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At best, what you’re left with after attending this dynamic yet intimate writers’ festival is an overwhelming swirl of words, sensations and stimulation enough to take you through the next few weeks. Plus, of course, an oversized suitcase weighted with the number of books you’ve bought after having listened to the various authors.
You also leave, perhaps, with a sense of loss and sadness. The charms of Franschhoek are beguiling – the village set within a valley offers an intimacy to the fest not provided when a writers’ fest takes place in a bigger city. You ditch the car, if you even hired one, and walk everywhere, day or night – it’s small enough for that.
The festival is packed with book events – that’s part of the dilemma and sadness. For every one session, you miss four others. And if you find yourself in one of the rare dud sessions, you’re stuck. You can’t go winging it off to another venue. Doors close, the sessions begins, no late-comers.
No matter. Your festival will take on the flavour of the interests you’ve ticked off while booking. Sometimes you’ll go to a whole host of fiction talks, other times you’ll be leaning towards trends and non-fiction topics.
And that was the frame of mind I was in when I booked my selection of tickets for this year’s events. I wanted to know more about e-books, and I couldn’t miss the session on Twitter. But I also have an interest in niche writing – and attended a session of gay writing and Muslim writers in conver-sation, as well as one on conscious walking.
The big interest was in tweeting – and the school hall was packed for the session. BookSA Live and its representatives had been tweeting from hour one – using the hashtag #flf12 so all could follow.
Of course, a number of writers and journos attending were also tweeting – so if, like Zakes Mda, you couldn’t make the fest, you could still follow vicariously. Mda tweeted: “Thanks to twitter I’m following the proceedings of #flf12”.
Jenny Crwys-Williams chaired the lively session, which often erupted into laughter, which had master tweeters in the hot seat: Gareth Cliff with his 200 000 followers, Gus Silber and Professor Jonathan Jansen about their views.
All weighed in on the benefits of using this micro service, with Silber beginning with the statement: “It’s like a direct line to people’s minds – it’s one of the reasons I love Twitter.” As others added, you can tweet a politician or a supermarket store and receive an answer.
“I think Helen Zille is the best politician on Twitter,” said Silber, “while the ANC’s Derek Hanekom has fisticuffs with people on Twitter.” Cliff offered advice such as, “You have to be brave on Twitter” and “Don’t tweet too much, like every 15 minutes”.
Jansen smiled: “You have to be irreverent on Twitter, you have to be on the edge of an argument, to push the boundaries.” Cliff: “It would be silly for people not to embrace Twitter, with Twitter the power is back in your hands.”
How to integrate it into your life, asked an audience member. Silber said that once you integrate it into your life, the integration is seam-less, use it while waiting in queues for instance. My two cents worth – ditch the old dumbphone, get a smartphone and tweet during those dead times in your day.
Technology formed the bone of another talk I attended, “The Technology Tsunami” with Arthur Goldstuck and Simon Dingle, a presenter, about the advent of e-books and self-publishing on that platform. I first attended a talk on this subject at the London Book Fair in 2010, and then it seemed as though mostly textbook publishers were embracing the format.
But Kindle has taken off, numerous online sites exist to help you take your book from concep-tualisation to cover to Kindle. Goldstuck and Dingle shared their sometimes downright blundering experiences with the medium, leaving us with the sense that this route certainly opens a way past traditional publishing.
Meanwhile, in an earlier session, “The In-between ’80s”, columnist Ndumiso Ngcobo reminisced about that turbulent decade with journos Denis Beckett, and Azad Essa and film-maker and novelist Elaine Proctor. Have we moved on? Beckett posed the less than rhetorical question: “How many people have not moved on, for example the kid living in a squatter camp?”
Ngcobo reminisced: “One day we went to bed with an orange sky and the next we woke up to a blue sky. But was it that magical?” Clearly not, and Proctor and Beckett spoke about their time and activism during the dark 1980s.
Essa, celebrating his 30th birth-day, mused on how his generation could write about this period, those who were children in the 1990s.
But fundamental change hasn’t really happened in some way seemed to be the conclusion, “although we’ve overcome huge gulfs between then and now”, Beckett said. Loved Beckett’s firm and wise assertion that “I hate the thought of thinking with our genes. I’d like to think that I had your complexion” turning to Ngcobo, “I’d think the same. Hate the thought that if I’m black I think one way and if I am white I think another.”
I also attended a talk on gay writing, chaired by Robin Malan, of Junkets publishers, with Mark Behr, Richard Krummeck, who has just released two gay novellas through Junkets, and Richard de Nooy, the straight writer of The Big Stick, a portrayal of the gay world that is said to be authentic.
The question, “How comfortable are you with the label of gay writing?” brought several interesting responses, but, said Behr: “It’s a dangerous and exclusionary label. I’m more comfortable with the word ‘queer’ than gay. Queer is a more inclusive category.”
Krummeck added that “the word gay can become quite weighted, and tends to be equated with sexuality, whereas (being gay) is also linked with the emotional and spiritual.” Maybe, he said, the label should be left out. “What about homo-spiritual?”
But moving on from labels and terms, the discussion segued in to a discussion on how “gay” can still sometimes be used in a pejorative sense. Behr said he was not writing for a gay audience. “I am interested in how ordinary people become oppressors. I also think you do need to have an overtly homosexual character to engage with homo-sexuality.”
The discussion ranged across popular representations of gay people in TV shows, for example, with a reference to US President Barack Obama’s finally coming out on gay marriage.
In the critics on critics session, Michiel Heyns engaged in a debate with Sean O’Toole and Brent Meersman on the state of literary criticism in this country. Too academic, not academic enough, and too few pages for reviews? The best advice came from Meersman, who said: “I’d say find a book you like, and tell us why you like it.”
Muslim writers in conversation got off to a wobbly start with writers Imraan Coovadia, Shaida Ali Khan and Essa in conversation with Sunday Times books editor Tymon Smith. I’d recently read Khan’s Lessons in Husbandry and wanted to find out more about the author and the book, but the discussion was more wide-ranging, and narrower in a sense.
Khan summed up it up: “No one writes about us (Muslims), it’s important to see ourselves mirrored in literature.” Coovadia agreed that there was a small shelf of books devoted to the Muslim experience. But Khan said: “The exotic idea of Muslim writing will fall away when there are more Muslim writers.”
This is a but a small snapshot of the fest. And at the end of the day, you meet friends and fellow writers and publishers at the various restaurants, talking, nattering, comparing experiences in the writing world, what you thought of each session, before strolling home, mind buzzing, stimulated, just about ready for more.
• Arja Salafranca is the author of the collection of short stories The Thin Line, edits Sunday Life in The Sunday Independent and has published volumes of poetry and fiction anthologies.