I cried twice. No matter how much I tried to control myself, the tears kept coming and I was grateful for the pack of tissues I had in my handbag. I should have started shedding tears at the beginning of the event, when the woman who is our national treasure, Sindiwe Magona, noticed that we were only a few people in the audience while the whole of South Africa should have been attending. But it was only when Sixolile Mbalo, the soft-spoken, beautiful author of Dear Bullet, Or A Letter to My Shooter (2014), pointed to herself with her most articulate hands and used the possessive pronoun “my” to refer to the man who raped, shot, and left her for dead, that the dam of anguish broke inside me. In my own personal reality I speak of “my friend”, “my brother”, “my husband”. To have to survive a reality where a rapist is internalised into “my rapist” is nearly unbearable to think of, and yet, as Ekow Duker, the third panellist of the Open Book Festival event presented by Rape Crisis, mentioned, “We get more upset when our soccer team loses than when a woman is raped.” That is the reality Mbalo lives, and courageously survives, every single day of her life. All of us should take note and salute her. Any moment, her fate could become that of “our friend”, “our sister”, or “our wife”.
“Women are ghost heroes in our struggle.” – Niq Mhlongo
This year’s Open Book unfolded over five days from 17 to 21 September in Cape Town. It was filled with insight and inspiration. Apart from the moment described above, laughter dominated. The second time I shed tears, they were also an expression of joy. Speaking about her touching Good Morning, Mr Mandela (2014), Zelda la Grange told Marianne Thamm that Madiba destroyed all her defences just by holding her hand when they met. La Grange’s life bears testimony to one of Thamm’s remarks: “Mandela made us better people; that’s what good leaders do.” The conversation between these two powerhouse women was undoubtedly a highlight of the festival. Judging by the faces and comments of people present at the event, most felt its magic.
“Let it all come out and let us talk about it.” – Mandla Langa
Sixolile Mbalo’s and Zelda la Grange’s life stories capture the immense span of the spectrum of South African everyday experience. And it is essential for our humanity to pay as much attention to the one story as to the other, even though it is in our nature to gravitate towards happiness and success.
“Memory is always a fiction we tell ourselves.” – Rachel Zadok
Listening to Ivan Vladislavi?, Mark Gevisser and Geoff Dyer talk about writing and photography with Bronwyn Law Viljoen only confirmed what I knew all along: the impact of literary sharing. After the event, outside The Fugard Theatre, where most of the sessions took place, I spoke briefly to Damon Galgut about what we’d witnessed. “Enriching”, “inspiring”, “profound” were some of the words which passed between us. I’m certain that all the members of that particular audience felt the same.
“The nature of photography is undoubtedly changing … We are taking so many photographs it is almost impossible to forget anything.” – Ivan Vladislavi?
Years before, Vladislavi? told Gevisser to “stop worrying about narrative and story”. Instead he recommended looking at and listening to photographs and writing from there. He also suggested Gevisser read Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment (2005). Thoughts about influences and memory were exchanged among the three authors. Vladislavi? also recalled Jonny Steinberg’s speaking about the protagonist of his latest book launched at the festival, A Man of Good Hope and describing the necessity of forgetting as a way of coping with adversity. The idea was first introduced during a discussion between Steinberg and Gevisser on their friendship which is rooted in the reading of and commenting on their evolving manuscripts. They have been each other’s first readers for two decades. Gevisser stressed the importance of developing circles of reading friends who will guide and sustain you as an author, especially in a literary scene where, as he noted, “publishers do not put enough resources behind editors”. (To their own detriment, I should add.)
“You can’t assume that something that is close to home is familiar; often it isn’t.” – Damon Galgut
Thus it was heartening to watch Zakes Mda, who teaches creative writing at Ohio University, interact with younger writers at the festival, the reverence for the master storyteller written into their smiling faces. Or to be part of the dialogue between Mandla Langa and Niq Mhlongo. Both have recently published novels on the experiences of exiles in MK camps in Angola, which still, like Mhlongo’s ghost protagonist in Way Back Home (2013), haunt our present.
Or to watch the banter between the fantasy writer Raymond E Feist (fifteen million books sold worldwide), local champion of crime fiction Deon Meyer (translated into twenty-odd languages) and newcomer Andrew Salomon, author of Tokoloshe Song (2014), when they spoke about their respective genres.
“All trains are on time in Cobra, so I do write fantasy as well.” – Deon Meyer
Andrew Salomon and I had a “Hemingway moment” between events. He offered to buy me a twelve-year-old Glenfiddich single malt whiskey after my attendance of the Rape Crisis discussion. The stiff drink and his stories about the session he’d attended on authors’ unusual hobbies cheered me up. We came to the pretentious conclusion that his fascination with blades and knives and my crocheting are much more eclectic pastimes than Geoff Dyer’s playing ping-pong.
“A hard-on is like an exclamation mark: you can have one per novel.” – Karin Schimke
Later, I could imagine how Salomon felt between the two literary giants of this event as I had the enormous pleasure of being on a panel with two of my author heroes, Damon Galgut and Michiel Heyns. We spoke to Karin Schimke, a poet of sensuality and eroticism, about writing sexuality in our work. I often repeat the wish to become as astute a critic as Heyns when I grow up, and I will never forget what it meant to me to receive a note from him after one of my more challenging reviews was published a while back. His latest novel, A Sportful Malice (2014), kept me laughing until I wept. It also included a fascinating and hilarious description of cruising. Galgut’s Arctic Summer (2014) has an unforgettable sex scene in which his protagonist, EM Foster, loses his virginity. It was only during our discussion that I clicked that Foster was as old as I am now when it happened (37). The enormity of the realisation is still with me. It makes me appreciate Galgut’s descriptions of Foster’s loneliness, longing, and desire even more. I have had the privilege of working with both these authors before on diverse literary projects, but being welcomed as a novelist among them on a literary stage meant the world to me. To experience sexuality in their work through their eyes has broadened my understanding of the theme. To hear them tease each other about skinny jeans and words loaded with double meanings was pure delight.
“It’s an embarrassment to think that legendary writer André P Brink had to read my book. Sjo.” – Zelda la Grange
Another personal high point of the festival was the large crowd who came to the Nadine Gordimer Tribute with Margie Orford, Billy Kahora and Imraan Coovadia which I had the honour of curating. Kahora paid homage to Gordimer’s ability to imagine herself into the skin of a black rural woman waiting for her husband to return from Robben Island and read from the short story “Amnesty” as well as My Son’s Story (1990). Orford referred to “Gordimer’s unflinching fight against apartheid as a gift to humanity outranked only by her writing”, and read from two of her personal favourites, Burger’s Daughter (1979) and July’s People (1991). Coovadia moved us all by the simple, heartfelt statement, “The last time I saw her, Nadine Gordimer referred to us as comrade writers. I think she was one of the last writers able to use that phrase. That was what I respected about her. What else can I say about her? I miss her.” He read from his favourite, A World of Strangers (1958). It was soul-warming to have people come up to me afterwards and say thank you. My own gratitude to Gordimer for changing my life, again and again, since I began reading her over a decade ago is boundless. Her stories brought me to South Africa. They were instrumental in my journey towards the kind of woman and writer I wanted to be.
“Secrets have corroded our democracy.” – Margie Orford
What these snippets of conversations, memories, and illumination make explicit is the often mercurial (a word I always associate with Jonny Steinberg) network of sharing that underlies the otherwise solitary endeavours of writers. And nowhere is it more visible than at events such as Open Book. For me, the festival laid bare the more or less obvious symbiotic relationships between local and international authors. Their influence on and their necessity for our craft should not be underestimated.
“There’s a real misunderstanding about how long it takes to create a thought.” – Jaco van Schalkwyk
Should Open Book continue if, as it is, the organisers cannot afford to pay the attending authors for their contributions? Voiced by Mervyn Sloman, the founder of the festival, during a session with Thando Mgqolozana and Zuksiwa Wanner, the question unsettled me deeply. Mgqolozana announced that it was his last appearance at a festival without a fee. Wanner did not commit either way, but suggested that some kind of remuneration, even if symbolic, would go a long way. Both authors offered a lot of provocative views on the contemporary literature scene. After all, the session was entitled “Writer’s Rage”. They were meant to discuss what “really pissed them off as South African writers”. Having constantly to deal with patronising and marginalising adjectives attached to their names and work was their greatest and rightful complaint. One of the most shocking comments overheard by Helené Prinsloo after one of the events with Ekow Duker was, “That black chap is quite profound.” The sheer racism and ignorance of such statements make my skin crawl and there is no excuse for them.
What saddened me about the debate between Mgqolozana and Wanner, though, was their seeming unawareness of how many of the issues they battle with (such as having their work rejected by overseas publishers because “it is not African enough”) apply to writers of all backgrounds in South Africa. No matter what your skin colour, as an author you will face diverse challenges in this ever-changing literary landscape, whether they concern recognition, awards, promotion, marketing, criticism, access to funding, or invitations to local and international festivals. The pie is small. The expectations are high. The green monster constantly rears its head. There is no escaping it. The sooner we realise that we are all in this together, that we might have much more in common than not, the brighter and more fulfilling our futures will be.
“I’m the leading authority on Geoff Dyer.” – Geoff Dyer
In his conversation about the art of the essay with Geoff Dyer, Imraan Coovadia mentioned that in South Africa, “if you write a critical review, you are going to pay for it in blood”, pointing out that our institutions are geared to the repression of critical thought. We tend to forget that at its best even vicious criticism “defends a value”, in Dyer’s words.
“Critics! God love them; no one else will.” – Raymond E Feist
According to Raymond E Feist there are four types of opinions: opinions, considered opinions, informed opinions, and expert opinions. No matter what type, some very strong opinions made themselves known at the festival. The eagerness to blurt out things without considering the implications of certain utterances is staggering. Even scarier is the pseudo-eloquence and the volume with which they are wielded, no matter how absurd. One panellist disappointed me in this respect in particular, and I am worried that many of her statements, laced with cool-sounding jargon, no matter how uninformed, were met with enthusiastic cheers from parts of the audience.
“A story will tell me: I’m a story; write me!” – Zakes Mda
Malaika wa Azania, the author of Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation (2014), made broad pronouncements on the state of contemporary South African literature, denying such terms as “post-apartheid” and “born free” their validity, calling current local literature “liberal” and “non-progressive”, and urging writers to write stories in their mother tongues and out of their lived experience – only. She voiced an important issue concerning the exorbitant prices of books, but also neglected to qualify her one-sided statement. On the same panel as Wa Azania were Chris Beukes and Niq Mhlongo. Mhlongo, who by his own admission speaks “half of every South African language”, said that “everybody should be free to read and write in any language they wish.” He avers that “literature is like music, it doesn’t have a language.” (If only Wa Azania had stopped her torrent to listen to him or to engage with Beukes when he presented his own enlightening views.)
“Sometimes you don’t have to complicate shit; it’s either yes or no.” – Thando Mgqolozana
The job of writers is to imagine themselves into the skins of others. In Niq Mhlongo’s work, among that of so many other South African writers, I encounter worlds beyond my lived experience. Through his stories I immerse myself in settings and characters which would otherwise remain inaccessible or incomprehensible to me. As mentioned above, stories brought me to South Africa. They allow me better to understand the country I call home. This is one of the greatest gifts writers can give their readers.
“We can’t skirt the responsibility of trying to communicate.” – Jaco van Schalkwyk
From my lived experience as an Eastern European refuge, I hope I can speak with some degree of authority about reading and writing in languages other than my own mother tongue, which is Polish. My brother, who was six when we fled Poland, went to school for the first time in Austria, not knowing a single word of German. Despite my having had four grades of a Polish grammar school before emigrating, German was also a complete novelty to me. Two years later we ended up in school in the US without being able to speak English. Another two years later we returned to Austria, and German, unused and shrivelled up in the meantime, had to be relearned nearly from scratch. We were dirt poor, but there were always town or school libraries around. Books took priority in the spending of my pocket money. Today, my brother and I have university degrees, read and write in three languages, and communicate in a few others. He lives in Taipei, I in Cape Town. Both of us made a conscious effort to master Polish only after graduating from high school. But I still prefer reading and writing in English. Sharing, communicating, exchanging impressions is what connects us. Does it really matter which language we speak when we begin to understand each other? What does it mean that Wa Azania and I were both entertained by the Sweet Valley High series as teenagers? Were Jessica and Elizabeth like us? No. Despite diametrically opposed cultural contexts we responded similarly, with enjoyment, to the experience of friendship and romance described in those novels.
“In my community everyone has read my book – the same copy. They are reading, not buying.” – Niq Mhlongo
Before I met the author I bought Memoirs of a Born Free for a discerning born-free who is very dear to me. I know the future and the world belong to her. I look forward to discussing the book with her once she’s read it. In the meantime, I said to Wa Azania that I could survive on water and rice, but I could not survive without books. Afterwards, I had a beautiful conversation with a young man from the audience who admitted that his family wasn’t affluent either, but their home had always been full of books from sales, second-hand bookshops, and libraries. I showed him the twenty-year-old shoes I was wearing and the new book I’d bought that day. He smiled in agreement.
“I desire to own a Polo Vivo; please buy my book.” – Malaika wa Azania
Jaco van Schalkwyk had never spoken about books – his own or any other – at a literature festival before. His debut novel, The Alibi Club, had just been published simultaneously in English and Afrikaans. He has a little black notebook in which he takes notes, even during panel discussions. When asked for his opinions, he stops to think, considers his words carefully before presenting his answer. As a visual artist and a writer he is painstakingly aware of the power of traditions. “Good art is beautiful and simple,” he said, and vowed to be as brave and honest as he could be in his next book. I didn’t agree with everything he said, but I respected his way of expressing opinions. Not surprisingly, The Alibi Club is on my nightstand with the other literary treasures I discovered in the course of Open Book: Geoff Dyer’s Working the Room: Essays and Reviews (2010), Mandla Langa’s The Texture of Shadows (2014) – what a title! – and Amanda Botha’s John Meyer: Lost in the Dust (2014), a remarkable companion book to Meyer’s haunting Anglo-Boer War painting.
“Writing takes you out of the republic of yourself.” – Margie Orford
The spirit of the festival was best encapsulated in Chris Beukes’s image of a pie. It took Beukes, a comic artist, a few seconds to draw it in his sketchbook. He showed us the picture and asked us to identify it. Then he drew three vertical wavy lines above it and asked again. A hot pie. Then he added a few squiggles to the lines. A smelly pie. The lesson learned: We might speak eleven official languages, but we have a universal one in common. Let us savour that pie.
“Mark is prone to these confessional moments, no matter how many people are in the room.” – Jonny Steinberg
For the rest, I walked away from Open Book 2014 with a wealth of anecdotal gems. Imraan Coovadia shared a room, a bed, and a sleeping bag with Thabo Mbeki in the late ’80s in London. Mike Carey stole electricity coins from his mates to sustain a Space Invaders habit. Zakes Mda named his De Klerk character after a twitter follower who subsequently disappeared. One can buy Mda’s art on twitter. Carol-Ann Davids doesn’t feel like an artist but like a carpenter: she chisels away. Deon Meyer stole three books and was busted while serving in the military. Mark Gevisser had a three-week crush on Jonny Steinberg, but then got over it. Andrew Salomon would like to own a private submarine, like Putin, and wears special socks for special occasions. Zukiswa Wanner changed her name twice before becoming Zukiswa Wanner. Damon Galgut doesn’t know how to switch on a cell phone. Niq Mhlongo was the manager of a student bar, ran a shebeen, and was voted salesperson of the year five times during his six years as a telemarketer selling quilts and duvets (crucially, as he demonstrated, he had to pronounce the “t” in “duvet” to succeed). Judging by the queues lining up for Raymond E Feist’s signature, his Capetonian fans alone outnumber those of local writers by several hundred. Yet, he battled depression for seven years, went through a five-million dollar divorce, and dreams of winning the lottery to pay his bills. It just shows you that even after fifteen millions copies sold, poverty knocks at a writer’s door. Does that mean I won’t come to Open Book if invited without a fee next year? I think the answer is clear.
“A book is a good thing.” – Chris Beukes