A ‘literary festival’ sounds like a ponderous, dull affair. Earnest types sitting around pontificating about abstruse elements in books that no one reads.
Fortunately, it’s not like that at all. Along with a record number of others – 8,500 tickets were sold for the various events, up 25% on last year – I attended the Franschhoek Literary Festival this past weekend.
Not only were all matters literary discussed by South African and international authors of acclaim, but the social and political came under scrutiny too as top journalists, academics and critics engaged on contemporary issues. And I’d call it a stroke of genius on the part of organiser Jenny Hobbs, a lauded novelist in her own right, to invite popular celebrities such as Gareth Cliff as a draw card for a younger crowd.
The more than 120 panels offered much entertainment as well. Delivering behind-the-scenes regales of the writing life, the pleasure of reading was constantly underscored. Importantly, too, the message brought home was that through insight and understanding, gained by reading, we become empowered to communicate from positions of strength.
One of the discussions I enjoyed most was on the hot topic of freedom of information. Following the breaking news that concessions called for by the public and the media were included in a review of the Protection of Information Bill – namely the right to self-regulation – the mood of journalists on this panel was upbeat. Anton Harber, Mandy Weiner, Mondli Makhanya, and cartoonist Zapiro bantered, warning the audience not to be lulled into complacency by the victory. Let’s not temper reporting so closely, they suggested, that self-regulation becomes self-censorship and that media loses relevance.
On the other hand the panel agreed that responsible journalism includes an awareness of what boundaries should never be crossed. Makhanya good-naturedly chided Zapiro: “When you draw the Pope inside a condom, at Easter time, and as a result I have to field calls from my mother, that’s when I believe in regulation!”
This sort of light and humorous touch, spontaneously shared, kept every panel I attended buoyant and enjoyable. I have though, perhaps due to Mother’s Day falling on the Sunday, retained in my memory mainly funny mummy stories.
On a crime-writing panel, best-selling author Deon Meyer confessed: ‘My mother calls me up every time a novel of mine is published. When I’m confronted with silence at the other end of the line I know it’s Ma and I’m about to hear the words “My kind! Ek het jou nie so groot gemaak nie.”
The rough translation of the Afrikaans goes “My child, I did not raise you to pen such violent stories!” Not that it stops Meyer writing.
Liberian author Hawa Golakai, a Sunday Times Fiction Award short-listed candidate for her novel The Lazarus Effect, joked: “I was a very dreamy girl. My mother used to chase me outside with a switch. My aunt would say to her, what are you doing? Let Hawa read! Reading is not something you should beat out of a child!”
Of course there was plenty of sober talk. Critics reiterated the need for a South African Review of Books as a dedicated and professional publication in which accessible yet expert reviews can be featured. Leaders encouraged a focus on education. In particular, Jonathan Jansen, Rector of The University of the Free State, suggested in no uncertain terms that, for the sake of our children, we raise the currently accepted minimum standard of 30% needed to pass matric to at least 50%.
In a fascinating exchange on social media and twitter specifically, Gus Silber raised the point that the cell phone might well be considered by some as the modern day Molotov cocktail as it places so much power in the hands of the people. In the same discussion it was Gareth Cliff who reminded us – his words carrying surprising weight – that everything we write, or say, is story.
I wanted to hate Gareth. His blaring radio show wakes me up every day at the crack of dawn when my kids switch it on. But I loved him as he played the crowd, summing up: ‘Whether on radio, twitter or print, people’s stories will out.’
Ultimately the success of the 2012 Franschhoek Lit Fest was to have story unreeled in so many diverse ways. Sharing foibles and fears, offering intimate glimpses of the highs and lows of the writing life, indulging in reflection and debate about books and all sorts of related issues, the panellists kept audiences enthralled.
With the bonus of sunny weather, plus various Franschhoek Valley wines promoted after events, it all added up to an exhilarating celebration of reading.