“Reading is a collective pursuit”: Open Book Festival Review

AiW Guest: Megan Ross.

Before I write this review I’ll…

Share my Open Book diet

Too. Much. Caffeine. All the dry red at the Fugard bar. Half a bottle of single malt whiskey (and its accompanying hangover) that Helene Prinsloo left at my Airbnb.

Wave my ticket to the party

I’d heard that Open Book was the best event on the literary calendar, and the name-tag around my neck felt like my ticket to Oz. Writing is lonely unless you live in a major city centre. If you don’t have access to literary events and launches and the other writers that make Africa’s literary communities bubble and fizz, it can feel like you’re writing into a noiseless void. I mostly interact with other writers in the crowded house of the internet. It’s fun for a literary loner, because on the internet you can hang with writers from Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt. It’s where I met three of my closest friends, Sibongile Fisher and Efemia Chela and Rachel Zadok, where I found sibling-hood with Mapule Mohulatsi and Tj Benson. But it’s also nice to see writers in the flesh. Events like Open Book Fest let writers connect not as Facebook profiles or through tweets or track changes, but as people. It’s our chance to feel as if we belong to a genuine community beyond the doors of data and WiFi.

Guests browse books at the satellite store of The Book Lounge at Open Book Festival. Photo: Bulumko Gana

Although it had its official start on the Wednesday, my Open Book began on Thursday, in the physical centre point of the festival; arguably its energetic one as well. The swooshing heart of the Fugard Theatre beats its characteristic life force into every auditorium and on to every stage, powering that small block of Cape Town with frenzied heat. Hugging, laughing, autographing, protesting; enough books, booze and coffee, friends. Between fangirling over Famous Writers I actually attended events. My short term memory is crappy and I was mostly tipsy so allow me to muddle the order of things as I bring to you, my own

Rewatch Season One of Mohaleland

S01E01: Conversations with Mohale Mashigo, who recently released her latest book, Intruders.

She was in conversation with Jamaican writer and author of Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Pumla Dineo Gqola and Lesley Nneka Arimah, who later drew me two illustrations in my copy of What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, a “happy one and a dark, twisted one” – which was seriously, seriously creepy. Yes, the panel was brilliant, witty, intellectual-as-fuck. It was also goddamn funny. My favourite festival memory? Pumla reading a passage from Reflecting Rogue in which she chases her nephews around the house, squirting breast milk at them.

Next episode & another Mohaleland favourite: S01E02: also featuring Lesley Nneka Arimahhttp://www.larimah.com/. Magical Stories. How does magic amplify “minor shifts of power that occur every day”? Is it punching up, a way of not explaining one’s reality, or is it a way for writers from the Global South to define themselves independently of the north? Along with Mariana Enriquez, and facilitated by Nick Mulgrew, the panel explored the grit and gore that magic as device and style allows. Mariana, whose characters set themselves on fire and rip their fingernails from their nail beds, explores what women do with our bodies.

“There’s a story where the woman falls in love with a skeleton. Is that far off from reality? Thin culture encourages exactly the same thing.”

Hit the Unlike button

The launch of Nasty Women Talk Back at Open Book Festival. Photo: Bulumko Gana

This year Open Book fell in the same week as the SA Book Fair in Johannesburg, or SA Book Fair fell in the same week as OBF. Several writers were double-booked or split their time between the two. A sense of this hurried flight-catching and debriefing permeated the festival, but didn’t spoil it.

Roll my eyes

This was the first time my family joined me for a work event. My three year old son sat in the audience of my first panel. I was still Mom, but no nappy disaster or wobbly could drag me from the stage unless it dissolved into mother’s tears. Fitting, given that our Motherhood panel dove into the multitudinous motherhoods of Rachel Zadok, Martina Dahlmanns and myself. Contemplating the spaghetti junction of parenting in 2018, we covered everything from thwarted ambitions and not wanting children to having them (and abortions) and back. A critical moment: Martina’s insistence that we expand and redefine our definition of motherhood to include other forms of parenting, loving and mothering.

True to form, my son piped up from the audience, “Why is Mommy singing?” and then, demand “Milk-uh” – his code for boobie.

Dance a little, for poetry

I think I’m plagiarizing, but poets are like the bastard step children of the literary world. Our universe begins its life, and is contained within, the brief action of the poem. Stanzas are the walls in which our worlds are built. Until award-winning poet, Koleka Putuma rewrote the script with Collective Amnesia, most people in this country believed that poetry doesn’t sell.

Grouding Sessions at #cocreatePOETICA at Open Book Festival 2018. Photo: Bulumko Gana

An antidote: this year spotlighted poetry in Cocreatepoetica, an exciting series of exchanges, performances, discussions and meetings between poets.

First, I attended Poetry as Memoir with Phillippa Yaa de Villiers and Harry Garuba, facilitated by Linda Kaoma. A poetic feast of animist language and naming, the poets discussed our longing to belong to language, as well as the desire to transcend it.

“Isn’t poetry just language that we have tried to christen?” asked Harry.  

The first event of its kind at Open Book, Moving Pictures and Borders was a fascinating exploration of film, poetry and language. The project, which paired poets and filmmakers between South Africa and countries like Trinidad and Bangladesh, saw each team create short poem-films which were screened at the event. These works of art were a powerful embodiment of image and word, proof that cross-pollination between art forms is nourishing for art and artists. The panel that followed was in the same spirit, as poets and filmmakers alike discussed letting go, issues with translation and the power of poetry to transcend both political and artistic boundaries. As a poet who studied journalism, I walked away with notes and ideas, moved by how each poem found new life in a second medium; considering what was lost and reborn when words become images. I’d love to see more events like these. I urge festival organisers to consider funding and hosting projects that enable this kind of experimental collaboration.

Award a medal

To Writer Sports, which took the cake for comedy. Led by an effervescent Nick Mulgrew, whose self-deprecating performance had the audience howling with laughter, the comedic showcase of writerly cringe had Mohale Mashigo, Zuki WannerAdam Smyer, Mbongeni Nomkonwana and Wamuwi Mbao – whose usual dry humour lent itself to a side-splitting story about a couch, a man, and cigarettes –left me makeup smudged and laughter drunk.

Mohale won. Naturally.

Click my heels and return to the internet

Open Book was a tribute to the future that awaits African writers and our place in the global literary landscape. Celebratory, outrageous, unforgettable, it made good on its promise of international celebrity writers, panels, short films and talks. Made good, even, on its promise of banquet: intellectual feasts, literary delight, and of course, plenty sides of skinner and side-eye.

Come Sunday, “This was the best Open Book I’ve ever been to” was all anybody heard, and by Monday, social media was a-gush with love for #OBF2018. This is what everyone says, Efemia told me. Every year. And to reiterate the internet: please, somebody give Mohale Mashigo her own talk show, already.

Forget the review and write a love letter

To organisers, Frankie Murrey and Mervyn Sloman, to readers, and to every writer who continues to practice her craft even when a million things are making it difficult to do so. After all, us writers of all kinds, even if we’re alone doing it, are spitting and writing into the void, together. Before we dispersed to aeroplanes and cars, homebound for Johannesburg, Durban, Barcelona and New York City, to misquote Lesley Nneka Arimah, “we walked as though the earth spun to match our gait.” For five days we were all reminded that despite writing being a solitary pursuit, being read, and reading, is a collective one.

Megan Ross was born in Johannesburg in 1989. She is a writer, journalist and designer, and has received critical acclaim for both her short fiction and poetry. Her writing has appeared in Mail and Guardian, Fairlady, Glamour, GQ and O, the Oprah Magazine. Megan is the 2017 recipient of the Brittle Paper Award for Fiction, a runner up for the 2017 National Arts Festival’s Short Sharp Award as well as one of the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Award winners. She is also an Iceland Writers Retreat Alumnus. Her first book, a collection of poems called Milk Fever, was published by uHlanga earlier this year. Megan currently lives in East London with her partner and son, and is working on her first novel.


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