/ 26 July 2012

A festival wordy of note

Mongane Wally Serote
Mongane Wally Serote

Nadine Gordimer, Breyten Breytenbach, Patrick Chamoiseau, Mongane Wally Serote, Zapiro, Diane Victor, Imraan Coovadia, Lauretta Ngcobo and Ronnie Kasrils are among the novelists, poets, artists, activists, academics and struggle icons who will take part in the third Mail & Guardian Literary Festival.

Presented by the Mail & Guardian and the Market Theatre, the festival brings together authors and audiences for almost a week of debate at the theatre, from August 28 to September 2.

From its opening session, No Time like the Present: Gordimer and Serote in Conversation, to its final panel discussion, Stories of Exile, the festival aims to survey what is being written in and about South Africa, its society and people.

Running alongside that, the programme offers wide-ranging discourses on topics of universal literary interest such as the rise of the e-book, how children learn to love reading and the limits of freedom of expression.

Nobel laureate Gordimer and poet Serote appear on the Market’s main stage on the festival’s first night in a slot that takes its title from Gordimer’s latest novel, No Time like the Present (Picador Africa, 2012). Their literary chat will be hosted by Craig MacKenzie, professor of English at the University of Johannesburg and a contributor to the recently published Cambridge History of South African Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Like Gordimer, Breytenbach is a major subject of the book. For the poet, anti-apartheid activist and painter, the festival is a significant public appearance on home soil. Breytenbach is part of the France-South Africa Seasons 2012/2013 and he has two slots. The first is an evening of poetry with multiple-award-winning Rustum Kozain, whose new collection, Groundwork (Kwela Books, 2012), has just been published, and Oswald Mtshali, the veteran poet, whose famous Sounds of a Cowhide Drum is due to be republished by Jacana Media. The session’s hosts, festival co-director Corina van der Spoel and Georges Lory, director of the Alliance Française of Johannesburg, will give the audience a glimpse of the personalities behind the poetry, and introduce the poets, who will read from their work.

Breytenbach’s second session, Speaking in Tongues: Talking, Writing, Translating, sees him on stage with Chamoiseau, one of the greatest writers in the Francophone world. The two will tackle the pleasures and perils of translating. Lory, a notable translator of Breytenbach’s work, will join the discussion.

Chamoiseau is best known for Texaco (Éditions Gallimard, 1992; English translation by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov, Granta, 1997), a narrative history of his homeland Martinique and a dazzling essay on fighting linguistic colonisation. It won France’s premier literary award, the Prix Goncourt, in 1992.

In Texaco, Chamoiseau uses mulatto, creole and European French, and elaborates on the notion of creolité (“creoleness”).

This grand project, in a book teeming with word games and wordplay (the story is told by Oiseau de Cham), has drawn plaudits from Francophone and Anglophone critics. Significantly, Karl Miller wrote in the Observer that “I love and admire Chamoiseau’s book … for its saying of the unsayable, its naming of ‘the creole unsaid’.”

Milan Kundera described Chamoiseau as “a writer who has the sophistication of the modern novelist, and it is from that position (as an heir of Joyce and Kafka) that he holds out his hand to the oral prehistory of literature”.

Sometimes, though, Chamoiseau can seem withholding, and he has been charged with impenetrability. When Réjouis, a Franco-Haitian translator, broached the subject of his “opacity”, Chamoiseau replied: “Truth can be opaque and authenticity can be expressed in an opaque manner … It even seems to me that one could not express the truth of a culture, of a people, of a country without opacity.”

Another dictum of Chamoiseau’s is expressed in the epigraph to the first section of Texaco, in which Oiseau, at times self-dubbed the Word Scratcher (le Marqueur des paroles), observes that “literature in a place that breathes is to be taken in alive”.

Chamoiseau was born in 1953 in Fort de France, Martinique, where he lives. His festival appearance, also part of the France-South Africa Seasons 2012/2013, is owed in large part to the tireless efforts of Lory.

As in Texaco, languages, and the literatures attached to or detached from them, raise large questions in the Cambridge History of South African Literature. Some of them will be examined in One Country, Many Literatures: Looking at South African Writing, chaired by University of the Witwatersrand English professor Michael Titlestad. The panel will include MacKenzie and Margaret Lenta, emeritus professor of English at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and editor, with Michael Chapman, of SA Lit: Beyond 2000 (UKZN Press, 2011).

Fiction that might be included in revised editions of these literary history tomes features in two panel discussions. Jo’burg in Fiction, chaired by former Rhodes Scholar and long-time Jo’burg scholar Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon, features Siphiwo Mahala (African Delights; Jacana, 2011), Eric Miyeni (The Release; Umuzi, 2012), 2012 UJ Prize winner Craig Higginson (The Landscape Painter; Picador Africa, 2011), André Kruger (Die Twee ­Lewens van Dieter Ondracek; Human & Rousseau, 2012) and novelist Jane Rosenthal (also the M&G’s chief fiction reviewer for the past 15 years).

David Medalie, the novelist, short-story writer and professor of English at the University of Pretoria, chairs War, Peace and Transformation in New South African Fiction. The panel comprises award-winning novelist and University of Cape Town academic Imraan Coovadia (The Taxi Poetry Society; Umuzi, 2012), Karen Jayes (For the Mercy of Water; Penguin Books, 2012); Steven Boykie Sidley (Entanglement; Picador Africa, 2012) and James Whyle (The Book of War; Jacana Media, 2012).

Jo’burg in fact rather than in fiction comes under the spotlight in Jo’burg: City of Extremes, chaired by Wits University professor of architecture Marie Huchzermeyer, author of Cities with Slums and Tenement Cities (both Wits University Press titles). The panel includes urban experts Martin Murray and Jonathan Noble.

The exile experience is examined in Stories of Exile, chaired by Kasrils, who won the 2011 Alan Paton Award for The Unlikely Secret Agent (Jacana Media, 2011), his memoir of his late wife and fellow activist Eleanor Kasrils. On the panel are ex-spymaster Barry Gilder (Songs & Secrets; Jacana Media, 2012) and Ngcobo and Liepollo Lebohang Pheko, editors of  Prodigal Daughters (UKZN Press, 2012), a collection of stories about South African women in exile. Kasrils will also speak about The London Recruits (edited by Ken Keable; Jacana Media, 2012), for which he wrote the introduction.

Exile can also connote internal displacement and marginalisation, issues very much to the fore in the session Satire and the Limits of Freedom of Expression. Novelist and department of arts and culture spokesperson Sandile Memela chairs a panel that features Glenda Daniels, author of the forthcoming Fight for Democracy: The African National Congress and the Media in South Africa (Wits University Press, 2012), artist and freedom of expression advocate Victor, satirical novelist Chris Wadman (The Unlikely Genius of Dr Cuthbert Kambazuma; Jonathan Ball, 2012) and renowned cartoonist Zapiro.

Repression is also a theme in Ariel Dorfman’s new play Delirium, which runs at the Barney Simon Theatre at the Market during the festival (and before and after too). In the pre-theatre session, Preparing for Dorfman’s Delirium, audiences will be able to speak to Delirium director Greg Homann.

The invigorating shock of the new is represented, celebrated and analysed in two sessions. The Youngsters sees Mail & Guardian Online deputy editor Verashni Pillay in a cut-and-thrust with three authors from The Youngsters series edited by Mandy Weiner: Anele Mdoda (It Feels Wrong to Laugh, but …; Picador Africa, 2012), Khaya Dlanga (In My Arrogant Opinion; Picador Africa, 2012) and Danny K (Take It from Me; Picador Africa, 2012).

Books versus e-books, print versus digital, the codex versus the tablet — they are all ways of saying How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Tablet: The Changing Landscape of Print, which is chaired by M&G editor in chief Nic Dawes. The panel includes Pan Macmillan publisher Terry Morris (who gave the green light to The Youngsters series, published by Pan Macmillan’s imprint Picador Africa) and Pillay.

Love Books will be selling books by the authors taking part in the festival, as well as a range of other titles from its shelves, outside the Market and Laager theatre venues.

Gramadoelas, the restaurant at the Market, is offering its famed dinner and lunch buffets for R100 — a 50% discount — during the festival. The lunch offer applies on September 1 and 2.

The festival is made possible by partnerships between the M&G and the Market Theatre, the France-South Africa Seasons 2012/2013, Gramadoelas at the Market, Love Books and South African publishers Human & Rousseau, Jacana Media, Jonathan Ball, Kwela Books, NB Publishers, Pan Macmillan, Penguin Books, Picador Africa, Random House Struik, UKZN Press, Umuzi and Wits University Press.

Tickets are R40 per session. Booking opens on August 1 at: mg.co.za/bookingform.

The Friday section of the M&G will carry more on the festival in coming weeks and a festival supplement will be published on August 24.

Darryl Accone is co-director of the festival and books editor of the Mail & Guardian