Cape Town’s Open Book Festival turns over a new leaf

Many arts festivals have had to rethink their strategies for this year because of the various lockdown levels, which the country is still reeling from. 

One such event is the Open Book Festival, which takes place annually in Cape Town. For this year’s installation the organisers have teamed up with Cape Town-based bookstore The Book Lounge to present the Open Book Podcast Series, which started last week and will run until 12 November.

The first episode features Bongani Kona in conversation with Nigerian author Helon Habila about his new novel, Travellers. Habila is professor of creative writing at the George Mason University in the United States. He has previously won the Caine Prize and the Windham-Campbell Prize for Fiction.

The cover photo of the book is by Ian Berry, a British photojournalist who was based in South Africa in the early 1960s. He is credited with capturing the images of scattering masses being shot at the backside by the South African police during the Sharpeville massacre. Later, in court, these images would prove invaluable to underpin the innocence of the peaceful protesters. 

The image on the cover of the novel captures an African couple in what seems to be a relaxed mood in a café in Fordsburg, Johannesburg. The café serves both black and white patrons. The only thing is, this is South Africa circa 1961 and the Group Areas Act is in full force. The possibility of a police unit pouncing and arresting everyone on site is not far-fetched.

The cover to Helon Habila’s new book Travellers, which forms part of the festival’s podcast series. (Supplied)

This is the tapestry that Habila works on thematically in his new work, Travellers. Interestingly this is the working title of a series of paintings that one of the characters, Gina (the narrator’s wife), is busy with during Book 1, “One Year in Berlin”. (The book is divided into six “Books”.)

Gina is a fine artist who has just been awarded a fellowship to work on her paintings. For her theme, she needs real refugees, or travellers, to sit down for her to paint. One of them is Mark Chinomba, who is running away from an oppressive patriarch back in Malawi. He has joined his uncle in South Africa, who understands his precarious situation. 

Mark is a young student who wants to be a filmmaker — and whose birth name was “Mary”. This then is the “real” story behind his sour relationship with his preacher father back home. His father keeps on saying that his child wants to embarrass the family and the congregation with his career choices. But at the heart of his displeasure is Mark’s gender orientation. Unfortunately, exile does not afford him a haven either. So, Mark must keep on travelling.

Book 2, titled “Checkpoint Charlie”, delves into the story of Libyan refugee Manu and his attempts to survive in a foreign land. The doctor-turned-bouncer works in a discreet nightclub serving upper-class white women. He ends up in a relationship with one of his clients, who insists that she wants to see his young daughter. She has horses. Perhaps  the daughter would be interested in riding them, she suggests. 

But as the lovers’ relationship develops, the client’s husband resurfaces, giving the story a biting edge at its ending. Although the conclusion was open-ended, this might just be the beauty of the story for some readers, after all.

Other parts of the novel, or “books”, follow suit with their stories. They are self-contained, with the overall title, Travellers, linking them. 

Habila himself is a “traveller”, having left Nigeria after winning the Caine Prize, but always coming back: “So, the movement … I have been an outsider, you know. I have been a stranger and I’ve always had to kinda reimagine home and reinvent myself in these new places and acclimatise,” he notes on the podcast.

Migration and its perils are recurring themes in the book. As Habila says in the interview with Kona, it is a current and future issue the world must contend with. Since the aftermath of World War II, migration has been a permanent feature around the globe. So, what needs to be done? “The best thing the world can do … we have to reimagine our national borders. We have to reimagine the idea of travel itself,” he says.

Asked how the coronavirus pandemic has personally affected him, Habila paints a picture of the kind of uncertainty writers face: “You write the book by yourself and now you’re discussin’ the book still in the same room that you wrote the book in. So, it’s a kind of crazy feelin’…”

Zoë Wicomb’s Still Life is the subject of one of the Open Book Festival’s podcast series

The second episode of the podcasts features Zoë Wicomb, who is described on the cover of her latest book, Still Life, as “an extraordinary writer” by Toni Morrison. She is the author of You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, David’s Story, Playing in the Light, The One that Got Away and October, among other works.

Other panellists on the episode, which is described by the organisers as “a discussion about engaging with historical narratives from new perspectives and striking a balance between fidelity and irreverence in retelling stories”, include Zimbabwean writer and lawyer Petina Gappah and writer, activist and academic Helen Moffett. The latter’s debut novel, Charlotte, came out this year. The panel is chaired by Efemia Chela. She was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2014 and is a contributing editor to the Johannesburg Review of Books.

Locals on this year’s podcast edition of the festival include memoirist Sara-Jayne King, internationally acclaimed writer Lauren Beukes and multi-skilled artist Phumlani Pikoli

To access the podcasts, listeners can use any of the standard podcast apps, or find them on the Open Book or Book Lounge websites. The podcasts are available to download and listen to at your leisure. 

Subscribe to the M&G for R2 a month

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

And for this weekend only, you can become a subscriber by paying just R2 a month for your first three months.

Related stories

African science fiction: rereading the The Palm-Wine Drinkard

Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola wields language as the ultimate form of technology

‘The Sweetest Ache’ extract: Dark brown and midnight black magic

An activist’s encounter with an attractive waitress leads her to take an inventory of her own body in Mercy Thokozane Minah’s ‘The Sweetest Ache’

Dambudzo Marechera’s literary shock treatment

A new book on Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera draws on both actual and imaginary archives

The Portfolio: Megan Ross

Author and poet Megan Ross designs books and cover artwork for a living. She speaks to Kwanele Sosibo about her process

A Seat at a Table, Ep 1: The writerly thing to do

Interviews can often demystify the processes behind how people create. It’s always fascinated Phumlani Pikoli to find the tricks to artists’ magic, as explored in his new podcast, ‘A Seat at a Table’

A distress signal from Soweto in 1977

A Window on Soweto by Joyce Sikakane-Rankin provided insight during apartheid censorship

Subscribers only

ANC: ‘We’re operating under conditions of anarchy’

In its latest policy documents, the ANC is self-critical and wants ‘consequence management’, yet it’s letting its members off the hook again

Q&A Sessions: ‘I think I was born way before my...

The chief executive of the Estate Agency Affairs Board and the deputy chair of the SABC board, shares her take on retrenchments at the public broadcaster and reveals why she hates horror movies

More top stories

Covid-19 info lags as cases shoot up

Vital information apps and websites are outdated as cases begin to mushroom, especially near the coast, just in time for the December holidays

DA leader bought wife a car with ‘corruption’ earnings

Senior Ekurhuleni councillor Shabangu purchased a Ford SUV from an alleged R1.2-million kickback

SAA funds may need a top-up

Industry experts predict the R10.5-billion from the treasury to rescue the airline may not be enough, but the rescue practitioners say the money is enough to ‘settle the sins of the past’

Trump’s mantra of ‘fake news’ harmed media

Viewers and readers need to trust that news outlets are accurate, balanced, fair and impartial

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…