Authors in conversation

2013-05-22 00:00

LAST year I ticked a long-standing wish off my bucket list — a visit to the Hay Festival at Hay on Wye in Wales.

It poured with rain the whole time, but it was wonderful. And last week, I went to what has the potential to become South Africa’s equivalent, the Franschhoek Literary Festival.

It is on a much smaller scale — it’s younger for a start, this being its seventh year — and while the town of Hay has built its reputation on book shops, Franschhoek seems to have built its on the less promising premise of expensive places to eat and drink, and shops selling glitzy clothes and bric-a-brac. Expensive is the operative word here.

The festival sprang, like our own local Witness Hilton Arts Festival, from an after-dinner conversation — this time between the FLF founder and organiser, Durban-born writer Jenny Hobbs, and author Christopher Hope. They decided South Africa needed a literary festival, and Hobbs picked up the ball and ran with it.

The format is the same as Hay’s — authors in conversation. Hobbs says firmly that she doesn’t want lectures or readings, she wants lively interactions. Certainly in the sessions I attended, including two in which I was a participant, audiences were keen to get involved, ask questions and argue.

There was a lot to enjoy. One of the most entertaining for me was watching someone who breaks a primary rule most of us learnt very young. Never laugh at your own jokes. Alexander McCall Smith, author of the Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie series and my own favourite, for which I could forgive him for pretty much anything, the 44 Scotland Street series, was in conversation with Michelle Magwood.

She had little to do other than switch him on and sit back with the rest of his packed audience in Franschhoek’s biggest venue and enjoy.

Delightfully, he insisted that, even if life is a vale of tears, it is misleading to ignore the positives. “Literature doesn’t have to be about dysfunctionality,” he said, going on to tell one funny story after another, and laughing at them all. He reminded us that we are homo ludens, the playful species. When he tells you, you have to believe it.

There were sessions on politics, war, fiction in various guises, what publishers want (and indirectly and in several sessions, what authors want in return), on prizes, criticism and pretty much everything to do with the book — that thing you buy when you want, as someone said, a better emotional experience than you get in everyday life.

The audience is, in general, on the upper side of middle age — so it was at the Hay and so it is at most cultural festivals I have ever attended.

It is worrying, but, thinking back 10 years, audiences at festivals were probably the same age then as they are now. The people with money and leisure to attend this kind of thing are not the ones struggling with kids and mortgages. That has to put festivals low on their list of priorities, but the time will come.

More worrying is the colour of the audience — it is still very white. But the festival does what it can, including a potent outreach programme to schools in the Franschhoek area, which involves 50 children’s authors and illustrators visiting local schools in the week before the festival.

There is also now a library project, employing a librarian who visits five local primary schools once a week each to give the children library sessions and guide their reading. Changing the complexion of the festival will take time, but the effort is being made and the organisers know full well that it has to be a priority.

The Cape is a long way from KwaZulu-Natal, but there were familiar faces to be found: writers Elana Bregin, Marguerite Poland, Dianne Stewart and Lauretta Ngcobo; publisher Debra Primo (UKZN Press); and, almost as much of a fixture at the FLF as he is in Pietermaritzburg, Music Revival’s Christopher Duigan, who offered a series of classical concerts when words weren’t quite enough.

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