One day at The Star Soweto Literary Festival 2016

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Karina Brink (photo provided)

Camaraderie. That is the word which comes to mind when I think back to the one day I spent at the fabulous Soweto Theatre, attending the inaugural The Star Soweto Literary Festival. It was quite a whirlwind affair. A day of talks, improvisation, laughter and tears. I invited myself. The moment I heard that the festival was happening – and it was organised in a shockingly short amount of time – I volunteered to speak, chair sessions, whatever, just to be there. I felt it in my bones that it would be special, and I wanted to be part of it.

I was not disappointed.

Darryl Earl David, the founder of the three-day festival which took place last weekend, first announced his intentions at the end of June: “To create a truly non-racial literary festival in a black township, something that has never ever been done before. A start has been made in Khayelitsha. But that was more a book fair, not a literary festival. I have always maintained Soweto looms large in the literary imagination of South Africa ... Soweto is the cradle of black literature. It was home to the canon of black literature in South Africa – Mongane Wally Serote, Sipho Sephamla Njabulo Ndebele, Miriam Tlali, Ellen Kuzwayo and Benedict Vilakazi.”

The day I was there, Saturday, the presence of the spirits of these literary giants was palpable. The attempt to establish “a truly non-racial” space for writers, artists and the public to engage with one another’s ideas was a great success. I attended with a dear friend, Pamela Power, the author of Ms Conception and the upcoming psychological thriller, Things unseen. We came away inspired, glowing, and moved to the core.

It was my privilege to open the proceedings for the day by paying tribute to my beloved husband, André Brink, and talking about Vlam in die sneeu, the book which contains his correspondence with Ingrid Jonker. It was early morning, the auditorium nearly empty, but the few people present made me feel at home. Afterwards I spoke to Estelle Bester, a local historian and guide who over lunch offered the festival participants a tour of a few highlights of Soweto. It was an honour to sign her well-paged copy of Vlam.

Next on the programme was Mandla Langa, but he was nowhere to be found. To fill the gap, spontaneously and with Darryl’s blessing, Pamela and I invited one other member of the audience, the debut author Louis Wiid whose thriller Submerged was published earlier this year, on to the stage and promptly interviewed him about his novel as well as his highly intriguing life which one day will make a memoir to watch out for. It was interesting to see the marketing and publicity manager of a local publisher share her business card with Louis after the impromptu talk. Literary festivals offer spaces for these seemingly insubstantial connections which can, however, bear sweet and juicy fruits in the future.

It was time for Pamela’s own talk. She was interviewed by Bontle Senne, a prize-winning writer of fiction for young readers, and a literacy and literary advocate of excellence. Half-an-hour of wit and laughter followed. Ms Conception is a novel about the trials and tribulations of motherhood. Funny and wise, the book daringly demystifies what it means to be a mother. Since its publication last year it has found resonance with many parents and non-parents alike. Pamela spoke about finding one’s “tribe”. For her it is the South African literary community with all its present vibrancy and possibilities. She is one of the most generous writers I know: her support and encouragement of other authors is reaching legendary proportions. Bontle and she addressed the vital question we all battle with at the beginning of our careers: the difficulty of calling oneself a “writer”, or a “novelist”. It fascinates me how complicated it is to lay claim to these descriptions of yourself, even if you had been writing for years.

Just when the two inspirational novelists were about to end their talk, a profusely apologetic Mandla Langa made it to the venue. A family crisis had prevented him from being on time. We all agreed that we were willing to sacrifice our coffee break to listen to his talk about his remarkable novel The texture of shadows. Every time I hear Mandla speak about his life and work I feel deeply humbled. To know what he and his family suffered through in order to see the days of liberation and democracy arrive in South Africa, and to hear him say “The good still outweighs the bad” makes you want to pull up your sleeves and face whatever windmills loom ahead. It takes truckloads of courage to write a book like The texture of shadows. Mandla spoke about his job as a writer to “observe and listen” and “to dispel the intentions of the inner censor”. He said: “All liberation struggles have dark moments and I chose to write about the darkness.” This is what leading by example means. Mandla believes that “there is never a time to write and never a time not to write” – you simply “have to do what you have to do”, without censoring yourself. His wish is that the novel will act as a “cautionary tale”. It does, especially because he wrote it “out of love for the country”. He himself motivates in ways which are too huge even for words to contain.

By now the audience was also filling up nicely and Mandla’s talk was followed by Mpho Thukudu’s presentation of her delicious book Eat Ting which she co-authored with Anne Trapido. Mpho is a registered dietician who promotes a wholesome, healthy lifestyle. A member of the Slow Food movement, she understands the importance of the study of food, as what we eat is the “root cause of all medical conditions”. Prompted by the absence of African and Asian food studies she decided to investigate how local food sources, traditions and perceptions influence what we eat. She said it was essential that we make healthy food “more exciting for kids”. She definitely made me feel guilty about the chips and Coke I had for lunch after her talk. But despite the momentary lapse in judgement at the festival, I usually know that we all have a choice: “You can honour your body; you can invest in your health, or in your sickness.”

The same applies to our mental health. And it was very fitting to listen to the exuberant Mohale Mashigo talk about her debut novel, The yearning, next. “We have a history of hiding things,” she said. Realising early on that there weren’t that many books with black female protagonists around, she followed in the footsteps of Alice Walker and Tsitsi Dangarembga and wrote a story she “wanted to read”. She encouraged us all to read local. Asked about advice for aspiring writers she quipped: “Don’t quit your day job.” And her next novel? “It’s a love story and I hate love stories, so it’s going to be not what you expect,” she said. Not unexpectedly, like many authors, she likes a good whiskey, and it was a delight to share jokes and a few doubles with her and Pamela on the floor of the theatre’s foyer once the festival day was over.

But before we wound down with our Jamesons, we listened to another four talks which were enlightening in all kinds of ways. Two of them centred on two of South Africa’s the most exceptional photographers: Kalim Rajab spoke about Ranjit Kally, and Verne Harris about Alf Kumalo. Kalim, who edited Ranjit Kally’s exquisite collection of photographs published recently, Memory against forgetting, opened his talk with a shloka, a musical blessing we listened to in the dark. It set the tone for a discussion of photography from a “time when photographers had to worry about shadows”. He spoke about the stories behind the haunting images in the book and the publication which intends to give the artist the recognition and credit he deserves. A photo is a “time capsule”, a photographer’s lifework, a “chronicle”, he said. Kally’s oeuvre reveals a layered social history of our country and its people. As does Alf Kumalo’s. Verne Harris concentrated his thought-provoking talk on the photographs Kumalo took at the Mandelas’ home in Soweto, “a home of resilience, warmth and pain – archetypally a South African home”. He also reflected on Mandela’s legacy and told several touching anecdotes about his encounters with the great man. He implored us to consider what kind of archive we are leaving behind. During the Q&A, Mohale pointed out how uncomfortable the world is with the image of Madiba the freedom fighter, and how his teddy bear image is given prominence. It was clear that the “discussion needs to continue … we need to give more space to his complexity and recognise the ambivalence involved,” Verne agreed.

We ended the festival day with another Soweto great who was a friend of Madiba’s, Dingaan Thobela, also known as The Rose of Soweto. The world-famous boxer was interviewed by his biographer, Deon Potgieter. “This is me. Born in Soweto. Three times world champion,” Dingaan said. He agreed to have a book written about him because he wanted people to be able to read his story and to relate. His message is simple: “If I can do it, you can do it.” Despite his humble origins, he understood his destiny was to become a world champion. His nickname derives from his habit of handing out roses to women. To the disappointment of the female members of the audience he had none for us that day, but his words were filled with rose-red passion, and it was impossible not to be affected by them.

Bonding and whiskeys followed. We couldn’t help being amazed at what fantastic opportunities the festival offered to writers and audiences alike.

For me the absolute highlight of the day was hearing Grizelda Grootboom talk about the memoir she wrote, Exit!. The book is introduced on her publisher’s website with the following words: “Sometimes you have to step-up and become the hero to your own story.” When Grizelda stepped up to the stage at the Soweto Theatre, she became my hero. Her story begins on the streets of Cape Town. She mentioned street kids, drugs, bridges. I am no longer sure whether the words “gang rape” featured at the beginning of the story. She spoke with an elusive calm which did not call for strong reactions, but when she uttered the words “tied”, “duct tape”, “drugged” and “kicked” to describe what had happened to her upon arrival in Johannesburg where she ended up in a locked room, repeatedly raped by strangers whom she could not even see because her eyes were duct-taped, I couldn’t help myself: I began to shake and sob into my handkerchief. I stopped taking notes. Her biographical note reads: “Grizelda Grootboom is an activist against human trafficking who supports fellow survivors undergoing rehabilitation. She is currently working at Embrace Dignity (www.embracedignity.org.za), an NPO based in Cape Town. It is part of a growing global movement working to restore dignity for all people by advocating for law reform and public education to address commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking.” None of this begins to describe the courage and beauty of this woman who, having noticed my distress earlier, offered to give me a hug when we were about to leave and catch our individual Ubers. Even though our paths parted, she travelled home with me and I will remember her for a long time to come. That kind of valour is not easily forgotten. She is the only one who received a standing ovation at the end of her talk.

No matter how naive this might sound, I want a world where no woman is blinded by deceit, violated, or robbed of her choices. I want a world where we can drink whiskey on the floor of a theatre foyer after a day of literary wonders and share stories which will make us laugh, only.

My gratitude to the organiser and sponsors of the festival for providing an opportunity for writers and readers to engage with our astonishing stories of joy, resilience and freedom.

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