The Franschhoek Literary Festival 2015 and the elephant in the room

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As you drive into Franschhoek from the east (and you’re going to be driving into Franschhoek from the east because you’re coming from the city and the suburbs and the airports, because otherwise you’d spoil the approach to the Huguenot Memorial, looming like a cataract over the town’s proceedings) there’s a pub and grill in the old station building, back from when commuter trains used to run through there.

It’s one of the few spaces in the town that turns a profit in spite of not engaging in any visible way with the weekend’s literary festival; the discussion seems to be about sport irrespective of what language it’s being undertaken in, beer beats out wine, pepper steak beats out seared trout.

The guys next to me are discussing the giant white cross erected against the town’s western incline; usually it’s up only during Lent, but it’s been permanently installed since the Indian entrepreneur Analjit Singh bought out three wine farms and one guesthouse last year. To let him know they’re watching, they say.

In the middle of the backdoor patio is a carved wooden elephant, probably purchased from one of the half-dozen curio stores, one of which is in fact called Africana, interpolated in between the faux-Gallic restaurants which depend upon the literary festival as a windfall to tide them over while they shutter their doors and go into hibernation until the Bastille Day celebrations in July.1 This mixture allows visitors from the northern hemisphere to sustain the fantasy that they are visiting some idealized Africa, while locals are allowed to convince themselves that they’re sitting in Argelés-sur-Mer.

“What’s the elephant for?” I ask the bartender, and it should not surprise anybody at this point that he is one of two black people visible at this pub, both of whom are employees.

“That,” he says, “is the elephant in the room.”

And this is a line that has so often dropped out of his mouth that he no longer feels the need to modulate his voice when it does so.

We both turn to watch as a politely drunk old white man, who might be a famous South African novelist now living in France, or just a retired man living in a village pretending that it’s France, weaves past the statue without seeming to see it.

That’s the Franschhoek Literary Festival all over, really. There’s rather a lot that gets dodged past. Which isn’t exactly surprising; at any one of the thirteen hourly slots that took place over the weekend, there were nine different panels ongoing. Any two of those 16 000 people determined to spend their weekend attending panels about books, and the R910 required to buy tickets for every slot,2 and whatever amount of money it would have cost to drive through thrice or stay overnight, could reasonably have done so without attending the same session twice.

Although, given that there were more than twice as many white men speaking at the festival than there were people of colour of any gender, they’d probably both find the weekend resolving into the same shade. A librarian for a private school in KZN, who attends this festival every year in an attempt to gradually renovate a collection of books which she describes as 90% British and 95% white, tells me that the festival is far more diverse this year.

Thando Mgqolozana (photo: Izak de Vries)

Given that abundance – not to say superfluity – of panels, those moments that do get spoken of, are spoken of at the expense of others. And so, while Thando Mgqolozana’s taking advantage of his panel time to announce his departure from the literary festival circuit, and from what he describes as South Africa’s “white literary system”, is a vital and encouraging moment; it is a moment which has been ably covered, thoroughly analysed and lord alone knows how many think-pieces the pearl-clutching over at Facebook has catalysed. It may well be that something new and important is beginning here – but we don’t yet know what the long-term consequences of this departure will be3; over-interpreting the festival in terms of Mgqolozana’s statements would be unwise.

Which is why I’d like to point to a couple of other moments that took place over the course of the weekend, which might otherwise be dodged around.

Jackie Kay, Mamle Kabu, Thando Mgqolozana and Victor Dlamini (photo: Izak de Vries)

I attended Mgqolozana’s first panel of the weekend, “Colouring in the Lines”, which he shared with Mamle Kabu, and Jackie Kay, under the moderation of Victor Dlamini. In terms of audience demographics this was one of the youngest sessions that I attended, as well as the most racially diverse.4

Said Mgqolozana, observing this: “Having this many black people in a room in Franschhoek is abnormal. Once we walk out of here, people are going to ask if we’re coming from a march.”

Masande Ntshanga, Ekow Duker, Harry Garuba and Henrietta Rose-Innes (photo: Izak de Vries)

There was another discussion with a similarly abnormal crowd earlier in the day, in which Harry Garuba led the debut novelist Masande Ntshanga, the critically acclaimed Henrietta Rose-Innes and European Literary Award shortlistee Ekow Duker through the problem of writing for an international market. There was another abnormality: either by virtue of the fact that the panel took place in the relatively small Protea Hotel conference room, or that none of the panellists arrived with a manifesto prepared, the panel opened up into an audience-wide discussion very quickly – turning away from the festival’s usual focus on writing as craft, and towards practical problems of literacy, of vernacular, of access, of penetrating literary markets on the rest of the African continent. Of the problem of African writers needing to write for paying markets, who write for English speakers in North America and England; of the dearth of writers who target an African market. Positive responses to these problems were acknowledged: Short Story Day Africa, the literacy project Fundza, Kwani, Chimurenga, Modjaji Books, Writivism, were discussed in a public forum by people who are invested in writing in South Africa, who know what they’re talking about, and who are willing to talk about it.5 This is an unambiguously good thing.

And for all that the Franschhoek Literary Festival is irredeemably disengaged from the lived reality of much of South Africa; for all that it is the space in which some stranger at a campsite feels like they can acceptably tell me about what a nice man that Cecil Rhodes was; for all that there’s a generations-old wine cellar, tobacconist and fromagerie where labourers queue up at the back door a little after sunset while maybe two hundred metres down the road a line of uncertain visitors are also queuing up outside of a café waiting for a poetry recital to begin; for all that a government house was raided by all 37 of the Franschhoek police on their twice-annual drug bust6 while the recital was taking place across the road; for all that anybody under the age of 40 looks uncomfortable there all of the time; for all that, this one good thing happened there.7

Then again, directly opposite the Protea Hotel where this good thing happened, are a pair of bus stops right next to one another; one is a lovingly-designed swoosh of varnished wood, the other is a beat-to-hell metal box that might once have seen yellow and blue paint. The former serves the R200-a-pop Franschhoek Wine Tram; the latter serves labourers who need to take public transport. You could probably hang a "Slegs Blankes" sign on the tram stop, but what would be the point?

Being at that festival requires an ongoing process of wilful obscurantism, of stifling empathy; it is a literary festival which requires attendees to practice the precise opposite of what literature is good for. We can, should, be doing better.

1 One is tempted to ask, if Franschhoek loves Bastille Day so much, why do they turn skittish around the word "revolution"? But this is an inappropriate question; in Franschhoek, historical awareness is surplus to requirements.

2 This excludes such off-menu events as Sunday’s BonBon Finale concert, in which patrons could enjoy a three-course lunch while having Chopin played at them for R450, or the previous night’s Sunday Times Readers’ Dinner, which permitted readers to eat in the same room as John Boyne, Sarah Waters, Hugh Masekela, PJ Powers and Shado Twala for R650, or Friday’s open-mike poetry reading at Essence, which was free.

3  Although in the short-term, conversations with the booksellers manning stalls outside of Mgqolozana’s panels would suggest that his novels weren’t exactly selling out at Franschhoek. Not that it would have made a huge difference, given that Exclusive Books, who had distribution rights at the festival, refused to stock books unless publishers sold them to Exclusive Books at a 55% discount. Sing that song about being a celebration of books and writers again.
Local authors don’t, generally, earn much at the FLF; one writer figures he sold maybe ten more books than he would’ve had he not shown up. They attend to please their publishers, to hang out with some friends, to see their editors for the first time in a year, because the R500 per panel stipend doesn’t hurt, because they’ve released a new book and want people to know about it, because they like talking about books, because probably hanging out in a sleepy ‘burb in a misty valley isn’t the worst way to spend a weekend. And according to the festival’s long-term veterans who get to hang out in a guesthouse lounge with free wi-fi and disappointing snacks, it’s the best-organised such festival in the country.

4 It should be said, too, that this was a session in which Mgqolozana made a point of making space for the other panellists, a courtesy which he did not appear to extend to Alex van Tonder and Nthikeng Mohlele during the concluding “Finding your voice” panel. Which is the problem with soap-boxing: however crucial your point, one runs the risk of precluding dialogue. Though Mgqolozana’s position seems to be that attempting such dialogue in a South African town doing its damndest to look like a Hogarth sketch is fruitless.

5 There was also a guy from a publishing house telling us that the problem is that people aren’t buying enough books by African writers. They can’t all be winners.

6 The other one’s just before Bastille Day.

7 There were others. Obviously there were others; a literary festival accommodating a couple of hundred speakers and several thousand willing listeners, discussing language, craft, queerness, gender, history, poetry, whatever their new novel is, is going to have some good moments. Having articulate, thoughtful people publically engage with contemporary concerns is something nobody sane could be opposed to. But settling for a handful of good moments in a festival orchestrated largely to pull in end-of-season money for a deeply unequal tourist town makes precisely as much sense as having an event sponsored by Porcupine Ridge in the Cape winelands.

See more photos of the festival here.

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  • Johannes Comestor

    By hierdie fees het dit gegaan om letterkunde, taal, lees en boeke. Dit sal verblydend wees as kommentaar eerder daarop konsentreer en nie op kleur/ras, geslag en ander politieke insinuasies nie.

  • Michiel Heyns

    Ah well, here we have that annual debunking-the-FLF piece again, largely indistinguishable from its predecessors, once again homing in on the indisputable fact that Franschhoek is an expensive and twee little town -- in this respect indistinguishable from thousands of such towns all over the world. But Franschhoek (unlike all those other little towns?) 'requires an ongoing process of wilful obscurantism', because, yes, it is set in the midst of misery and squalor. This is distressing, and makes the inequalities dividing our country more conspicuous than they may seem, say, in Johannesburg, where Sandton City is at least out of sight of Soweto, and where in fact the beneficiaries of the inequality are much less blindingly of the same colour. But that fact, that at the FLF one is reminded at every turn of the fact that reading is minority pursuit enjoyed, by and large, by the white middle classes, does not seem to me to warrant the conclusion that 'the Franschhoek Literary Festival is irredeemably disengaged from the lived reality of much of South Africa' -- as witness some of the sessions Liam Kruger attended, and some that he did not attend, which tried exactly to engage with the lived reality of South Africa -- in literary terms, of course, as one would reasonably expect at a literary festival. But it would seem, though Kruger doesn't exactly spell it out -- well, he does just about -- that the FLF's crime is that the audiences are overwhelmingly white. And, somehow, those white audiences are to blame for this fact. The logic of this escapes me; but I suppose it runs something like this: white people, unlike black people, can afford the trek to Franschhoek, and can afford to pay R450 for a meal; therefore they should rather stay away, in solidarity with their black compatriots. But the even given that yes, of course, white people are statistically richer than black people, that does not fully account for the uneven demographic at the FLF; to put it bluntly, there are now very many black people who could afford to attend the FLF if they'd wanted to. The Cape Town Jazz Festival, which isn't cheap, is attended by very many black people. (And by the same token, I know of several white people who felt they couldn't afford the FLF; I couldn't have attended more than a single day if I hadn't been offered accommodation by a friend.) In other words, for well-documented and lamentable historical reasons, black people are not as yet as much into books as some white people (and I stress 'some'). Why those some white people should be held responsible for this fact Kruger does not make clear. In fact, his article makes little clear, other than the fact that he spent the weekend feeling thoroughly superior to his surroundings. Well, at least he didn't spend it feeling guilty, like the rest of us.

  • Why on earth would any person try to turn a wonderful event into a racist-political fiasco? Viva FLF!

  • Basil van Rooyen

    As Michael says, here we go again. I am not aware that there is any law against black literary festivals in poor black townships. They simply do not happen. The only reason Franschhoek exists is that a few admittedly white people had a vision. One could of course move the venue to an ugly place with bad food, but who would go?

  • Ha! What a woeful attempt at a controversial article. As previously mentioned the logic is painfully flawed. Liam do some research into where the proceeds go ...

  • The comments this far would appear at first blush to have been written by people who have not read the piece. I presume though that they have attempted to do so which must mean that they are simply not able to comprehend that there is something deeply concerning about a literary festival in an African country where in excess of 80% of the population is Black; being so unrepresentative. Now it is shocking that these literary lights can be so out of touch that they can find the article at fault for focusing on race and not see how the festival following places race in the frame. Quite simply, the festival should have extended its welcome in the way it advertised, in which writers it invited, on how it reached out to all people who love the written word. Quite simply it has failed to extend its reach and so will die an untimely death and become just one more example of not taking transformation seriously . . . too little too late is the inevitable result. RIP

    • The law of averages would dictate that there are more literate black people than literate white people in SA. Why aren't they writing? And as for transformation, Eskom has provided a wonderful example of transformation, so what's the fuss?

  • This looks like a yearly mash to turn literature into a sort of tasteless food with no nutritional value, and produced by people who don't know what the purpose of good food is. 90%, 95% white, yea. Hallo Africa, tell me how you're doing..

  • I thought the Insider in Business Day was funny on the FLF. In case you missed it:

    HE IS not a great fan of Franschhoek, says a colleague of the Insider. It’s too twee for him. But he is struggling to understand the continuing furore over the whiteness of people who attend its literary festival. A young black writer withdrew in a huff. It’s well known that the key demographic in publishing is the white, middle-aged, female one. Real white men don’t read novels or poetry. Real black men even less. So wasn’t it a good thing that the organisers invited several black writers to speak? What is the fuss really about? Let’s say a young white writer was invited to the Nkandla Literary Festival and he withdrew because the audiences were too black, wouldn’t that be called racism? If so, shouldn’t withdrawal from Franschhoek be called racist too? The Insider is just asking; please don’t invite her to a literary festival to provide an answer.

    • Michiel Heyns

      "Just asking"? The Insider should know that just asking is a counter-revolutionary strategy.

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