In the world of South African letters, two speeches reverberated through the late 1980s. One was JM Coetzee’s Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech, in which he outlined the political milieu in South Africa that made it almost impossible for writers to grapple with ‘normality”.
The other, an elegant variation also from Coetzee, was at the inaugural Weekly Mail Book Week. As the Weekly Mail’s successor, the Mail & Guardian, prepares to open its first literary festival on Friday September 3, the challenges facing writers now are as daunting as they were then.
While this is neither the best nor the worst of times, it is certainly among the most interesting of times for the country, its citizens, government and writers. Civil liberties are under threat in the guise of the Protection of Information Bill and with it potentially the freedom of writers to express their opinions and to write what they like.
Given that setting, the festival’s theme is apt: Being Here Now: South Africans in 2010. Beginning with the keynote address by M&G editor-in-chief Nic Dawes on the opening night, the festival will look at fiction, life-writing and creative non-fiction, life in our post-colony, education, difficult writing subjects, the M&G itself at 25, crime and how it is written in fiction and non-fiction, and the event’s theme: who South Africans are and how we live in 2010.
Among the thought patrons one may invoke are Frantz Fanon, Sol Plaatje, Bessie Head, John Langalibalele Dube, Thomas Mofolo, AS Mopeli-Paulus, Herman Charles Bosman, Olive Schreiner and Pauline Smith. Then there are Albert Camus, Rosa Luxemburg and Virginia Woolf (in particular her defining speech, ‘A Room of One’s Own”).
Woolf’s agenda is made flesh today, with women dominating the house of South African publishing, including Eloise Wessels (NB Publishers), Alison Lowry (Penguin), Bridget Impey (Jacana), Terry Morris (Pan Macmillan), Veronica Klipp (Wits University Press), Debbie Primo (UKZN Press) and Colleen Higgs of Modjaji Books. My festival co-director, Corina van der Spoel of Boekehuis, and I found it fruitful working with these and publishers such as Jonathan Ball and Random House Struik to put together the festival programme.
For a festival epigraph and ‘problem statement”, we could turn to Camus and his tract, The Rebel, where he declares: ‘The novel makes destiny to measure.” It is part of the festival’s task to weigh that and see whether and how it applies to South African writing in 2010.