Time of feasting for lovers of letters

‘Tis the season to be merry if literary festivals bring you good cheer.

The Wits Arts and Literature Experience, which goes by the acronym Wale, ran on the Wits University campus until Saturday May 9. Down south, Franschhoek is readying itself for another edition of its annual literary festival, from May 15 to 17.

Wales is a showcase for Wits talent, so the writers and academics taking part come from the home team, and such home-ground advantage is inherent to the set-up. The Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF) boasts a large contingent of regular participants and a smattering of debutants.

Franschhoek’s is a comfortable formula — the well tried and predictable seasoned by the new. But the preponderance of Western Cape-based writers, editors and assorted literati is perhaps less understandable.

Budgetary factors might account for this preference for the distinctively local, though there are visits from international guests such as festival patron Christopher Hope, Justin Cartwright, Alexandra Fuller and Petina Gappah, among others. Globe-trotting credentials aside, Hope and Cartwright are South African old boys, and Gappah and Fuller are Zimbabwe-born. Cartwright is in South Africa also to promote his new novel, as Gappah is publicising her debut collection of short stories.

There is an obvious rationale to having authors of recent, new and forthcoming books at one’s festival. But where local residency appears to be the main qualification, questions arise. Authors of books that have been on the shelves for a number of years reappear on the programme to talk about those titles. There is a foreign novelist based in the Western Cape whose previous work came out some years ago. The common factor in these and other cases seems to be location, location, location.

The north-south divide is larger than ever in the state of the nation: it affects sport, politics and letters. Politically, the Western Cape appears on the verge of virtual secession from South Africa. (There are more than a few who believe that it should be lopped off and left to drift south.)

For the world of writing and publishing, that would put a gulf between behemoths such as NB (which includes Jonathan Ball, Kwela and Human & Rousseau) in the Cape and Penguin, Jacana, Wits University Press, Picador Africa, Pan Macmillan and Unisa in Gauteng, with the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press in the middle.

National and local sensibilities got a boost in Gauteng with the launch of Anthology of New South African Plays, edited by Greg Homann and published by Wits University Press. A half-day at Wits was devoted to sending this collection of post-apartheid plays into the world. First, the Wits Downstairs Theatre hosted a selection of readings from Homann’s collection, followed by a question-and-answer session. The launch followed in the evening, and another Q&A session.

Anthology of New South African Plays marks another title from the Wits press, which has been busy this year, with a tome on the history of Alexandra among its list of impressive new titles. (Down the road from Wits, independent publisher Jacana Media has been even more active. Its publishing schedule for 2009 comprises 59 titles.)

Homann, who teaches in the drama division of the Wits school of arts, is more than an anthologist. His play Previously Owned went under his direction to Brno in the Czech Republic and is set for a run at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

Many of the Wale events are free, including all its literary activities. Anti-apartheid poetry activist Peter Horn, a retired Wits professor of German, reads his poetry at the Wits Writing Centre in the Wartenweiler Library from 5.30pm to 6.30pm on Friday May 8.

A seminar on African diasporan literature takes place at the Wits Downstairs Theatre on Saturday May 9 from 9.30am to 11.30 am. Professor John McCluskey Jnr will deliver a public lecture. Veronique Tadjo, head of the French department at Wits, and novelist Mandla Langa will follow as respondents. Professor Leon de Kock, head of the school of languages and literature at Wits, will chair.

Lovers of letters will have a good time, whether at Wale or Franschhoek.

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