FLF 2023: Hope in times of chaos

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John Maytham

The Franschhoek Valley does golden autumn like no other place I know in the world. Once again, the season was on full display during this year’s Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF). I drove into town on Friday and could not help feeling elated just by looking at the bright reds and yellows of falling leaves bathed in the soothing morning sun. The scene was perfectly set for what was to unfold. I have never seen Franschhoek so packed during the festival. The place was heaving with writers and festivalgoers from all over.

Festival goers queuing

Many arrived to discover that the sessions they were eager to attend were already fully booked. These were not only the blockbuster events such as the interview with former Eskom CEO, now author, André de Ruyter, but also encounters with local literary giants like Antjie Krog and Michiel Heyns, and the poetry reading scripted by Finuala Dowling that CapeTalk’s John Maytham performs each year at the festival. But even if you couldn’t get tickets for your favourites, the alternatives were just as alluring and allowed those willing to be surprised to go on journeys of enlightening discoveries.

Epic oysters at Epice

And, if all else failed, around you were the everyday joys of Franschhoek: galleries, monuments, restaurants and vineyards. A personal highlight was a Saturday dinner with my partner at Epice, located in the famous Le Quartier Français Hotel.

With so much chaos around us, we are starving for clarity and understanding. And for hope.

Despite the literary gems on offer at the festival, every year the events with journalists or public figures of note attract the greatest attention. Names like Justice Malala, Adriaan Basson, Ferial Haffajee, Mandy Wiener, Thuli Madonsela, Tony Leon or Faf du Plessis are crowd-pullers. With so much chaos around us, we are starving for clarity and understanding.

Songezo Zibi and his audience

And for hope. For me, the session that offered it in truckloads took place on the last day of the festival. Political activist Songezo Zibi, whose book Manifesto: A new vision for South Africa presents the possibility for the desperately needed ethical and accountable new politics in the country, engaged with the large audience gathered in the NG Church in ways that made me believe in the probability of renewal.

Zibi signing a book

He is certainly not naïve about what lies ahead and does not shy away from hard truths. The passion and conviction that propel him are unmistakable, but it is the compassion with which he encounters his fellow countrywomen and countrymen that makes me believe in the future of Rise Mzansi.

In the pop-up bookstore

Alongside hope, forgiveness and inspiration were also woven into the narrative of this year’s FLF. Clinical psychologist Melody Pick-Cornelius interviewed Marina Cantacuzino, author of Forgiveness: An exploration, and former public protector Thuli Madonsela about how forgiving can restore us to ourselves and transform not only individuals but entire communities. It is one of the tools that is needed in order to forge a future in a country as conflicted and scarred as our own. Another is inspiration, and someone who has been inspiring generations of people through her unquenchable thirst for life is Ella Blumenthal, whose incredible personal history was captured by bestselling author Joanne Jowell in her latest book, I am Ella: A remarkable story of survival, from Auschwitz to Africa. Both spoke at the festival. In one of their many interviews, the now 102-year-old Ella told Joanne: “I survived the Warsaw Ghetto, the gas chambers of Majdanek, the depravity of Auschwitz and the utter hopelessness of Bergen-Belsen. I lost my parents, my brothers, my sisters, their spouses and children .... But for me, while abnormal, this is not extraordinary. That I went on to love, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and to live my life – that is what is extraordinary.”

Unsurprisingly, one of the hottest topics in town was artificial intelligence.

It is stories and insights like these that allow us to take stock of our own lives and to consider the essence of what truly matters. In their conversation at the festival, Fanie Naudé asked Michiel Heyns whether it still felt “meaningful to keep the space of literary fiction alive in these troubled times around the world”.

Michiel Heyns and SJ (Fanie) Naudé

Heyns’s answer during the session was deeply personal, but anyone who takes the time to engage with the beauty of his writing, or the work of other fiction writers who spoke at the festival – Margie Orford, CA Davids, Lester Walbrugh, Lethokuhle Msimang and Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu, to name only a few – will know what would be lost without these spaces. Particularly during troubled times.

Lester Walbrugh and Margie Orford signing

And when we feel threatened by the unknown. Unsurprisingly, one of the hottest topics in town was artificial intelligence. But no matter how brilliant, useful – and scary – ChatGPT might appear at the moment, in the words of Heyns, “I doubt that AI will be able to explore character with human ambiguity anytime soon.”

Joy Watson, Pamela Power and Sara-Jayne Makwala King

Creative genius will remain unthreatened by this particular invention of ours for quite a while yet, maybe even forever. What creativity is not immune to is greed.

Janice Leibowitz, Gail Schimmel and Qarnita Loxton

The scandal that broke during the festival has resulted in the publishers of The outsider: The unauthorised biography of Herman Mashaba pulling the plug on the book, which had been released just before the FLF. The author of the biography, Prince Mashele, did not disclose to his publishers or the public that Mashaba had paid him R12,5 million to write it, thus putting the integrity of the entire project into question.

Lethokuhle Msimang, CA Davids and Wamuwi Mbao

Like many authors attending the festival, I wasn’t gobsmacked because of the lack of ethics involved; what I couldn’t help thinking about was how many outstanding literary projects could have been funded by that kind of money.

Miss Molly MCC at Epice

Perhaps AI can assist in solving the challenges that defy our imaginations, at least for now, and help find a way to bypass greed to restore our power supply and stimulate our economy. In the meantime, if you are sorry that you missed out on listening to André de Ruyter at the FLF, you can access a recording of the session on the FLF website for only R50. Next year, book your tickets to the real thing early! For now, love, talk, write, have toast and tea – or bubbly – and live. If you want to explore the wonders of other lives, read.

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