She is the queen of storytelling in South Africa.

Of course, our most famous writers are Alan Paton, Bessie Head, Albert Luthuli, Mafika Gwala, Lewis Nkosi, Mazisi Kunene, Marguerite Poland, Douglas Livingstone, Roy Campbell, Nat Nakasa, Imraan Coovadia and John van de Ruit of Spud fame, to name but a few.

On the Afrikaans front, Ingrid Winterbach, Etienne van Heerden, Braam de Vries, Rita Gilfillan, Johan van Wyk, Riana Scheepers and Jan van Tonder all spent creative years in KZN. Dana Snyman’s book, Hiervandaan, for instance, ends at Pietermaritzburg’s Voortrekker Museum.

But, I would like to point readers in the direction of a proudly KZN project – KZN Literary Tourism. This website, the only one of its kind in South Africa, profiles all writers of KZN, famous and not yet famous. No other province has such a project. Here, you will find writers like Kobus Moolman, Dianne Stewart, Steve Biko, Carol Campbell, ZP Dala, Shabbir Banoobhai, Mandla Langa and Zuleikha Mayat, author of the all-time best-selling cookbook in South Africa, Indian delights.

But, let me end with unfinished business: Herbert Dhlomo, accomplished poet and the first black man to write a drama in English. And his brother, Rolfes Dhlomo, the first black man to write a novel, An African tragedy, in English (Sol Plaatje was not the first!). Before I die, I would like to commission two statues of these unsung Pietermaritzburg heroes in my home town, and have them enjoy pride of place outside the city hall, as the ANC promised to do 20 years ago!

Why do you organise this literary festival, Darryl?

So, why a literature festival in Durban? I think the answers above allude to the answer to this question. Most of the writers from KZN are largely unknown to the rest of South Africa. The role of the Durban Literary Festival should be to resurrect the forgotten words of these forgotten writers, while celebrating the works of a current generation. Durban is not merely about sunshine, beaches, surfing and bunny chows. (Look how I nearly forgot John and Erica Platter as KZN writers. Erica is in her curry phase, and will launch her new book, Durban bunny chow, at the festival.) We must ride the Unesco City of Literature wave – the first on South African shores and the first on the African continent. As a city, we need to honour and celebrate our literary heritage.

But, I want to end with our logo: an Indian mynah holding a pencil. I will have you know that I played no hand in this. It was the creative collaboration of three proudly Durban lads: Wade Barnes for the logo design, Nick Mulgrew for creative direction and Graham Paterson for the typeface. Their logo reminds me how integral the Indian mynah is to Durban. Our buses were called mynahs. One of our cricket clubs was called the Mynahs. And, I could not help but think: we have literary festivals to celebrate English writers, Afrikaans writers, writers from the African continent, black writers, coloured writers – but, not a single festival to celebrate Indian writers. Not one! And, I am Indian and the king of book festivals. Talk about not being able to see the wood for the trees.

But, I suspect Nick Mulgrew had the following in mind when he conceptualised the logo:

The mynah is a medium-sized, chocolate brown bird with a yellow beak, eye patch, feet and legs. The head, throat and tail are black, with the tail having white tips and white undertail feathers. Mynahs are very noisy birds, and they tend to take over areas where their populations are well established. Long may the writers who attend the Durban Literary Festival at Ike’s Books make a beautiful noise. And, may our population grow, so that we take over the city of Durban and see it become the literary capital of Africa. As Ashwin Desai always ends his conversations with me: inshallah!


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