The mother of all book festivals

2011-05-28 12:02

Judging by the number of authors confirmed to attend and the ­innovative ideas for the five-day programme, the Open Book Festival will be the best thing to happen to Cape Town’s literary scene since organiser Mervyn Sloman opened The Book Lounge.

That may sound trite, but The Book Lounge is arguably the hardest-working independent bookshop in South Africa and has added a sparkle to the city’s ­literary scene.

After three and a half years in existence, the list of authors who have launched their books there represents a who’s who of South African talent.

The effects of Open Book, however, will be felt far beyond Cape Town.

When ­Sloman – slouching behind a small but ­tidy desk in an office cluttered with boxes in the basement of his shop – says he wanted to get top international writers to a five-day festival for book lovers, it was not an overstatement.

Not only is, for instance, Jeanette ­Winterson’s attendance confirmed, she is launching her autobiography, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, at Open Book.

Hari Kunzru is also launching his latest novel, Gods Without Men.

If, like me (who thought I was well read ­until I started talking with Sloman and his festival organising sidekick, Frankie Murrey), you’re wondering who Kunzru is, he’s won a Betty Trask award, a ­Somerset Maugham Award and is one of Granta’s best of young British novelists.

In fact, the list of 12 confirmed authors attending Open Book represents a list of some of the world’s most prestigious ­literary award winners – and if they ­haven’t won one, they’ve been shortlisted more than once.

Besides Winterson and Kunzru, JMG Le Clézio, Paul Harding, Earl Lovelace, Patrick Gale, Jane Bussmann, Patrick Ness, Neel Mukherjee, David McCandless, Véronique Tadjo and Alain Mabanckou have all ­confirmed their attendance.

Sloman is liaising with another dozen or so writers, helped by local author ­Damon Galgut and Open Book partner Ben Williamson, and the list is growing week by week.

It’s much more than five days of ­writers talking about writing.

Sloman has more imagination than that.

The ­programme is also not just for lovers of fiction.

Urban planners, geographers and ­economists may fog up their spectacles at the prospect of chatting to the editors of The Endless City – an original and thought-provoking examination of six ­cities in the world – at the launch of Living in The Endless City, which is an expansion of the The Endless City to include Istanbul, São Paulo and Mumbai.

Statisticians may sharpen their pencils at the opportunity to see a presentation by McCandless, author of ­Information
is Beautiful.

There will be suppers where you can eat at a table with some of your favourite (living) authors, there will be writer sports where foreign authors will team up against South African writers – many of whom Sloman firmly believes are on par with the international guests – for tests of wit, such as the audience ­instructing them to write 150 words on the Springbok rugby team in the style of Mills & Boon, and there will also be more ­serious discussions.

Creating exposure for local writers is one part of Open Book’s aim. Another is gathering a new generation of dedicated readers.

There is a youth day on the programme with events arranged around subjects such as graffiti, hip-hop and the spoken word.

Most impressive though, in partnership with Equal ­Education, a school will be given a stocked library.

Publishers have agreed to donate books and festival-goers can peruse a list of books to purchase for the library’s shelves.

Although the school in most dire need of a library is yet to be ­finalised, the plan includes the ­employment of a librarian to keep the ­library functioning.

A mentorship programme between South African authors and 10 young ­writers is also on the cards.

There is much still to be organised, but Sloman is looking forward to standing in the midst of the “organised chaos” that is usually at the centre of ­every festival and watching as great and fascinating minds engage with one ­another in one of the world’s most ­beautiful cities.

» Go to to see the list of authors.

The festival will run from ­September 21 to 25. 0 021 462 2425

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