Of romance, rugby and refugees: intertwined at the inaugural Jewish Literary Festival in Cape Town

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Sunday, 22 May, one of those glorious winter days in Cape Town: all light and revelation. It wasn’t even 9 am, but the queue in front of the Gardens Community Centre in Hatfield Street looked overwhelming.

“Do you by any chance have a spare ticket for sale?” a woman near the entrance asked as we approached. I shook my head in confusion, and her pleading eyes moved on to the next person. My companions, the writers Helen Moffett and Diane Awerbuck, looked just as surprised as I felt. This was no rock concert, nor a sports event. We were here for the inaugural Jewish Literary Festival. We’d heard that the tickets had sold out about a week in advance, but people desperate to get into a literary festival seemed quite unusual.

Photo: Karina Szczurek

We were spotted by one of the friendly volunteers assisting festival participants and visitors (the lucky ones with tickets) and ushered through the security and registering desks. The crowds inside buzzed with excitement. “Are they giving away something for free?” I wondered aloud.

The idea for the festival was born in July last year. In February the organisers – Joanne Jowell, Cindy Moritz, Viv Anstey and Gary Anstey – asked Beryl Eichenberger and Caryn Gootkin to help with the marketing. Together they reached out to a team of volunteers, secured the venue and the sponsors, and began composing a programme which would “appeal to all ages and cover a range of genres” with the aim “to promote constructive dialogue and discussion in the true spirit of Jewish life without promoting any single political or religious agenda”. From food, sports, politics, academia and journalism to fiction, poetry or memoir, the topics on offer were geared to satisfying nearly all tastes. Seven venues, 49 different events, and a palpable atmosphere of being part of something special made for a wonderful mix. There was a programme for children, but I attended only events for adults. However, I often spotted young people in the audiences, which is always heartening.

The festival opened for me with “Faribels and foibles in fiction”. Next to me in the Nelson Mandela Auditorium sat a woman crocheting, while Rachel Zadok, Rahla Xenopoulos, Marilyn Cohen de Villiers and Liesl Jobson spoke to Helen Moffett about the faribels and foibles which drive their writing. What could easily have turned out to be a light-hearted conversation quickly became a serious discussion, as an appreciative audience member commented afterwards.

In A beautiful family, the first novel in her Alan Silverman saga, Cohen de Villiers wrote about abuse and domestic violence to counter the myth that “it doesn’t happen to us”. She was initially scared that she would be accused of fanning the flames of antisemitism, but her work had been received with gratitude. Similarly, Zadok, Xenopoulos and Jobson are not afraid to explore mental illness in their fictional and autobiographical writings, often giving voice to experiences which would otherwise remain unnamed. Asked about how to cope with the exposure, Xenopoulos, who has written a memoir about being bipolar, said, “You owe your reader the truth. In a room, the person telling the truth, the one most vulnerable, is the one with the most power.” To which Zadok added that “there is something about owning your story”, as well as about not fearing to communicate how difficult being a writer actually is.

Anne Landsman (photo: Karina Szczurek)

Fittingly, the next session I attended was about a writer’s life. I felt in advance that hearing Anne Landsman’s talk, “Three books, three lives: The author’s journey”, would be the highlight of the festival for me, and I was not disappointed. My ears pricked up when I heard “third” and “three”. Anyone familiar with Landsman’s brilliant The devil’s chimney and The rowing lesson (published a decade apart) will be delighted to know that a third novel, tentatively titled A thousand crowns, is with her agent and hopefully will become available in the nearest future. It has been nearly another decade since her second novel, but some writers are worth waiting for. Landsman, who has been living in New York City for the past 30 years, said she was “overwhelmed by the community and the love” upon her return to South Africa this month – “I belong where I am not,” she told us – and gave generous insight into her writing life and the people who had influenced it most profoundly. She spoke movingly about life, “the wool” that writers use to knit “jerseys”, their novels. Her latest, still “fragile, new”, is something completely new. Written with a young adult audience in mind, it tells the story of Elizabethan England through the eyes of a Jewish Portuguese family escaping persecution. The family settles on an imagined island where the mother’s ghost haunts their chimney. “I reinvented England,” Landsman said with a twinkle in her eyes. It is a timely story of migration. She hopes it will help young people understand the present refugee crisis.

Marianne Thamm and Steven Robins (photo: Karina Szczurek)

The affecting memoir Steven Robins published earlier this year about the fates of his own family in the time of Nazi Germany, Letters of stone, is also a powerful reminder of the challenges we are all confronted with today in the face of the tragedies and massive migrations taking place across the world. You cannot help reading the book and connecting it to the images of displaced refugees we see every day in the media. Robins was interviewed at the festival by the remarkable Marianne Thamm, whose own memoir, Hitler, Verwoerd, Nelson Mandela and Myself – “my revenge on the twentieth century,” she says – will be published later this year. When she asked her father, who was German and served in the Luftwaffe during WWII, about the Kristallnacht he said, “I was just a boy on a bicycle.” It is how she felt growing up under apartheid and witnessing people being thrown into police vans for not carrying their passes: “I was just a girl on a bicycle.” But witnessing, remembering, sharing stories is perhaps the only way of attempting the impossible, the Never Again. We are all kids on bicycles. Most people attending “Letters of stone: The burden of history on children” had not read the book, nor heard Robins speak about it before. I was one of only a few who raised their hands in response to Thamm’s inquiry in a jam-packed Nelson Mandela Auditorium. It is obvious that the topic continues to fascinate, that many have the desire to break open silences and to connect through stories. I saw Anne Landsman in the audience just after her own talk. And when the applause had died after Robins’s last words of gratitude, the woman sitting next to me said to her younger companion, “I’ll get the book and pass it on to you.”

Jonathan Kaplan (photo: Karina Szczurek)

It was time for some lighter entertainment. “Touch, pause, engage: The ref’s take on rugby today” was just what I needed. I had heard Jonathan Kaplan speak before. Our library includes one of the nearly 20 000 sold copies of his Call it like it is. I know the ref has a record-breaking 68 test matches to his name (to be surpassed next month by the Welsh referee Nigel Owens), and had millions around the world watch his every move for decades, but the exposure still does not guarantee his being the kind of engaging speaker he is. He had us in stitches most of the time. He told the story of how when he was starting out he’d promised his mom that one day he would kiss her in the stadium after refereeing his first test at Twickenham. Nineteen years later he found out with relief after the game that she was not permitted on the field. The kiss was given in the locker room. There is a photograph of the moment in his book. On Sunday Kaplan’s mother – “a very persuasive bully,” he told us – sat in the audience with us, beaming pride. “Writing is not for everyone,” Kaplan said; “editing and checking back and forth is not my cup of tea.” But he introduced us to the book he seems most proud of, Always believe in magic, which he recently co-authored with Tim Noakes and Ikeys coach Kevin Musikanth. It tells the story of the UCT Ikey Tigers’ 2014 campaign in the Varsity Cup, the world’s most prestigious university rugby tournament. Kaplan teared up speaking about the “bunch of losers” who had the guts to believe, in the end achieving the “greatest rugby comeback of all times”. He encouraged us to look at a YouTube video which chronicles those all-odds-defying last minutes of the 2014 final between NWU Pukke and the UCT Ikeys. I did. Those last few passes, and the try in the 83rd minute!? “You couldn’t script this,” says one of the commentators, “Electric stuff!” Or as Kaplan himself told us, that’s the “romance and beauty of sport”; it was one of those “surreal moments which had to be written about”. (And I can’t wait to read about it!)

Kaplan was a tough act to follow. But I knew I had belief and magic on my side too, as I was speaking about one of my greatest passions in life, the writing of the South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer.

For a writer and a critic to hear that someone had come to her talk because they like her stories or reviews is precious, and I am grateful to all who came up to me before and after to tell me that they enjoy reading my work. I am even more grateful to those who will either turn or return to Gordimer because of the stories I shared. Planning the session, I intended to quote a woman who once told me that “your library is your soul”, and I was immensely pleased to see her in the audience, smiling. Writers of Jewish origins have accompanied me during all the important steps of my literary journey and I appreciate the opportunity the festival has given me to express my gratitude to people like Nadine Gordimer, of course, but also: Maureen Isaacson, under whose guidance I honed my book-reviewing skills as a regular contributor to the Sunday Independent (coincidentally, my first review on her book page was of Rachel Zadok’s Gem squash tokoloshe); Richard Zimler, who published one of my stories in the internationally acclaimed The children’s hours, alongside Gordimer’s, among many other writers I admire; or Lyndall Gordon, whom I first heard speak in the Nelson Mandela Auditorium and whose astounding literary biographies have sustained me through the most trying periods of my own writing life. I did not mention it during my talk, but along with Gordimer, Anne Landsman and Maureen Isaacson contributed to Touch: Stories of contact, which I had the privilege to compile. And so circles close, people connect, stories intertwine.

I had a surreal moment myself when I walked into the next session with Albie Sachs and Ruth Carneson. Hearing about Carneson’s ordeals while she was growing up as the daughter of the South African Communist Party activists Fred and Sarah Carneson, with her parents constantly “in and out of detention”, I felt as if I was witnessing Gordimer’s Rosa Burger stepping off the pages of Burger’s daughter. But Ruth Carneson had told her own story in her memoir, Girl on the edge. She and Sachs spoke about writing pain. “I don’t see my story as a story of sacrifice and pain,” Sachs said. Both know the horrors of confinement and the numbness that comes from being made to feel alone, but, sitting on the edges of their easy chairs so that the audience could see and hear them better, they contended that they write “not to feel so isolated”. The questions at the end of the session were predictable: “Was your suffering worth what South Africa has become today?” To which Sachs pointed out two things. First, he looked at all the people taking notes (I among them), and said that we could all relax that none of the note-takers were from the special branch, that we could express our opinions freely, without the kind of fear which accompanied them in the past. Second, even if today’s society is not the kind of society he fought for, the country definitely is. The Nkandla decision “gave all of us hope,” he said.

Meg Vandermerwe, Anne Landsman, Diane Awerbuck (at the back), Helen Moffett, Karina Sczcurek and Rachel Zadok (at the front). Photo was shared by Meg Vandermerwe.

Hope or no hope, at this stage, after six straight sessions of intense engagement and emotions, I copped out of the last event marked on my programme and went in search of friends, and a drink. Other participants seemed to have had the same idea and were already pouring the tonic over iced cubes floating happily in their gin glasses. All day long I had been carrying a portrait of Gordimer around under my arm. It usually hangs just over my left shoulder when I write. I shared it with my session’s audience. And so, we all – Diane, Helen, Anne, Rachel, Nechama and Meg – ended up at Café Riteve, toasting Nadine and catching up. Festivals are crucial social events for writers in this respect. It was the first time I met Nechama Brodie and Meg Vandermerwe, whom I had encountered many times on the page, but never in person. We spoke about the great success of the festival, books being written, sold and bought, and about the pull of the mystic Mountain looming nearby. I loved exchanging impressions about belonging with Anne. We are both migratory creatures from very diverse backgrounds, living completely different lives, continents apart, but we both feel we belong to the same place. How gratifying to discover that we also share a passion for Elena Ferrante, the enigmatic Italian author who is conquering the literary world. That is the joy of connecting, even if only briefly, of emerging out of the solitude of writing, of reaching out as not to feel alone.

On the way home Helen, Diane and I marvelled at the spectacular views on De Waal Drive, the Mountain blushing red ochre with content in the arms of the setting sun.

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