After the ashes: Beyond the volcano and the fair

South African expectations were great for the 39th London Book Fair, but although man proposes, nature disposes. The intervention of Eyjafjallajökull, a certain Icelandic volcano, put paid to the best-laid plans of our authors and publishers. A national contingent of 47 had been set to take centre stage at the fair, under the rubric of the South Africa Market Focus.

And the fair, at the Earls Court Exhibition Centre from April 19 to 21, was billed as being the “biggest and best” in the annual series.
Exhibiting companies numbered 1 700, up by 7% on 2009.

But the clouds of volcanic ash out of Iceland put paid to a comprehensive South African presence at the fair and resulted in a steep drop in the number of publishers, authors and exhibitors from Europe and across the Atlantic.

For literary team South Africa it was a cruel blow to months of preparation and high hopes of a breakthrough in how South African writing and publishing is known and perceived, at least in the English-language world. Among topics slated for discussion were: writing sport (the effect that the Fifa 2010 Soccer World Cup might have on writing, reading and politics); non-fiction, fiction and crime writing in South Africa; the new South African reader; how a writer’s indigenous language can inform work in English; and South Africa in Africa, with the vexing corollary of why the country is seen as different from the rest of the continent.
Other seminars, under the aegis of the British Council, were scheduled to look at academic, trade, children’s and educational publishing.

Consolation events were arranged for those attendees who were stranded in Cape Town, and opened to the public. One such was “Not the London Book Fair” at the Book Lounge. Nothing, however, could quite make up for the opportunity lost in what is widely seen and touted as this country’s year and place in the sun.

A plus from the London fall-out is that there is bound to be extra energy devoted to the literary events lined up for home soil later this year. First up is this year’s World Book Day, held around the world annually on April 23, the day on which both Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare died in 1616.

The theme for the local version is “Reading is cool”, a proposition that will be demonstrated at the official celebrations at the Harry Gwala Senior Secondary School in Khayelitsha.

Thereafter it’s the turn of the Franschhoek Literary Festival: Fourth Edition, from May 14 to 16. Setting out under the banner and mantra of “The people shall read”, the festival has an impressive line-up of writers, publishers and book-world personalities.

There is a delicious juxtaposition in the festival’s mantra consciously echoing the ringing words, phrases and sentiments of the Freedom Charter, while the FLF takes place in the haute cuisine comfort zone of the Cape wine lands. “South Africa: A World in One Country” as that old South Africa Tourism tag-line went.

Darryl Accone

Darryl Accone

Darryl Accone is books editor of the Mail & Guardian and director of the annual M&G Literary Festival. All Under Heaven, the memoir of his (mainly) Chinese family in South Africa (David Philip, 2004), was shortlisted for the 2005 Alan Paton Award. Accone is a Fellow of the Salzburg Seminar and the International Writers Workshop of Hong Kong Baptist University. Read more from Darryl Accone

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