Reports on the Franschhoek Literary Festival

Dear South African Poets... - Nicole Eberhard

In a drafty school hall in Franschhoek, on a rather cold and misty Friday afternoon, nine poets who contributed to Letter to South Africa: Poets calling the State to Order (Umuzi, 2010) gather to perform their poems. This collection was inspired by Allen Ginsberg’s “America”, in which he spewed his disappointment and anger at his beloved country.

South Africa’s version pays tribute to his form and his feeling, each poet writing their own version, in their own tongue. From the mouths (and hands) of the nine poets, including Bibi Slippers, Danie Marais, Leon de Kock, Jitsvinger, Sindiwe Magona, Malika Ndlovu, Willem Anker and Marius Swart, comes a passionate appeal to the country, a cry to be heard, and above all an overwhelming amount of anger at the current state of affairs. Betrayal, disappointment, alienation. These are some of the words (and feelings) that repeatedly surface, as the poets look at South Africa’s shortcomings, unfulfilled promises and a projected barren future.

Marius Swart proclaims: “Feel it – there’s a vacuum.”

I’ll tell you where there is really a vacuum. There is a vacuum where there should be some hope, some optimism, some suggestion of a solution. Instead we are left with a pile of “fuck you’s” and the observation that South Africa is a punchline that no one wants to laugh at.

As a young South African, I found the performances disappointing. Don’t get me wrong; I thought the poetry was phenomenal, heartfelt and well-written. I loved the performance of each poet performing their words, especially the combination of languages and performance styles, with Jitsvinger rapping to the accompaniment of a guitar and drum, and Malika Ndlovu’s haunting singing (the drafty hall working to her advantage).

It was the content that left me hanging, and left me with the burning question of whether this was representative of the sentiments of the nation. A quick glance at the comments section on News24 supports the despairing feeling that the country has gone to the dogs, led by a useless government – a parasitic country sucking its inhabitants dry.

I am almost inclined to write a letter of my own. But poetry scares me a little. Instead I ponder over what I would say. I see the points each poet is making. I see the cause for despair. Yet at the same time, I’ve seen these problems elsewhere. Poverty, hunger, corruption, crime, strikes, protests and bad politicians. These issues are not unique to South Africa. I’m inclined to cry out “Dear South Africa, do you realise how much worse it could be?”

And yet here we sit complaining, finding all the problems and none of the solutions. If there is one thing recent politics should have taught us, is that words are powerful. Wouldn’t it be great if those with the gift of words, our poets, would use their talent to create hope rather than circulate anger? If in our literary imagination we cannot envision a brighter future, where else?

The write honourables - Richard Beavis

One day prior to the release of The Sunday Times Literary Awards shortlist, The Franschhoek Literary Festival played host to an event titled The Write Honourables, which gave the audience a glimpse behind the scenes of the literary prize world. Sunday Times Books Editor Tymon Smith engaged writers Justin Cartwright, Imraan Coovadia and Henrietta Rose-Innes with questions of their experiences as both judges and winners of literary prizes.

Smith’s first question to the speakers, “Do prizes matter?”, is answered by Cartwright who, along with Coovadia, is a previous winner of the Sunday Times Fiction Prize. Prizes make a huge difference, according to Cartwright. In the case of literary fiction, it can sometimes be the only way to sell books beyond a few hundred copies.

Coovadia mentions that he has built up quite a bit of scepticism towards prizes, adding that a panel of judges is less intelligent than the least intelligent member of the panel. Rose-Innes, who is a winner of the Caine Prize, argues that writers rely on small patches of acclaim and cash prizes, but says she is sceptical about the judging process, suggesting that winners are usually the compromise candidate with whom everybody can live. Cartwright agrees to this, adding that no Booker Prize has ever been unanimous. Usually, the winner is a book with which two or three of the judges can live.

Cartwright argues that, with thousands of novels being published yearly, writers need prizes to be viewed as top writers. Rose-Innes acknowledges the functional usefulness of the shortlisting process of prizes. For readers, shortlists act as a useful resource, informing them about the good novels among those that have been recently published. The speakers argue that shortlists are in many ways more informative than the announcement of winners.

Coovadia suggests that judges don’t read like people because they’re trying to decide what good literature is, which is itself a very difficult idea to define. He argues, though, that books circulate interesting conversations in society and this makes culture interesting. By virtue of this idea, then, a good book is one which is successful in its engagement with society. The speakers argue, though, that award-winners are very often not an example of such a book, due to the compromised nature of the winner and differing opinions of the judges. Coovadia asks: “When was the last readable Booker Prize winner?”

Apart from the recognition and symbolic capital gained through prizes, there is the financial aspect of prizes to consider. There exists a strategic interplay between writers and the prize industry in this exchange of symbolic and economic capital. Cartwright states that when he won the Whitbread Award he was taken to many dinners and events, which led him to realise that the awards were self-serving for the prize organisations. Prize organisations gain far more than the cultural recognition gained by attaching their name to a cultural achievement; the financial returns are exponentially higher than the relatively small amount of the cash prize awarded to the book winner. On the other hand, though, Cartwright adds, writers have been known to manipulate awards on their own terms, whether it be the refusal to have their book forwarded to the award’s long-list, or the more controversial outright refusal of an award, which itself gains the attention of the media and recognition by readers.

The speakers allowed the audience a glimpse into the inner workings of the prize industry and engaged in an interesting debate regarding the usefulness of literary prizes. This debate was significant given its close proximity in time and space to the release of the Sunday Times fiction prize and the Alan Paton award shortlist. Throughout the discussion several positive and negative aspects of the prize industry were covered and it remains a complex and fascinating phenomenon. When asked about his overall conclusion regarding literary prizes, Cartwright offered an effective summary of the debate when he somewhat jokingly stated: “Absolutely arbitrary, but if you don’t get any prizes or recognition, then there is a problem.”

A real tweet - Kirst Smit

Between the title and the programme blurb, I was expecting “A Real Tweet” to be about Twitter and its role  in cellphone fiction, as well as looking at other platforms which can be used to reach the South African youth as teaching means. However, the first half of this event focused on Michael Rice’s project to introduce e-readers into the education system, with the plan that they eventually replace textbooks.

While not what I was expecting, it was an interesting discussion nonetheless. Along with education specialist Rice, the other members of the discussion panel were Steve Vosloo, founder of the Shuttleworth Foundation’s m4lit project and Sam Wilson, a Kontax Scriptwriter. With (a different) Sam Wilson, Editor-in-Chief of Woman’s lifestyle at the website chairing the event, it was a well rounded discussion.  Rice explained the advantages of having schools use e-readers rather than textbooks: it would reduce printing and delivery costs of these books for the Education Department, supplementary material can be uploaded onto the e-reader to add to the syllabus, it would cut down on administrative marking for teachers, and every student would start the year with the correct syllabus. Quoting examples of Ghana as well as other countries making use of e-readers in schools, Rice explained that this initiative can and is working. With various questions from the interactive aspect of the e-reader to the battery life of the device being discussed in this forum, the pilot study of this initiative will determine if the project could work in South Africa.

The second half of the presentation focused more on cellphone short fiction, using these devices to publish instalments of short stories. Steve Vosloo explained that the project was started as a result of poor literacy rates in South Africa. Very few schools have functioning libraries, yet cellphone uptake in South Africa is high. Students, therefore, have access to these stories via a cellphone in their household. With 130 000 people reading the fictional pieces and 40 000 of them leaving comments, the project has a following. Sam Wilson explained that many of the comments on a story which he had no time to edit were on the spelling errors in the story – showing the depth of reading that is taking place and that the students reading these pieces are more literate than their “SMS spelling” would suggest. He went on to explain the writing process. Brainstorming with students in Khayelitsha, Wilson found out which issues the stories should cover. With a 400 word limit, the instalments need to be melodramatic and have a cliff-hanger ending to encourage readers to return to the story the following day. Not as easy as it sounds.

In closing, Vosloo explained that these social media platforms are interesting mediums that are not going to go away. This will affect the publishing world as each social medium has its own following and publishers would need to have a tailor-made approach in order to reach them. I personally, am very excited to see these changes happen.

Beware: Old people ahead - Dewald van Tonder

Entering the small village known as Franschhoek, we are introduced to the misty backgrounds of a very small and intimate community. This is the perfect location for a literary festival, I tell myself, a quiet seclusion from the outside world where writers and poets, academics and faithful readers can escape to their own imagined world of faultlessness. A home away from home. As we enter one of the many coffee-shops Franschhoek has to offer, I envision myself here in the far future, sitting at this very table with a laptop, laying down my creation for the world to read. A fire-place, the friendly hostess, and a hot creamy mocha on the way... yes, this is the life. This dream, however, is short-lived as I remember why I’m here: to attend the much anticipated Franschhoek Literary Festival.

One of the biggest advantages of hosting a big event in a small town is that everything is situated close by, within walking distance. With a quick glance at the map (happily given out by the organisers), a chicken mayo sandwich in hand (easily obtainable from street vendors), the journey can finally begin.

We go to as many events possible. The list includes: A Real TweetSerious vs. Hilarious,The Write HonourablesLetters to South Africa. This is all that time allows us to attend. Writers, poets, reviewers, editors and singers/rappers ... we see it all. This festival also allows you occasionally to walk into famous writers, giving you the chance to “mingle” with celebrity. Attendance is great, the events run smoothly and when you look at your watch, it is time to head home. For next year I only hope that they will start events a bit earlier, because this will allow me to attend more discussions and debates – something I really would have enjoyed.

On the way back to our cars, we walk past a warning sign with a ... wait for it ... is that a picture of an elderly man? Yes, it is! After taking a few pictures of the sign (we have never seen one like this before), I realise that my preconceptions of this trip could not have been more wrong. Franschhoek: a literary festival in a retirement haven? And yet it comes off. The festival proved to be inviting and accepting of all –schoolchildren, students, parents and the elder community.

As we leave, waving goodbye to a cultural world where art truly inspires, I notice the small chocolate shop just across the road - do visit it when you go that way (their red wine pinotage chocolate is to die for). Before we turn off the main road heading back to “our” world, I cannot help but look back and catch a glimpse of the place I would one day like to call home.

Are graphic novels legible? - Eduard de Kock

It’s nice to be first sometimes. By that I don’t mean coming first in a competition. I’m sure that’s just as nice, but I wouldn’t know since I’m remarkably bad at them. By “being first” I mean going about your business and then someone randomly saying, “by the way, you’re witnessing the first time this has ever happened”. I can hardly imagine having that happen to a person more than once, but on Friday, 13 May, in Franschhoek, it happened to me for a second time! The first time was getting on an Interlink Airlines flight and being told that I was participating in the first (of only a few, it turned out) flight from Cape Town to Wonderboom. The second was being an audience member at the first comic art and graphic literature event at a literary festival, according to Andy Mason, facilitator of this rare occurrence.

Honestly, I knew little about the event save the title, Serious vs Hilarious. I figured it would be an interesting discussion about the effect of humour compared with drama/tragedy – for me, the idea of studying the funny is intriguing. How wrong I was! It turned out the panel was composed of writers/artists who had made it in the graphic sphere of literature – people commonly (though inaccurately) known as comic-book artists.

I don’t know how much the names of the panel of graphic writers would mean to you. I was entirely unfamiliar with the field myself, but for the sake of giving this article some form of informative value, in order of appearance: Colin Cotterill, Marguerite Abouet, Leonora van Staden and Jeremy Nell.

Being asked to write something about this event beforehand, I was frantically making notes next to each graphic writer’s name, noting how Mr Cotterill had a blog and is a crime novelist who actually just wants to be an illustrator; or how Ms Abouet is famous for her series of Aya novels, illustrated by her friend Clément Oubrerie. By the time Leonora van Staden was introduced, my notes became so scant I just wrote that she is from Stellenbosch. By no means was it Ms van Staden’s fault – her work being equally as interesting – it was just at that time I found myself quietly sitting in the back row, struck numb with awe. What hit me was an arm of literature that I didn’t think existed before.

I knew about comics and superheroes and the generically ostracised, bespectacled child that comes with it, but never did I truly consider the graphic field as part of literature with a capital ‘L’ – often exclusively associated with Shakespeare, 19th-century novels and Nobel Prize winners. I found myself wondering what the difference was between reading the dialogue of Shakespeare and having illustrations speak it. Surely his plays were meant to be seen more than read? At Serious vs Hilarious they revealed that the difference between a graphic novel and a normal novel is that the paragraphs of description are replaced with illustrations, allowing the narration, dialogue and thoughts to flow uninterrupted.

I know there’s no way of convincing someone set against “books with pictures” and that throwing around words like “closed-minded” and “elitist” are uncalled for, only fanning the flames of the already raging literary debates (books and bonfires never end well). What I would like to say applies to those willing to read something new: try a graphic novel, you might like it.