/ 23 August 2013

Literary Festival 2013: Achebe sets the agenda

Literary Festival 2013: Achebe Sets The Agenda

Africa has been badly served by many of its postcolonial and post-revolutionary leaders. The continent's mineral and other resources have been appropriated, sequestered and squandered by leadership cliques happy to hide in the neoliberal embrace of the West.

True revolution, which would fight for clean water, enough food, proper sanitation, decent healthcare and sound education, has been postponed. That revolution will not be televised; it is suspended.  

It is in this continental and national context that the fourth annual M&G Literary Festival aims to foster robust debate about political, social and literary revolution, taking as its theme Chinua Achebe's Children: Africa's Suspended Revolutions. Session names are derived from the titles of Achebe's works and from some of his notable thoughts on literature.

Adam Habib, the vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, will confront the main topic in the festival's keynote address. His new book, South Africa's Suspended Revolution: Hopes and Prospects, argues that "individuals and institutions can, with imagination, act against the grain of a given historical moment and transform the options available to society".

South Africa and Africa need those individuals, institutions and ideas – urgently. It has always been one of the M&G Literary Festival's aims to set up propositions and positions about South Africa, its literature, politics and society, and test them in panel discussions that open up to the audience and move the argument back and forth between panel and audience. That is of a piece with the lofty but laudable idea propounded by Settembrini in Thomas Mann's novel, The Magic Mountain, that "all moral discipline, all moral perfection derived from the soul of literature, from the soul of human dignity, which was the moving spirit of both humanity and politics".

Habib's opening will be followed by the festival's first panel discussion, Hopes and Impediments, A Look at South Africa Today and Its Prospects.

The inspiration that Achebe gave literature and thought in Africa is next, in A Man of the People: Reflecting on Chinua Achebe's Legacy.

South African connections
The Achebe line, "It is only the story [that] can continue beyond the war and the warrior", titles Session 4.

No Longer at Ease – Books as Agents of Insurrection will be chaired by festival co-director Corina van der Spoel.

Saturday's final sessions look at memoir, biography and autobio-graphy, and the Greek poets Constantine Cavafy and George Seferis – and their surprising, or very logical, South African connections.

The Bravery of the Lion: "Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter" will be chaired by Craig MacKenzie.

Renowned literary scholar, novelist, poet and translator Stephen Gray chairs the Cavafy and Seferis session, in discussion with George Bizos.

Sunday's first session will begin at 10am and examine fact and fiction, guided by the Achebe line: "The story is our escort, without it we are blind."

Bringing the festival to an apt close will be Migration: There Was a Country.

Festivalgoers will be able to buy books by the panellists and other choice fiction and nonfiction from the Love Books pop-up bookshop in the Market Theatre foyer.

Van der Spoel and I hope the festival lives up to Achebe's belief, espoused in the last sentences of his essay, The Truth of Fiction, that "imaginative literature … does not enslave; it liberates the mind of man. Its truth is not like the canons of orthodoxy or the irrationality of prejudice and superstition. It begins as an adventure in self-discovery and ends in wisdom and humane conscience."

The festival is presented in association with the Market Theatre and SAfm. Its partners are the publishers and imprints Jacana, Jonathan Ball, Pan Macmillan, Picador Africa, Random House Struik, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, Umuzi, Wits University Press and Zebra Press, Arts Alive, Jo'burg City Festival and Love Books.