AiW Guest: Katarzyna Kubin.
One of the most exciting, world-class literary events, the Open Book Festival, takes place annually at the start of spring in Cape Town, South Africa, spear-headed by the independent bookshop, The Book Lounge, and the renowned Fugard Theatre. This year, in its seventh year, during five days from 6 to 10 September, crowds packed venues across the neighborhood of District Six, rain and shine, morning to night, to listen to celebrated South African and international authors speak about the most pressing issues facing contemporary South Africa and about the literary arts in general. On the first evening of the festival, in the glowing main hall of the events hub at the Fugard Theatre, I ran into Zola Ndimande, a Cape Town artist, who stood absorbing the buzz and bustle: “I love the openness of it and the beautiful spaces they’ve created where people can mingle and intersect.”
At the Fugard Theatre, mornings were swathed with the warming aroma of fresh coffee, while wine glasses clinking accented evening conversations. Festival-goers could enjoy casual conversation with distinguished authors, until the latter broke away to take their seat on stage. During the session “No Comfort Zones,” Man Booker Prize winner, Paul Beatty leaned back in his chair to consider what kind of reading makes him comfortable – “I like experimental fiction. I want to have a book-gasm,” said his fellow panelist, Chwayita Ngamlana, who debuted with her If I Stay Right Here (2017). Paul replied, characteristically with his spare words and chuckling, “I don’t have anything to add.” During the session “Secret Histories,” Mohale Mashingo discussed how South Africa is plagued by the unspoken and shared an emotional moment with the audience by revealing that the characters in her novel, The Yearning (2016), were inspired by her aunt, who passed away just before its publication. Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀, author of the celebrated debut Stay with Me (2017), shortlisted for the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, asserted during the session “Inherited Burdens” that she does not write for personal healing and so was bewildered to discover that she had subconsciously written her childhood home into her novel.
The festival’s programme was expansive, including over 140 events that took the form of panel discussions, writing masterclasses, performances, interactive sessions – for example, the crowd-pleasing “Writersports: The Erotica Edition”. The craft of writing in its various forms was the focus in only some sessions. Politics filtered into nearly every conversation, but some panels were explicitly focused on contemporary issues, like the highly popular session on “The Future of the ANC,” which featured a debate with Prince Mashele, co-author of a book by that title.
In between sessions, some participants reflected quietly, some were engrossed in a newly purchased book, others continued the conversation. During one break, I spoke to a University of Cape Town (UCT) student who enjoyed a hot chocolate, seated in the expansive space of the Homecoming Centre, the education and outreach arm of the District Six Museum located two blocks away. Jaydon Farao, who studies engineering, described what he appreciates about the festival: “It helps me see that the authors we read and hold in such high regard are, at the end of the day, vulnerable human beings like you and me. I went up to many authors after a panel and they were more than willing to talk to me. I’m glad I can express to them that their work affects how I see things. For example, I spoke with Yewande Omotoso, who studied architecture and practiced as an architect, but has published two novels. That shows me that you don’t have to be locked into one path. The Open Book Festival produces that kind of mindset of freedom.”
One of the new releases at the festival was the distinguished Achmat Dangor’s newest work, Dikeledi: Child of Tears, No More (2017), promoted along with a special re-release of his earlier, Bitter Fruit (2003). I spoke to him whilst browsing the Book Lounge book displays, amply laden with a literary feast.
He offered similar impressions: “I appreciate that the Open Book Festival gives an opportunity to come and speak not only very narrowly about your book that you write, but more broadly about who you are, where you come from, what influenced you, and what you hope to see for the future of our country.” The author appeared in three sessions during the festival: “All the sessions had common themes: the question of patriarchy and gender equality, and how women are marginalized, and it’s important that overcoming marginalization of minorities, of women, and racial justice issues were so prominent during the festival.”
Another UCT student, Azraa Bux, echoed Dangor’s reflections in her comments on the session on “Decolonisation and Literature,” with Thabiso Mahlape, head of BlackBird Books, an imprint of Jacana Media, and Makhosazana Xaba, poet, activist, and co-editor of the Queer Africa collections (2014 and 2017). Azraa: “It was amazing because there were two Black women speaking, who are examples of Black excellence in their fields of writing and publishing. I strongly believe that you can’t be what you can’t see, so seeing these women speak motivates and inspires me to excel.” Azraa is a budding publisher in her own right, she’s working with other students to launch, Panorama, a publication for student poetry and prose: “I got a lot of pragmatic advice [during the festival]. People were so open, and forthcoming, saying things like ‘this is who you should talk to’ and ‘drop me an email’. It’s so motivating, I really have to stop myself from pulling out my laptop and working on our project right now!”
A hotly anticipated book launched at the festival was Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola’s, Reflecting Rogue: Inside the Mind of a Feminist, published by MFBooks Joburg. Jaydon attended the session: “The discussion was about what it means to be a feminist and a rogue feminist, and what it means to be a black woman in South Africa. It was really insightful to just listen in on that important conversation.”
One block away in the sleek interior of the A4 Arts Foundation, Shona Daniels, a student of events management at Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), remarked on the worldliness of the festival: “One event that really stood out for me was the documentary film screening on the refugee crisis in Finland, “Boiling Point” (dir. Elina Hirvonen). It’s important to know what’s happening in our neighboring continent. I lived in the Netherlands for a year and I remember the refugee crisis was a big topic then, but the documentary was eye-opening for me.” Shona also noted the positive impact of the festival on the District Six neighborhood: “I really appreciate that the festival events are organized across several venues in District Six, which encourages attendees, both locals and visitors from abroad, to walk around this part of Cape Town.” District Six was once a vibrant and diverse community, but it was destroyed when, in 1966, the apartheid government declared it a white area under the Group Areas Act of 1950. The District Six Museum now stands as a testimony of the forced removal of the more than 60,000 residents.
Urban development and the challenges of fostering social integration were featured in a series of discussion events during the festival, curated by the African Centre for Cities (ACC). Writer and publisher, Melinda Ferguson, co-author of Being Chris Hani’s Daughter (2017), which was launched at the festival, described herself as “a recent Cape Town adoptee” and noted: “It’s a very strange city, in many ways it looks like a European city, and then once a year the Open Book Festival happens and suddenly Cape Town is pumping with diverse people, with this wonderful, interesting and very dynamic South African audience.”
Issues of land rights and justice in post-apartheid were also highlighted in the festival programme. Chizuko Sato, a researcher from Japan based in the Institute of Developing Economies, attended four events curated by the University of the Western Cape’s Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), including: “Missing in Action,” “Land Tenure,” “Land Expropriation,” and “Reloaded or Exploded?”. She explained why she thinks Open Book makes an important contribution to contemporary debates about justice in South Africa: “I specialise in the political economy of South Africa, so I visit the country every year. I think the land issue is central to understanding the colonial and apartheid history in South Africa, and I feel more people need to take part in the debate to bring new perspectives and ideas.” Jorge Dachala, a high school student at Abbotts College in Cape Town, attended two sessions on land justice and could be one of those new voices: “It’s my first time at Open Book and I most appreciate the fact that the audience gets to ask questions and there’s this interaction between the speakers and us the audience. We get to share our points of view and ask questions and that’s great.”
But the festival was also, and simply, a haven for those who love to read and who seek out new literary impressions. Chizuko: “When I go to bookshops, I see many books by African authors but don’t always know what to choose. During the Festival I got to listen to some of the authors speaking about their work and that’s a good introduction.” Capetonian native and a practicing architect, Anthony Stricker, was attending the festival for a consecutive year: “The Festival is almost like a live version of podcasts I listen to. It’s interesting to hear how authors respond to day-to-day events and how they reflect on life, in the sort of free-form ruminating that the sessions allow.”
The literary arts were celebrated in their diverse forms during Open Book. Over the weekend, the Comics Fest included a series of interactive events around the art of comics – demo sessions and a series of Monster Battle sessions showed off the hottest talents and allowed the audience to actively engage with the art. Most festival days ended with spoken word performances, which, along with discussion sessions focused on poetry, were part of a segment in the programme organized through a collaboration between #COCREATESA, a platform for South African and Dutch counterparts to exchange ideas and innovations for a sustainable future, and Poetica, curated for Open Book by the illustrious South African poet, Toni Stuart. A series of events were especially dedicated to young readers with regular children’s events at the Cape Town Central Library. Throughout the festival, participants could also donate books to the Open Book Library Project, which aims to support libraries in local schools.
Katarzyna Kubin is a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, based at the Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies (CCLPS). She is also co-founder and current Executive Board member of the Foundation for Social Diversity (FSD), a non-government organisation based in Warsaw, Poland, that deals with issues of migration, equality and social diversity. She has been writing for and curating Africa in Words series since 2016.
Read Katarzyna’s AiW interview with Iman Verjee, an author featured at the festival, ‘The Importance of Writing and the Benefit of Travel’ – see link below or click here.