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A write minded gathering

‘Literature in a place that breathes is to be taken alive,” wrote Martinican writer Patrick Chamoiseau, an eloquent thought quoted when the third annual Mail & Guardian LitFest was officially opened.

Drawing new crowds and offering fresh perspectives in 13 panels from August 28 to September 2, the festival peaked when Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer came head to head with award-winning poet Mongane Wally Serote. The festival culminated in a moving panel, chaired by Ronnie Kasrils, on exile. It was threaded through with gossamer references to Fifty Shades of Grey and outrage at the recent Marikana massacre.

The panels ranged from initiatives the M&G spearheaded, the publishing series The Youngsters and publishing on Kindle to issues central to making, distributing and reading good literature.

“It’s hard to forge readership in a community suffering dire poverty,” said an audience member.

“Public libraries no longer have budgets for new books, let alone South African fiction,” said another.

Freedom of expression in South Africa was discussed in a panel chaired by novelist Sandile Memela, who is also the department of arts and culture’s chief director for social cohesion, and featuring political cartoonist Zapiro, academic and activist Glenda Daniels, novelist Chris Wadman and artist Diane ­Victor.

Memela, referring to our Constitution’s section 16, noted that “this remains the world’s freest society in terms of freedom of expression”.

But, pointing to the trajectory of the so-called secrecy Bill, Daniels argued: “Our ruling party keeps encroaching on this freedom. The ANC and South African Communist Party don’t like exposés, which is what newspapers do.”

Zapiro referred to the libel case pending for his 2008 “Lady Justice” cartoon (the hearing is scheduled for October). “The cartoon has nothing to do with race, gender or rape,” he said, and explained that the image is about what Zuma did to become president. The cartoon shows Zuma loosening his belt before a symbolic figure of Lady Justice held down by Zuma’s buddies. “It’s a metaphor about his bullying the justice system. I do not gratuitously aim to hurt in my work. I ‘push buttons’ if I think people are doing something wrong.”

When Memela commented that not only was button-pusher Zapiro white, he was also Jewish, Zapiro laughed. “You haven’t done your homework! I am the second-most vilified Jew in South Africa, second to Ronnie Kasrils, for savaging Israel. If you are a public figure, your skin must be thick.”

Michael Titlestad spoke of the almost mythical quality of his panel: sitting between fellow academics Craig MacKenzie and Margaret Lenta made him feel as though his well-respected bibliographies had come alive. The panel focused on the amorphousness of South African literature, touching on contested areas such as language, the beleaguered condition of the local literary novel and the even more desperate situation of its tiny readership.

“South African literature has been represented as a series of separate silos with no connection,” said Lenta. She added that in post-apartheid South Africa people could finally choose to write what they like.

“We cannot afford to be nostalgic. Publishing as we know it is changing,” said Lenta, her words resonating with the focus of another panel, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Tablet, a spoof on Dr Strangelove and nuclear bomb rhetoric. “The title is wrong,” began Nic Dawes, M&G editor-in-chief, who chaired the session. “I have not stopped worrying, although I love buying and reading tablet products.”

With Pan Macmillan’s Terry Morris, Ben Williams of Books LIVE and Alistair Fairweather, who runs the M&G’s iPad expansion, Dawes spoke about the ripple effect of digitised media on newspapers and books. They debated the roles of Amazon and Barnes and Noble (Williams considered Amazon king) and reflected on digitised music and books: Is music sexier or just easier to pirate? “I am bullish that we can make this into a sustainable business model in time,” said Fairweather.

Translation was an umbrella focus for many sessions, either implicitly or explicitly through the work of luminaries such as Ariel Dorfman and Chamoiseau.

Buenos Aires-born Dorfman was raised in Chile and went into exile, finally settling in the United States. His struggle to define himself in the language of the oppressor is legendary, his relationship with South Africa deep. In 1991 he met the late Barney Simon, who became a touchstone for his work. It seemed fitting, even in Dorfman’s physical absence, that his play Delirium debuted internationally in the Barney Simon Theatre 20 years after Simon directed Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden. Delirium’s season overlapped with the festival, giving audiences the double-sided treat of a talk with its director, Greg Homann, and the cast of Fiona Ramsay, David Dennis and Fezile Mpela, followed by a performance.

Premised on territorial war and imposed borders, Delirium is fuelled by Constanza, a language created by Dorfman based on Esperanto. Constanza is a tool that makes universal the play’s message of unity and ­disparity.

“A person’s accent influences how you perceive them,” said Ramsay, also a language coach. “When a person speaks with an accent, assumptions are made about their ­intelligence.”

Chamoiseau veers between ­Creole and French, even in dreams: “A matrix determines the basis of all languages,” he explained.

Alongside poet, philosopher, painter, activist and world analyst Breyten Breytenbach, in a session chaired by Georges Lory, Breytenbach’s longtime translator into French (and the director of the Alliance Française of Johannesburg), Chamoiseau spoke of politics, polemics and poetry in translating texts. Considering the implicit colonisation in much translation, he noted that “the challenge of a translator is to be able to tolerate the opacity of the other”. Earlier, Breytenbach offered the definition that “poetry is a continuation of the dream state in which normal syntactical rules get suspended”.

Chamoiseau wrote the screenplay for the film Aliker (2008), directed by Guy Deslauriers, the festival’s opening event. Aliker tells of Martinican communist and initially reluctant journalist André Aliker, who edited the news sheet Justice. He came passionately to believe in the power of journalism, so much so that his journalistic crusading led to his assassination. Cross-hatching truth with exploitation, Aliker is moving and uplifting while being devastatingly human, woven as it is into the unfolding rise of Nazism in Europe.

Chamoiseau and Breytenbach spoke of making beauty in a time of ugliness. “Inhumanity calls for even more humanity,” said Breytenbach, speaking of the years he was jailed in apartheid South Africa and of the challenge of “saying the untellable. Beauty in prison is different to what it would be elsewhere. When I was in jail, beauty was in a shredded piece of coloured paper blown over the wall.”

Dawes, introducing the session with Gordimer and Serote, spoke of the failure of morality in Marikana. Gordimer noted that “the heritage of apartheid haunts us; entitlement in our DNA goes back to 1652. In our struggle against apartheid, did we ever think what things would be like, 20 years into democracy?” Serote spoke of sacrifices he had seen ordinary people make in the name of democracy.

“What can we do?” Gordimer asked. “There is no simple solution. We rely on people’s morality and sense of proportion.”

“We must do a march!” Serote said.

“The police will shoot us,” Gordimer said, laughing, but then became grave. “Writers are not seers. We are looking for the meaning of life. How little we have achieved in 18 years.”

Kasrils’s panel, featuring former exiles Barry Gilder and Lauretta Ngcobo, brought the festival to sobering closure. Ngcobo, who contributed to and edited Prodigal Daughters (UKZN Press), an account of women who went into exile from South Africa, movingly told some of her life story. She went into exile in 1963 and spoke of her sense of defeat as she stepped into Swaziland, leaving her children behind. It was a thread taken up by Kasrils, about his late wife Eleanor. “She left a child with unsympathetic grandparents whom she did not see for 12 years, forging great estrangement.”

Ngcobo continued: “In exile I was ashamed of my ignorance; bewildered to be among so many whites. But after 30 years, did we become irrelevant? All our lives we fought for our people to have a life in South Africa. For this? Another struggle lies ahead. A much harder one.”

Kasrils said: “We keep getting told now is not the time to point fingers. When is the time?”

Then, taking as a keynote Czech writer Milan Kundera’s maxim, “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”, Kasrils warned: “If we don’t write, what is happening will be lost as the dust settles.”

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Robyn Sassen
Robyn Sassen
A freelance arts writer since 1998, I fell in love with the theatre as a toddler, proved rubbish as a ballerina: my starring role was as Mrs Pussy in Noddy as a seven-year-old, and earned my stripes as an academic in Fine Arts and Art History, in subsequent years. I write for a range of online and print publications, including the Sunday Times, the Mail & Guardian and and was formerly the arts editor of the SA Jewish Report, a weekly newspaper with which I was associated for 16 years. This blog promises you new stories every week, be they reviews, profiles, news stories or features.

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