I have a love affair with reading that exceeds two decades. When I was younger, I spent more time immersed in books than I did scraping my knees on whatever children scrape their knees on.
I was fortunate enough to have parents who encouraged us to keep at what we enjoyed – even though this often had Mom frustrated when she called my name to empty walls, only to find me curled up in a corner, glasses slipping down my nose, immersed in some novel or another.
That’s why I could not miss the five-day Open Book Festival in Cape Town, now in its sixth year. More than 100 local and international authors congregated, moving between the Fugard Theatre, the District Six Museum Homecoming Centre, the Book Lounge and venues such as Moholo Livehouse in Khayelitsha.
The whole-day programmes were mash-ups of panel discussions, talks and workshops around themes such as the state of the nation and gender.
Novelist Mohale Mashigo had the audience in the palm of her hand when she facilitated a talk about feminism. Her high levels of energy and witty comedy worked like a bomb jump into a swimming pool: either the wave took you along for the ride or you were left with wet clumps of hair on your forehead and the distinct taste of chlorine in your mouth.
Mashigo is a force but her guests, renowned authors Pumla Gqola, Nnedi Okorafor and Yewande Omotoso, did not struggle to keep up. Mashigo asked the panellists, all self-identifying feminists, when they first recognised and start referring to themselves as such.
Omotoso says she has a grating memory – something insidious that was already entrenched in culture and language way before she could understand the term or deconstruct it. “I was young. Playing, running and whistling. And the gardener told me to stop. When I asked him why, he answered simply: ‘Because you’re a girl.’”
Gqola says that when she was young she was always hanging off things, folding over herself – a bit of a contortionist. Often she would sit on the couch with her knees up by her chest, her feet on the seat.
Once, when her grandmother was visiting, she kept telling Gqola to put her feet down, to set them on the floor. Gqola was too young not to obey. But just minutes later, of their own volition, her knees would find their way back to her chest in an upright variant of the foetal position, of curling into oneself.
She remembers that she found it natural, comfortable. But her grandmother eventually became so annoyed she brought Gqola’s mother into the reprimand – directing her to discipline her daughter.
“She told me that girls aren’t supposed to sit like that. And I remember thinking that it didn’t make sense. Why was being comfortable not allowed?” She continues: “I’ve been calling myself a feminist since I was 15, since I heard and understood the term.”
Okorafor says: “I think I’ve always been a feminist. I grew up amongst strong women, and men who supported them. My mother was always accomplishing and my father was always encouraging her to reach as far as she could. When you have an athletic ability, you walk around feeling strong. It’s how I moved around in the world. Yes, the rules were always there, but there was also room for the exception.”
The conversation interrogated how women see themselves, how this aesthetic is linked to identity, and how they relate words like beauty to themselves.
The issue of black hair could not be neglected as the Pretoria Girls’ High controversy was still a hot topic.
Okorafor’s hair is easily the first thing one notices about her. Her dreads were plaited into two ponytails that seemed to reach her waist as she sat on her chair on stage. It’s hair that has been growing with her since she took breath – each tight curl, each twist, each tangle a reservoir keeping the secrets of her experiences.
She clearly remembers that, when she was young, she wasn’t bullied. “If you attacked me, I went crazy on you. This one time on the bus, a group of boys came to stand around me and took turns spitting into my hair, it disgusted them so. I have been dealing with the issue of my hair since I was a child. And I’m still to understand what makes how my hair grows out of my skull ugly by definition.”
Gqola admitted that, as much as dreadlocks and hair are politicised around issues of identity and state of mind, for her growing her dreads was a matter of convenience.
She says: “A big part of disciplining my body happened in high school. And something that bell hooks [the pen name of American feminist author Gloria Jean Watkins] once said resonated: the concept of living in an adversarial role to oneself.”
Mashigo steered the conversation towards sexual abuse and Gqola’s book Rape: A South African Nightmare. Gqola commented: “Rape is not a moment but a language. It communicates very specific things and does very specific work, which is crucial in order for patriarchy to work … Rape exiles us from our bodies.”
There were gasps, yelps, stunned silences and guffaws. And this was just the one discussion.
With the spectrum of colours that South Africa offers in its palette – from politics to hair, from corruption to student protests, from crises of resources such as water and electricity to living to excess – next year should offer plenty of fodder for discussion at the Open Book Festival.