Beyond the public eye

2008-03-29 00:00

THE Time of the Writer Festival is not just big names, roadshows, book launches and debates.

Wednesday saw one of the happenings away from the public eye, when a heavyweight contingent of six of the participants went to the Caversham Centre for Artists and Writers in the midlands.

South Africans Breyten Breytenbach and Mbulelo Mzamane, currently the director of the Centre for African Literary Studies on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of KZN; Kenyans Henry Chakava and Shailja Patel and Zimbabweans Paul Brickhill and Irene Staunton left the bustle of Durban for the peace of the converted 19th Century Methodist chapel at Caversham, complete with its gravestones in the garden.

The morning started with a visit to the Ulwazi Centre at the Jabula Combined School where Caversham community co-ordinator Gabisile Nkosi has been running programmes since 2002.

Articulate and confident children entertained visitors with poems and songs, and showed off their artwork, which overflows from their art room into bright murals on the outside walls.

Then it was back to Caversham, where founder and CEO Malcolm Christian introduced the centre’s work. He had planned a powerpoint presentation, but that was soon shelved as ideas and suggestions poured out, the writers bouncing suggestions off each other.

Christian explained how Caversham had started as a print-making studio, but had grown into a place where “we are working with people rather than with product. We want to build awareness of how to add value, rather than be the best or finest,” he said.

The centre runs residencies and programmes to develop leadership capacity and give people a chance to reach their own creative potential, and from there go on to inspire others’ “self-belief coming from self-expression; understanding who you are through sharing”.

Breytenbach, whose keynote address at the festival the night before had opened on a sombre note, and who had expressed disappointment with much that is currently happening in South Africa, immediately jumped in and said Christian’s remarks were “like honey on the ears”.

He put forward the idea of “stone poets”, suggesting that writers should put their poems on a stone, and exchange them, and then talked about the tradition, part of many cultures, of leaving a stone at a river crossing, creating cairns or pyramids. “I have always thought the most beautiful testimonial to people who have died would be to have somewhere where stones, with their names on them, could be laid,” he said.

Other ideas bubbled out: for creating a library; archives of local children’s literature; making animated feature films of African novels — something that Caversham with its history of image making would be well placed to tackle; writers’ residencies to tie in with Time of the Writer or Poetry Africa; ways of producing accessible books and always, running through the discussion, the importance of the idea that “your story is as important as mine”.

The talk went on through lunch, where Mzamane and Patel recited poems. Then Christian and Breytenbach went down to the river to see the Caversham labyrinth, made of stones once again. The whole event was a fascinating insight into the excitement of the ideas that bubble behind the public festival facade.

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