The Open Book Literary Festival, Cape Town, hosts the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference: ‘Censorship Today’

This year’s Open Book – 20-24 September – builds on the success of last year’s festival, an event which, for many, allowed a  space in Cape Town that hadn’t been available before, of engaged debate, talks, and response, and of exchange.

Thank you truly and deeply, for what you made happen over the last few days. I can say without stint or reservation that I had a glimpse of a different sort of Cape Town, a kind of literary heaven, where I had one of the best times I can remember in the nearly thirty years I’ve lived here…I know a lot of other people feel the same way. It was really wonderful. Damon Galgut.

On September 20th, Open Book will host a session of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, which is currently at the Berlin International Literature Festival, Germany, on the first leg of its ‘world tour’, 2012-13: the Conference started its journey from home back in August, a lively 5 days as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival; it makes its stop in South Africa at Open Book, before going on to Canada, Russia, Egypt, India, Turkey, China, Trinidad, France, Malaysia, Australia, Portugal, and Belgium – over the next 12 months. As someone with an interest in the growth of the ‘festivalisation of literature’ and its links with the ‘Renaissance in African writing’ since 2000 (see Ellah Allfrey’s article, ‘All Hail the African Renaissance’, from Sept. last year), this partnership between Open Book and the World Writers’ Conference with the British Council, is one to watch, and, via this co-convened session at Open Book – ‘Censorship Today’ – the World Writers’ Conference promises to oblige, bringing this particular little slice of Cape Town at its literary festival high to us by video; as is promised on the Conference website, the international events will be recorded and will join the conversations begun at the sessions in Edinburgh, videos of which are already available. After the slow, but seemingly inevitable, passage in South African parliament of the Protection of State Information Bill – dubbed the ‘Secrecy Bill’ (which I spoke about here on Africa in Words last year), the Brett Murray ‘Spear’ incident, and the more recent arrest and detention of the striking miners after the Marikana Massacre, this discussion promises to update debates in South Africa and to contribute, both very specifically and more broadly, on the role of censorship, the availability of public space, and resistance – opening all sorts of other concerns for a World Literary Conference, spanning local, international and global concerns, new media and the press, and exceptionalism, both in and vs. capitulation to a neo-liberal, ‘global’ market.

The World Conference website is great – lots of additional info. and thought on the proceedings thus far, plus the opportunity to contribute through its blog – something clearly hoped will continue and grow throughout the Conference’s journeys in 2012-13 – and the recordings and the ensuing debates are well worth a look  (or see the end of this post to pick out those of interest from  a list of speakers on the themes from 1962 to today).

The 1962, five-day long World Writers’ Conference in Edinburgh, now not able to be invoked without its ‘infamous’ label firmly appended, was, and is still widely recognised as being at the heart of the mounting British counter-cultural revolution – the atmosphere perhaps captured in a letter from Mary McCarthy to Hannah Arendt of 28/09/62 (excerpted on the Conference website):

‘People jumping up to confess they were homosexuals; a registered heroin addict leading the young Scottish opposition to the literary tyranny of the communist Hugh MacDiarmid… An English woman novelist describing her communications with her dead daughter, a Dutch homosexual, former male nurse, now a Catholic convert, seeking someone to baptize him; a bearded Sikh with hair down to his waist declaring on the platform that homosexuals were incapable of love, just as (he said) hermaphrodites were incapable of orgasm (Stephen Spender, in the chair, murmured that he should have thought they could have two)…’

It is one of these topics, Censorship, that will be debated in South Africa at Open Book,  joining and adding to Patrick Ness’s discussion in August entitled ‘Should freedom of speech ever have limits?’ (20/08/2012).  It is particularly significant, then, that this session can and will be available on the web, enabling dialogue that may otherwise be inaccessible

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Open Book Festival Programme 2012
Open Book. ‘Censorship Today’
In partnership with the British Council and the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Open Book will host the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference Cape Town (www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org). South African writers will add their voices to the global discussion on the role of literature in contemporary life, exploring the themes from Edinburgh.
Keynote address by Keith Gray, followed by an open discussion with the audience. Chaired by Mervyn Sloman, owner of the Book Lounge (and inspiration to all Loungers).

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Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference: 1962/2012

1962: Day one: contrasts of approach/2012: Style vs Content
18/08/2012: ALI SMITH – How should authors approach the task of writing a novel today?

ALI SMITHStyle vs Content

1962: Day two: scottish writing today/2012: A National Literature?
19/08/2012: IRVINE WELSH – Nationality And Identity In The Novel Today

IRVINE WELSHNational Literature

1962: Day three: commitment/2012: Should Literature Be Political?
17/08/2012: AHDAF SOUEIF – Novels and their relationship with current affairs

Should Literature Be Political?Should Literature Be Political?

1962: Day four: censorship/2012: Censorship Today
20/08/2012: PATRICK NESS – Should freedom of speech ever have limits?

PATRICK NESSCensorship Today

1962: Day five:  the novel and the future/2012: The Future of the Novel
21/08/2012: CHINA MIEVILLE – Will the novel remain writers’ favourite narrative form?

The Future Of The NovelThe Future of the Novel

And the African Renaissance:
‘All Hail the African Renaissance: The Storymoja Hay Festival with the British Council in Nairobi’. 
Ellah Allfrey celebrates the recent explosion in the continent’s populist novels, from chick-lit to science fiction. 09/09/11.



Categories: Books, Events, South Africa

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5 replies

  1. Did you know that a planning meeting for the Edinburgh Conference in ’62 was derailed when one participant smashed a bottle of wine over the head of another? Quality times.

    • Ha! Amazing. If you can reveal it, be great to know where you got this info from.
      I love the sheer energy and confidence of that first conference as it appears on the World Writers’ Conference website – clearly all kinds of everything fuelled it!
      Wonder how the planning meetings for the 2012-13 went down? And then in each venue on the world tour…

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