More than just a book festival

Since its inception in 2007, the Franschhoek Literary Festival has become a significant agent in fostering a culture of reading in South Africa. 

Every year, the book festival promotes literacy among learners and raises funds for the local and school libraries. From issues affecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex community to explorations of black entrepreneurs in colonial and apartheid South Africa, the festival has become the publishing industry’s chosen vehicle for discourse, while exploring social issues in nuanced, relatable and conversational ways. 

After 13 years, the event came to a standstill because of financial problems in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. But now it’s made a big comeback. Featuring literary heavy-hitters such as the Booker Prize-shortlisted writer, Zimbabwe’s Tsitsi Dangarembga, to English professor at Ohio University Zakes Mda, this year’s line-up (made possible by a coalition of donors and volunteers) is set to get the conversation going during the weekend’s various talks.

Whether you’re a newbie to the festival or a veteran like many of the authors, publishers, broadcasters and content creators who will be attending, the programme will have you itching for a drink and a heated discussion over some good food.

If you’re a road-tripping enthusiast and nature lover, elevate your visit with a detour along the Franschhoek Pass. With breathtaking views of the natural landscape, it’s regarded as one of the best driving routes in the country. Just ask South Africa’s best-selling novelist and award-winning journalist, Melinda Ferguson, who’ll be hosting the Wild Insides, a discussion with Terry Angelos (White Trash) and Robert Hamblin (Robert: A Queer and Crooked Memoir for the Not So Straight and Narrow) in a mash-up of their memoirs.

“I’m a total petrolhead, so when I’m at FLF [Franschhoek Literary Festival] I always make sure I get to take a drive just outside of Franschhoek to test my skills on the twisty Franschhoek Pass. It’s a driver’s dream,” says Ferguson. 

About her upcoming memoir, Bamboozled, which is in its final writing stages, the author says she’s “setting off on an all-out mission to untangle the web of confusion on a planet floundering in a maze of fake news and propaganda. It’s by the far the most challenging book I have ever written.”

For book critic Michele Magwood the festival “is about publicly celebrating writers and their work”. 

As a publisher and book fanatic, Magwood appreciates the trials authors experience. 

“It is a very lonely occupation. The significance of festivals like these is to listen, to be challenged, to be imprinted with new ideas and viewpoints, and most importantly, to applaud the writers who do that for us and buy their books,” explains Magwood.

She’ll be hosting the festival’s virtual discussion Ink-Redible and will speak to the author of the international bestseller of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, Charlie Mackesy, about his graphic novel that follows a boy and his animal friends. This poignant yet uplifting book highlights the struggles of mental health. 

Magwood’s discussion with Mackesy is likely to unpack significant themes of healing, connection and compassion in a world gripped by illness, death and war. “I’m hoping to find the source of his deep spirituality and generosity and to come away reassured about the world and our place in it,” says Magwood.

The French Connection Bistro is a must-visit for first-timers to the festival. A vibey restaurant loved by Magwood, she says, “Franschhoek wouldn’t be Franschhoek without steak frites at The French Connection.” The restaurant, with its fireplace, provides the perfect autumn ambience for reading.

Sue Nyathi, the bestselling author of novels such as The Gold Diggers  and A Family Af fair, looks forward to a cocktail party at Paserene wine estate, La Motte and might just visit Boschendal wine farm while at the festival. She will also be hosting Sally Cranswick (Women Out of Water), Dudu Busani-Dube (the Hlomu series) and Qarnita Loxton (Being Dianne) in a discussion called She Said, She Said, which will be about constructing powerful heroines.

“Oftentimes when we think of heroines, we speak of women who have conquered, women who invented things, women who broke out of the mould and did the extraordinary,” says Nyathi. “However, we never think of the woman who is able to get through a trying day or single-handedly put food on the table for her children, as a heroine. Our conversation will look at how we define heroines, who gets to be a

heroine and what heroism essentially means.”

She says she’ll probably visit Reuben’s Restaurant, the wine connoisseur’s paradise, if she can find respite in her busy schedule.

Although the festival’s return is a cause for celebration for bibliophiles, it brings with it a host of pandemic-related changes. In line with the guidelines for live sports and events in the country, people should bring their Covid-19 vaccination certificates, or a negative Covid-19 test result that’s less than 72 hours old.

By safeguarding against Covid-19, people will be able to enjoy the festival and the environment in all its splendour.

The Franschhoek Literary Festival takes place from 13 to 15 May and programme details and tickets are available on www.flf.co.za/events.

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