Darryl David talks to Naomi Meyer about this year’s upcoming BookBedonnerd Festival in Richmond.
Darryl, vertel ons lesers van die Richmond-boekefees, asseblief? Wat is Bookbedonnerd? Darryl, tell our readers about the Richmond book festival, please? What is BookBedonnerd?
Morning, Naomi. If you don’t mind, I am going to answer your questions in English, because at least half of our speakers on this year’s programme are international speakers. You asked about who we are.
I think it is safe to say we are the only Book Town in South Africa and, in fact, the sole Book Town on the African continent, born in the year 2007. We represent the alternative voice in the South African literary landscape, mainly because of the remoteness of our festival. In fact, most of my book festivals were started in rural locales, in what we would call the platteland of South Africa, in many cases 800-1 000 kilometres from “civilisation”. Deep in the region known as the Karoo, despite our remoteness – which is, in fact, a defining characteristic of all Book Towns – we have managed to attract all of South Africa’s major writers to our festival, known as BookBedonnerd – which, it must be said, enjoys iconic status in South Africa. Of late, we have merged another of our iconic festivals, the Madibaland World Literary Festival, started during the lockdown, with BookBedonnerd. Madibaland started out as an online book festival, but after the lockdown book lovers longed for the intimacy of book festivals. However, because Madibaland allowed us to attract international speakers online, we decided to merge the two festivals. And it has been a huge success, having attracted three Booker Prize winners in as many years. So, nowadays, Madibaland @ BookBedonnerd is positioned as a festival with international ambitions, while trying to maintain the intimate, in-person atmosphere that made BookBedonnerd the talk of the town.
Would the audience in your festival – a book festival in the middle of the Karoo – be made up of visitors or people from Richmond?
Is our audience made up mainly of visitors or locals? It is a trend of all literary festivals in rural South Africa that they tend to attract book lovers from outside of town. In fact, this is a defining characteristic of Book Towns. In Book Town Richmond, we used to attract the local community in their hundreds, but they would only attend what we called the Richmond Razzmatazz, a street festival to close off the book festival. But this relationship, which took years to build, was destroyed when the Northern Cape government insisted that they themselves would be responsible to pay the community in cash for their involvement in the Richmond Razzmatazz. Which they seemed never to have done. And the community thought the book festival had stolen the money. And just like that, the good will between the community and the book festival was destroyed due to the ANC government in the Northern Cape. We reported them to the Public Prosecutor, but that resulted only in our funding being stopped and no action being taken against the ANC government in the province. It is also very difficult to get the schools involved because the festival falls in the middle of the final exam period. So, to answer your simple question, I would say that nowadays, people who attend the festival are your bibliophiles who travel vast distances to attend Madibaland @ BookBedonnerd.
Who are your main speakers this year?
Who are our main speakers? I must say we have a bumper harvest this year.
Besides the international speakers whom I will get to just now, we have the biggest names of 2023 on our programme: Etienne van Heerden, Annemarié van Niekerk, Eben Venter, Fanie Olivier, Charl-Pierre Naudé, Johann Rossouw, Vernon Head, Ashwin Desai, Paul Hoffman, Stefaans Coetzee, Tom Dreyer and Justin Fox. These are household names that you will read about on the book pages of every South African newspaper or see as contributors to the newspapers.
On the international front, we are very excited to host some wonderful writers.
You always have a mixed bag of authors at your festivals – well-known authors as well as unknown writers. How do you decide who will be the authors speaking at your festival(s)?
Yes, I think BookBedonnerd made its mark by being able to attract the country’s top writers alongside the completely unknown. And it is this combination that makes BookBedonnerd completely unique. We don’t simply cherry-pick from the catalogues of publishers. (In fact, the publishers have never supported us due to the high costs of getting writers to Richmond.) We literally go out and find the extraordinary talent out there. Take a writer like Antony Osler, the famous Zen Buddhist monk of the Karoo. We’ve invited him this year to speak on the great Springbok fly half, Bennie Osler. You’re not going to find that at any other festival in South Africa. Someone like media personality Tracy Going is screening her documentary on gender-based violence at the festival without the documentary having premiered in major cities. Ian Sutherland, an author in his own right, has sponsored a short fiction competition for up and coming writers because he believes we offer a nurturing environment for writers starting out. You don’t get things like this at other literary festivals in South Africa. I have also included one of my students from the University of the Western Cape, who created probably the greatest video I have ever seen on why she decided to become a teacher. Even an international writer like Bronwyn Royce – her book, One step in a poppy field, will be available in print only a few days after the festival. But we believe a book like this is so powerful that book lovers need to hear about it now.
Why do you keep organising book festivals, Darryl? And this one in particular?
You ask why we organise this book festival – in a forgotten town like Richmond in the middle of nowhere. These are the reasons – outlined in the question above – why we keep going, often with no funding whatsoever – because these are the small moments, the unforgettable moments, that you will not find at other festivals. When we created Book Town Richmond, that Obama phrase, “the audacity of hope”, was uppermost in my mind. Because it was sheer audacity to create a Book Town with not a cent to our names. It was sheer audacity to think that writers and bibliophiles would travel nearly 1 000 kilometres to a book festival. And somehow, here we are. Seventeen years later. Against all odds. Nowadays, the price of petrol is our biggest adversary. After the lockdown, money is tight. And with petrol at over R25 per litre, we are under no illusions that our festival will be adversely affected. You know, whenever writers are asked which they consider to be their finest novel, they always are so diplomatic and answer, “That would be like saying which of my children I love more.” But me, Naomi – I say it unashamedly: I love BookBedonnerd the most. Book Town Richmond is not one of my many children. BookBedonnerd is like that eldest child who sacrifices everything so that his siblings can come up in the world. That is why we continue to nurture what we have in Richmond. Other festivals like my Simon’s Town Literary Festival may pack out the halls, but I know that if it were not for Book Town Richmond and BookBedonnerd and the success we have achieved here, we would not have been able to dream of an Etienne van Heerden Veldsoirée, of Madibaland, of the Midlands Literary Festival.
Tell me about your dream book festival.
My dream book festival? Madibaland @ BookBedonnerd, undoubtedly – with the numbers of Simon’s Town. And the diversity of audiences of the Midlands Literary Festival. A festival that can attract the biggest names in literature alongside the unknown – and that these writers can have an appreciative audience. Of all hues. I think we have achieved the diversity of audiences in Howick. But it developed organically and it took time. In South Africa, the composition of your audience is a big talking point. However, I truly believe that you can curate a literary festival but you cannot curate an audience. In Richmond, with zero support from publishers and no support from government, the Madibaland World Literary Festival has allowed us to carve a niche as the only truly international book festival in South Africa. To have gotten the likes of Ben Okri and John Banville over the last three years to your festival – two Booker Prize winners – that is the stuff of dreams. And yet, no English newspaper in this country will report on these things. So, maybe I should throw “an unbiased media” into the equation.
But, at the back of my mind, the Wigtown Literary Festival has to rank as my ideal festival. Wigtown is Scotland’s National Book Town. They invited both Peter Baker and me as honorary guests in 2018. And let me tell you, everything I describe here as my ideal book festival – Wigtown is it.
Why sell books, Darryl, in a country where so few people read. Why not rather sell cupcakes on a street corner? It might be more profitable.
You ask about whether it would not be better to sit at a street corner and sell sweets, tongue in cheek. And about why we should banish the thought and continue writing, despite the profession not being known for being profitable. Yes, it is not really profitable. But the world needs dreamers. The world loves writers who can transport them to other worlds. Who can break their hearts and make them sob on page 120, and make them laugh again on page 250. There is a joy to books. A joy in writing them, even though writers always joke and say what a painful task it is. In their hearts, they know the joy, or else they would not keep putting pen to paper. And there is a joy in reading books, and hearing authors talk about books at book festivals. Maybe I am just mad, but books – they keep a smile on my face. That is why I will keep writing books, keep reading books until I go blind and keep organising book festivals. Salman Rushdie spoke of sadness factories in one of his books. Books are like factories of joy. They must drive accountants batty, but they are a thing of beauty and joy.
Books are like factories of joy. They must drive accountants batty, but they are a thing of beauty and joy.
Talk to me about festivals and the role of the organiser of a festival. Would a book festival be different from a sporting event, or a university – or society in general? Would a book festival be a reflection of what a book-reading community from a certain country would look like? What about a country with a history of huge inequality between its people? What is your role and responsibility at a book festival, Darryl?
What is the role of a curator? You ask whether a sports gathering or a university or a festival is a reflection of society. And undoubtedly they are. And many people believe that you must talk about all of the world’s problems at book festivals. I am not one of them. Since you talk about sport – I was telling a friend the other day – do you know what the greatest legacy is of Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber and the Springboks? They have transcended race. They have created a welcoming environment in that team where people no longer see black, white, coloured and the lack of any Indian in the sport. All they feel is joy. We all felt it this last weekend. Unadulterated joy. Pride in our team. That team has transcended politics. They epitomise the joyous spirit in all of us. They make us forget all the worries in the world. Why, we don’t even lament the fact that the Netherlands has just beaten us in a cricket world cup. We don’t care. All we know is that it is a joy to watch the Springboks play rugby. That is what I have always wanted my book festivals to be about. If you see people having debates about race and gender at my festivals, it is only because I co-curate many of the book festivals in this country. But if I had my own way, that is not the route I would go – or have gone. And that is why so many book lovers come year in and year out to Book Town Richmond. For the last 17 years. Because when they get on the N1 and start driving back home, they know they have received their annual happiness vaccine to protect them against the madness of this world.
Tell me about your autobiography, Darryl. It will also launch at this year’s festival, not so?
My own book? Yes, I come to Madibaland @ BookBedonnerd this year with my memoir. It is not an autobiography; it is a memoir. It is a book about my almost two decades in the book festival industry. And may I say what a joy it has been writing this book. If they find me dead in my bed in the next month or two, they will find me with a smile on my face. You know you hear writers always talk about how painful it was to write a book. How it took them years. Well, in my case, this book was written in just 14 days. Naturally, the editing process took months. But between the Adam Small Festival and the Books on the Bay Simon’s Town Literary Festival, the literary gods took my hand and allowed me to write this book in a mere two weeks. It’s a great blessing, I tell you, Naomi. How it happened I cannot tell you. But BookBedonnerd: The road to elsewhere will be officially launched at BookBedonnerd. In the town where it all started.
Talk to me about the practicalities. Where can people buy tickets? Where do they stay?
So, what about tickets, I hear you ask. Well, BookBedonnerd has never been about money. We don’t believe in tickets. Everyone is welcome. No money required. No tickets required. If people are prepared to drive nearly 1 000 kilometres to our festival, how can we ask them to pay another R100 per session? So, all you have to do is just drive out to Richmond. Our festival dates are 1-4 November. And for those who can’t make it this year, my university, the University of the Western Cape, will livestream the entire festival. Just visit our website, www.richmondnc.co.za, in the coming days to find the Zoom link, or visit the LitNet page, which will have the Zoom link under this article.
Accommodation? Nowadays, we really can boast some of the finest accommodation in all of the Karoo in Book Town Richmond. Please consult our website or email me on email@example.com for advice on accommodation. Another highlight at the festival is our high teas at the Supper Klub – yet again, completely free to writers and festivalgoers. (Of course, there is a price to be paid for our online viewers by not being able to taste the delicious pastries and sandwiches and muffins and croissants.) And then, at the end of the day, there are our free wine-tasting sessions, known as Jere-Pik-Jou, to honour Patrick Mynhardt, who made A sip of Jerepigo famous through his performances and put Book Town Richmond on the map.
All in all, it promises to be a joyous affair. Hope to see faces old and new at the most joyous literary festival in all of South Africa.