The coronavirus has turned the world on its head. Every day, I hear echoes of Morgan Freeman’s voice from the movie Deep impact in my head. The coronavirus is indeed a deep impact moment.
As an evangelist of the literary arts, I have agonised over what this moment means for us. Franschhoek Literary Festival: cancelled. KKNK: cancelled. Suidoosterfees: cancelled. To use a term I heard artist Jono Hornsby use: Do we have the emotional bandwidth – that internal fortitude – to get through these dark times? I am only too aware that artists, at the best of times, are known for their fragile psyches. But, to the artists out there, let the words of Morgan Freeman wash over you: “But the waters receded.”
Just today, the Unesco Creative Cities Network sent out a call for ideas under the banner ResiliArt. And, so, I began to think: How can we imagine something positive out of one of the most negative moments our world is facing? In Hermanus, where I created South Africa’s first Unesco City of Gastronomy, they have created the hashtag #TravelTomorrow. But I was looking for something more. Something to give people and artists, to build towards what Barack Obama famously called the audacity of hope.
I suppose that because of my job as lecturer at the University of the Western Cape, I am confronted daily with the possibilities of what computers can make possible. Over the last few weeks, my semantic field of the word zoom has broadened from its being a mere reference to that iconic Durban nightclub or to Fat Larry’s Band’s smash hit. Now, we seamlessly have meetings on Zoom and on Google Meet. We can see each other. We can hear each other. Parents need not fret that the university year will be lost – although data and access for the rural and disadvantaged students remains a challenge.
I mention this because during today’s staff meeting, I was visited by the muse all creative people long to meet a few times in their lives. In that moment, I saw the future of the literary festival. Advances in technology mean that we are now able to cross borders. Yes, cultural contact is compromised. Meeting authors in the flesh is compromised. Getting an author to sign his just-published book is lost. But imagine the possibilities. I always live by the motto, “Go big or go home.”
It was this thinking that spurred me on to pioneer Durban as the first Unesco City of Literature on the African continent. But Durban failed the literary community of South Africa and broke the hearts of all who had worked selflessly to achieve the seemingly impossible dream. Soon after achieving Unesco City of Literature status, the politicians actually stopped funding arts organisations in Durban. But the corona pandemic presents us with an opportunity for the most audacious literary project for the city of Durban to date. The city can starve us of funding, but I hear that whisper – still the waters receded.
Imagine the world’s largest online literary festival. Imagine approaching fellow Unesco Cities of Literature like Edinburgh, Dublin, Manchester, Prague, Reykjavík, Iowa, Kraków, Quebec and Barcelona, and saying to them: “Partner with us to create the world’s largest online literary festival.” And why stop there? Why not ask that greatest of book towns, Wigtown in Scotland, and the Canadian success story that is Stratford, to join us? And, if Professor Abdool Karim, the man tasked with coordinating South Africa’s fight against Covid-19, can propose triages, ie makeshift hospitals for those affected by the coronavirus, and if New York can create triages in Central Park, why can’t we create literary triages from Shetland to Chamonix? We should create literary triages in Wigtown’s famous bookshop, in every small bookshop in the world that supports the literary arts, right up to our very own Ike’s Books, that iconic bookshop that hosts the Durban Literary Festival with nothing more than the love of the literary world to keep the festival afloat. Imagine partnering with Utrecht, the only Dutch Unesco City of Literature, in a cultural exchange programme, without having to worry about our government’s warped sensibilities about Afrikaans literature. Imagine asking the Jaipur Literature Festival, the largest literary festival in the world, to help us create the world’s largest online literary festival in the world to help us celebrate 160 years since Indians first arrived in South Africa, later this year. And help us put Durban on the literary map. And claim our rightful place as the literary capital of Africa.
Yes, you lose something by going online. But imagine a festival that has JM Coetzee speaking from Australia, Arundhati Roy from India, Breyten Breytenbach from France, Gcina Mhlophe in Durban. Imagine being able to ask Chris Abani to read from his ten-year-old book, The face, and not have to worry about publishers saying he has to market his newest novel. Imagine having Fred Khumalo regale us with a simple story about cutting grass during the coronavirus. Imagine Salman Rushdie being able to speak at a festival where people can’t disrupt his talk. Imagine, just imagine, bringing Jesmyn Ward to a South African audience. Imagine hearing Maggie O’Farrell read from her latest novel, Hamnet, and wow readers with its intertextual references to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Imagine asking Orhan Pamuk to walk us through his literary museum in Istanbul. Imagine being able to listen to Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich speak about her entire oeuvre. Imagine hearing Judge Chris Nicholson wow the world with his story about Papwa Sewgolum. Or the English Chris Nicholson tell the remarkable tale of the wife of Thomas Hardy having to endure the famous author’s infatuation with a younger woman. Imagine Ashwin Desai pounding the table and raging against the world, “against the dying of the light”, in what would be the most animated talk the world has seen. Imagine the world being able to hear our Karoo Zen Buddhist Antony Osler, and exclaiming, “Why have we not heard of this gentle soul!” Imagine inviting Michelle Obama to speak, and telling her she can bring her husband along if she likes! Imagine. And then imagine some more.
So that, 20 years from now, when our children and grandchildren come home and say, “Our teacher wants us to write about the plague of 2020,” and ask us what we did, we must be able to say, “We were in quarantine, but we dreamt of freedom. We were told to self-isolate, but we dreamt of Woodstock. It was a time when a metaphorical plague gripped our country – our government stole money meant for building toilets for school children, stole money meant for feeding schemes, thereby taking food from the hungry, to feed their greed. But the waters receded. The Chinese ate dogs and pangolins and subjected virtually all animals to extreme cruelty – but the waters receded. It was a time when men in South Africa raped their children and brothers raped their sisters, and Nigerians kidnapped young girls, who were never seen again – still the waters receded. It was a time when nations clubbed whales to death during the lockdown and had the audacity to label it ‘an essential service’. But we decided to will a better world into existence. It was a time we dreamt of festivals, derived from the word festifall. It was a time when we dared to dream of a new world order and a fall from the folly of mankind. It was a time when artists started the world’s largest online book festival. And told stories that yearned for a new world order. People who never went to church for 30 years suddenly started singing, ‘I am the God that healeth thee, I am the Lord, your healer,’ over Easter. People gathered from all over the world to listen to stories of a man who went out to post a letter but carried on walking.
“Governments with oppressive regimes tried to cut off funding for this festifall. But the time of G5 summits was dead. The time of fracking and raping the earth was over. The time of 5G networks was repulsed. It was during this time that the alphabet of a literary spring began to emerge. Because, what the coronavirus taught us, my child, is that, inherent in all peoples, is the need to communicate. From the earliest of times, when cavemen engraved on cave walls, to sending messages in a bottle when faced with isolation, men and women have always had this innate desire programmed into their DNA to communicate, to dialogue. And to think it all started here in Durban – Africa’s first Unesco City of Literature – with the world’s largest online literary festival.
“And this, my dear child, was the first poem read at the world’s largest online literary festival:
“Breyten Breytenbach: ‘Seisoen in die paradys’
“Mag daar altyd ’n lig brand in julle huis
Mag die paddas julle onthou
Mag die appels aljaar soeter word
En die druiweprieël groener.
Mag julle vriende wyn saambring vir die kuier.
Mag die huis wat julle betrek, deurtrek bly
Van die geur van sederhout en malvablare
Mag die walle van julle slote nie te gou inkalwe
En instort nie
Sodat die water nog helderder daarin kan vloei
Mag die sterre en die berg en die stilte
Oor julle en julle gesin bly waak
Nou en môre en môre se aand
En elke van daardie dae se nag.
“‘On the road to the Kouga’ – extract
“By Breyten Breytenbach / BB Lazarus (pseudonym)
“May there always be a light in your house,
may the frogs remember you,
may your apples grow sweeter every year,
and your grape arbour greener,
may your friends always bring over some wine,
may the house you have built be redolent of
the fragrance of cedar wood and geranium leaves,
may the walls of your ditches not collapse
and fall apart too quickly,
so that the water can flow even more brightly in them,
may the stars and the mountains and the silence
stand guard over you and your family,
now and tomorrow and every morning and evening,
and every day’s night.”