Nick Barley on the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference at Open Book Festival, Cape Town

Quick update on the previous posts about the Open Book Festival, Cape Town, hosting the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference with 3 events – Censorship Today – a keynote by author Keith Gray, chaired by Mervyn Sloman, the Director of Open Book; A National Literature – an address from novelist Anjali Joseph, chaired by Imraan Coovadia; and Should Literature be Political? – Njabulo Ndebele and Antjie Krog in discussion, with Judith February as chair.

As I mentioned, the videos of these events are promised, but still pending on the Conference website. In the meantime, though, check out Nick Barley, the Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival,  on the EWWC Cape Town on the conference blog:
Censorship Today and A National Literature?, plus tweets and pics and general info on the EWWC Cape Town Digest.

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4 replies

  1. Interesting to see Antjie Krog’s keynote from the Open Book Festival was published in the Guardian this week under the title ‘Should power listen to poetry’ ( She asks why politicians or more particularly ‘a cabinet’ should read literature and offers the answer ‘Neither the state which it controls, nor the good plans to turn the country around, would help in the absence of a visionary vocabulary (produced best by writers and poets) to create what Martha Nussbaum described as an inspired emphatic social cohesion.’

    Neelika Jayawardane offered a critical response to Krog’s keynote today on the blog Africa is a Country ( She raises the interesting question of why it might be that Krog’s lecture was published in the Guardian, without Njabulo Ndebele’s companion piece alongside it. She then goes on to challenge Krog’s argument that literature can help politicians act more responsibly or responsively, commenting ‘People who are well read are often immune to others’ suffering and conversely, one may easily find illiterate people who are compassionate’ and accuses her of ‘ritualising’ the power of the ‘story’ or ‘narrative’.

    Jayawardane’s piece too however fails to place Krog in dialogue with her co-presenter at Open Book – Njabulo Ndebele ( His keynote dwells on the perhaps more compelling question of why there is a continuing and contemporary preoccupation with literature as political. He argues that there is a need for writing that ‘explodes willed invisibility’ and that this can create a ‘reflective activism’. For him not just South Africa but Africa as a whole needs to cultivate this ‘reflective activism’ with ‘an urgency that must permeate the entire political and social life of a continent increasingly impatient and desperate for renewal’.

    Reading these two keynotes side by side, the difference in the way Krog and Ndebele perceive the power of literature in relation to politics seems both subtle and stark, expressed in both style and agenda. I’d be interested in other people’s take on this! I really wish Nick Barley had posted reflections about this event too, as I can’t seem to find any other comments or responses online. I’d love to know how discussion developed out of the two lectures and the way in which they entered into dialogue with one another.

    • Thanks, Kate – yes! I so agree – comment on both keynotes taken together and therefore on the actual event, ‘Should Literature Be Political?’, does seem to be weirdly (ominously?) absent. I keep checking (vigilantly) the status of the EWWC’s ‘Cape Town Digest’ on the EWWC site for the video footage hoping that it a) includes this event, and b) includes *all of this event – ie the discussion between Krog and Ndebele, if indeed there was an element of discussion beyond their individual keynote speeches – as well as that generated with and by the audience. (Will post as soon as I know about availability – or do let me know if and when if I miss it!).
      Perhaps it is this sense of deferred availability that has kept comment quiet. But then, I notice that Margie Orford has posted a meditation on the obligation and the responsibility of listening, following Nick Barley’s post (on the EWWC Cape Town event ‘Censorship Today’). I do wonder if there’s something about the Political Literature event that precludes these kinds of responses…
      Kelwyn Sole, though, has made comment about the event at Books LIVE, on the article that points up Krog’s inclusion in the Guardian: Sole’s opinion emerges here through a run of comments, and responses to another commenter, who raises the critical point about the role of politics in literacy failure rates in post-democratic South Africa and in relation to these broader questions; but, rather than comment explicitly focused on the event itself, this run of comments acts to broaden the debate and the focus on Krog’s speech after its publication in the Guardian; they include – quite tantalisingly – a mention of a remark (Sole’s own) from the audience after Krog and Ndebele’s speeches, AND a mention of “generalising statements made by Ndebele and Sachs” further down the comments trail: was Sachs there, making comment?! did Sachs and Ndebele agree on “a whole two decades of South African literature” at the event? (GAH! I want to know!) Sole’s comments bite, but are interesting. And indicate something for me – I mean, I am interested in the senses in which these speeches, and come to that, the themes of the Conference, negotiate the particular, the example – and the wider contexts, the general. It’s those local particularities, of being in a place and all the sensations and perception of your immediate environment – all this context-based stuff I’m missing. Roll on the video! And this will be really interesting as the Conference travels – very intrigued to see how the ‘politics’ of each event and location will develop in relation to the others, how much of that can be/is translatable if you’re not there, what the net will do for all this…
      Am wondering if you could elaborate on the ways in which you perceive Ndebele and Krog’s speeches as both subtly and starkly different views on the relationship between literature and politics? And be interested to know what you make of this in relation to Soueif’s address – her discussion of Egypt and the response to political events… Especially because the EWWC have visited South Africa only this time, and that’s my area of PhD focus…
      There is so much to say! Feels impossible to summarise in some ways, but some initial thoughts:
      Ndebele’s questions, ‘why now? why again?’, appear critical to the framing of this exchange, certainly to the keynote speeches, especially in a state where calling for the ‘rediscovery of the ordinary’ in fiction was itself a political act, not without controversy. In this context (and perhaps because this is the framework that is most familiar to me in terms of looking at these issues), we could also maybe add ‘why here?’; I wonder about how much this discussion cannot help but be rooted in the geographies that have been prescribed by the historical circumstances of anti-apartheid activism, including the ‘end of the political’ at liberation? (The highly digestible political novel debate in the Sunday Independent, SA, from June this year’s online pages might be interesting here).
      Krog’s position, particularly regarding literature as reflecting ‘the anguish of reality’, is so deeply inflected by being brought up under apartheid as an Afrikaans speaker, “being raised within an Afrikaner ethnic clamp and language”, and becoming an Afrikaans poet, her body of, and award-winning, writing in English notwithstanding: I mean, it’s there in her beautiful prose – “Afrikaner ethnic clamp”… She talks about the politics of language, of translation, “transliteration”, explicitly raising awareness that writing in English is just one of the many literatures and representations of experience that could be considered in the South African ‘literature/political’ space. I, with Sole, am also uneasy about the implications raised by “Yes, Mandela is a reader” (Mandela who called for energy to be injected into translation for understanding of experiences at liberation) and the perceived situation of the heads of state now – “The short answer is [that we must read our own literature] so that one’s president does not need to ask: why do we rape babies and kill each other?”.
      These citations taken out of the full context of Krog’s speech, of course, make a different political point than Krog’s – and recall another uneasiness of mine – maybe less about a fetishisation of ‘story’ than about questions of interpretation. (Roll on the videos…)
      It does strike me that there are category issues here: one man’s ‘political’ is another’s ‘everyday’; one woman’s literature is another’s Shades of Grey…(or accidental poetry). And, of course, questions of value and worth; reality…. Should politics be literary?
      I find myself very much in sympathy with Ndebele’s inclusive reach for a ‘reflective activism’. There is also a sense, for me, of the South African revolutionary project as being always either deferred or re-referred to – that is here in these speeches – and of course – this is real, right, as it should be. And there are some conflicting senses of the place of South Africa in Africa, South Africa in Africa in the world. I wonder about the extent to which these speeches can respond/are responding/feel they must respond to contemporary events that raise apartheid-era and/or Transition spectres (and though I hate to abstract by listing, some examples may be the Brett Murray incident, the massacre at Marikana, civic protests in Khayelitsha, the progress of the Secrecy Bill, even the ANC Bill entitled ‘The Second Interregnum’); read in this vein, the EWWC at Open Book ‘Should Literature be Political’ event traces the current status of documentation in South African fiction, and the responsibility of fiction writers to respond to events that are classed as political, ie ‘real’ events – whose voice is it that can legitimately respond? (responsibility of African writers to produce the real for the West, anyone? Caine Prize debates? Single story debates? Krog is interesting on this question of ‘the real’ – see her conversation with Duncan Brown, available online).
      And in terms of the ‘now’ and the ‘again’ – was discussing something that I see to be in the same ball-park just yesterday, but this time in the North American context, about the implications of the rejection of ‘postmodernity’ and metafiction – the idea of the post-postmodern (I had a discussion, also recently, about the viability of ‘the post-postapartheid’) – but this idea of a beyond the postmodern as somehow distancing contemporary American fiction and its concomitant ‘return to politics’ in the wake of the continuing ‘War on Terror’ from the ‘old’ (read tired, no longer valid) postmodern and metafictional – as if these prior modes (or categorisations) are unable to function as politicised or concerned with politics, a politics; is this a response to or a call for a return to the ‘real’, for ‘reality literature’ in Nicholas Royle’s terms (this oxymoronic trope itself tied in with the trope of spectrality, of literature always haunted – even of European thought and Derrida’s specific brand of French-Algerian ‘hauntology’ haunting everything?), a call for ‘the real’ in a world in which the economic and political absurdities surrealise life experience, defy belief… This set of preoccupations resonate, for me, with Ndebele’s idea of exploding “willed invisibility”, and of this being something to do with reading – what Margie Orford discusses in the context of censorship as the responsibility to listen – in this case, the responsibility to see while reading; and yet again, I come back to reception, questions of interpretation. Roll on the videos!
      You know when Krog bemoans the lack of book programmes on South African TV – who watches book programmes, anywhere? There was Richard and Judy – and Oprah… is that on TV? Interested in this. Are there any online equivalents of telly book programmes that you know of..? (Roll on the videos…)

    • Further to this conversation, thought you might be interested in the comments trail on Margie Orford’s response to the ‘Censorship Today’ event:
      Sloan Almer’s comments speak to issues of censorship in relation to the current SAn political literature debate…

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