Franschhoek in the Month of Hay

Sean Christie’s Notes from the 2009 Franschhoek Literary Festival

Baobab Journal, Vol. 4

The Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF if you’re texting) evolved from a chance meeting in Cape Town between South African novelists Christopher Hope and Jenny Hobbs. Hope expressed his desire to start a festival for (mainly) English-speaking South African writers, based on the Cheltenham and Hay-on-Wye literary festivals in the United Kingdom. Hobbs believed Franschhoek would make the perfect village venue. Nine months later the first FLF was born.

The festival succeeded in filling the halls, but it was the sort of success which inspired vaguely uneasy plaudits. ‘We seem to have arrived at a decent, sensible and diverse moment in our literary history,’ commented novelist Imraan Coovadia (Green-eyed Thieves), in an article published on Litnet. ‘This is kind of disappointing,’ he added. The tameness which bothered Coovadia in 2007 lifted temporarily in 2008, when Jonathan Shapiro (aka Zapiro) verbally kicked David Bullard in the balls for using freedom of expression arguments to shield himself from criticism in the aftermath of his axing from The Sunday Times (for the expression of abject views on race, in case any one has forgotten). “We’re both being sued by Jacob Zuma,” spat Shapiro, “so why make a big song and dance about freedom of expression, then go and lick Jacob Zuma’s Guccis?”

This year, however, it was right back to the kind of civility you’d expect to find in a town which splits its municipal bins into recyclable and non-recyclable compartments. At the first talk I attended, for example, a vicious contrarian with a heavy Parisian accent chastised Andre Brink for nothing less than his mispronunciation of a French term that I cannot just now recall. Brink accepted the correction humbly. Similarly, in a talk about the challenges South African journalists can expect to face in the next five years, panellists Pippa Green (Choice Not Fate: The Life and Times of Trevor Manuel) and Zubeida Jaffer (Love in a Time of Treason) kept assuring Jonathan Shapiro (The Mandela Files) that they would not pick a fight with him. Edyth Bulbring (The Club) said she was going to pick a fight with Shapiro, but did nothing more than berate him gently for his narrow satiric focus—i.e. his repeated lampooning of Zuma at the expense of other ripe subjects. Shapiro more or less agreed with Bulbring, saying that between one court case and another, he was not producing as many cartoons as he used to. And that was that—the end of what had promised to be the most controversial, combative event on the festival programme.

The weather, on the other hand, remained implacable all weekend, spinning the welcome banner between oaks over the main road around and around until eventually it popped and went to tatters. Predictably, the heaviest showers coincided with those half hour periods between talks, and this imparted to the whole affair a degree of red-cheeked friskiness which belied the average age of the attendees. The plunging temperatures did their bit to expose the uniformity of the audience. ‘I see a lot of scarves out there,’ said author and blogger Aryan Kaganoff, from his perch on some or other panel, and he was quite right—scarves, spectacles, wisps of white hair, leather boots, and Senqu mountain jackets from the shop on La Rochelle Street proliferated in every audience, bringing to mind a haiku the poet Gus Ferguson wrote apropos The Neighbourhoods Market at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock.

Just like New Zealand
It’s nice to see the odd
Black face now and again

I confronted Festival Director Jenny Hobbs with the issue before breakfast on Saturday morning. She shrugged and said, ‘What does one do? The tickets are out there. One of the major problems we face is the fact that public transport doesn’t run out to Franschhoek.’

But the problem of audience of course rests far more with the original conception than with transport logistics. Christopher Hope wanted something like Hay-on-Wye (now The Guardian Hay)—a festival, in the words of The Independent columnist John Walsh, which has become ‘as traditionally part of the English Season as the Derby’. With its old oak trees and climbing hedges Franshchhoek is an appropriate landing place for such a franchise, but the directors should not then attempt to disguise the fact that elitist and English is all that the festival is meant to be, its potential for attracting integrated audiences as capped as that of the Stellenbosch Woordfees down the road.

The developmental aims and achievements of the festival are, on the other hand, impressive, authentic and important. Hobbs explained that ‘the festival aims to create a genuine culture of reading and writing in the valley, and has raised 250’000 rands towards this end in the last two years’. From the start, the FLF has been sponsored by the Solms Delta Trust, a celebrated community-building initiative which aims to redress the racial abuses of the valley’s past. Already the FLF has positioned troves of books in classrooms, and it supports a mobile library. In the weeks preceding the organizers stage a multi-language poetry competition, fuelled by creative writing workshops in which Stellenbosch lecturer Mhlobo Jadezwini encourages expression in isiXhosa.

All very good, on paper. Very few students from Dalubuhle Primary School pitched, however (the issue of transport again). And the fact that the devoted few received copies of the literary journal New Contrast was a cause for concern—you wouldn’t give a learner driver a helicopter manual, or, for that matter, a publication which has in recent months devoted so many dozens of pages to a verse novel by someone called Silke Heiss.

The festival’s other great aim is to bring in the broadest possible range of literary voices, all of which have to have been recently published. This was achieved, I thought, very nicely. Patriarchs, activists, satirists, humourists, superstars, expatriates, journalists, playwrights, song writers, biographers, poets and even bloggers were given platforms for their views and self-promotional agendas, and were induced to sit on panels to discuss interesting and topical themes. The festival can afford one international writer (flying economy), and this year it was ex-Zimbabwean Alexandra Fuller (The Legend of Colton H Bryant), now resident in Wisconsin, U.S.A. Fuller is of that breed of modern African writers whose growing fame corresponded with the rise of both the literary festival and the African writer. All that exercise in the public domain shows—her talks were part stand-up comedy, part serious-minded elucidation of her themes, part sales pitch. It was a doubly impressive to see her in conversation with fellow ex-Zimbabwean Petina Gappah, who Fuller described as, ‘the new African it girl’. Gappah was last known to South African literary circles as runner-up in the 2007 HSBC Bank/South African PEN Short story competition, for which she earned a plaudit from competition judge JM Coetzee. This comment was, by her own admission, a key to the international literary scene, and the beginning of a process which ended in a £50’000 advance from Faber and Faber. While I heard one or two (generational) grumbles about the vulgarity of singing one’s own praises, I thought Gappah managed to share her success with audiences in a charming way, rather like an amusing joke. Example: when at one point an audience member (with barely disguised sarcasm) asked the young Zimbabwean what it was like to party with Zadie Smith, she was able to reply in a wink ‘That’s nothing. On Sunday, Salman Rushdie asked me to be his Facebook friend!’

Vikas Swarup (Q&A aka Slumdog Millionaire) was another festival ace, breathing charm and erudition. When Jenny Crys-Williams gushed that she was richer for having read his book, Swarup rejoined, ‘Actually Jenny, it is I who am richer for you having read my book.’ The organizers missed a trick, I think, by not getting these three stars onto a panel to interrogate the demands and conflicts of stardom. Swarup did, however, say that he enjoyed the festival immensely for its dearth of middlemen, and the fact that there were no book deals being done in the wings.

Aside from stalking the established celebrities, I made a point of seeking out the appearances, both informal and formal, of some of South Africa’s budding literary personages. The great ubiquity in this regard was BOOK SA’s Ben Williams, who sounds like Stan from South Park when he’s not busy twittering about the festival’s goings on to followers of his popular site. Williams chaired a most interesting discussion on the subject of the internet, and whether—and how—social media are shaping literary creation. At the end of this session, which canvassed the experiences of Lauren Beukes (Moxyland), Aryan Kaganoff (Uselessly), and Stacy Hardy (of Chimurenga Magazine), the audience was shown a snippet of an animated version of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace created by Hardy and François Naudé. In their Dis.grace, every word of the original novel has been paired with the first image that that word elicited from the search functionality of Google Images. The result is an insane melding of blow jobs, crotch shots, fluffy animals, and almost anything else you can think of, or in the words of Hardy, ‘a visual text rewritten through the eyes of a global digital popular culture’. The originality of this idea caused some, like Eben Venter (of Trencherman fame, sitting next to me in the audience) to cry out, ‘this is bloody fantastic’. Others wailed in indignation.

The programme was organized so that there were often three talks happening in the same hour, and in this way I missed Max du Preez discussing the complexities of autobiography with Sindiwe Magona, Koos Kombuis talking about all kinds of things, and a talk provocatively titled: How Many Editors Does it Take to Change a Lightbulb. My abiding memory, however, is not of ideas or arguments, but of watching Jonathan Shapiro queuing to have a copy of Slumdog Millionaire signed by Vika Swarup, who was pressing against the stage in the School Hall, his knees awkwardly splayed.

‘Who should I address this to?’ asked Swarup, without looking up.

‘Jonathan Shapiro,’ said Zapiro.

‘Not the…’ said Swarup, and a great deal of hand-clasping and general lionising of the cartoonist ensued. One was left thinking, at least I was, that the FLF was a festival for the writers, first and foremost. Debutantes get to cut their teeth on gentle festival audiences, while the established get a respite from more frenetic, competitive, and business-oriented literary scenes. And all get a few free nights with their partners in a nice B&B, tucked away in smart town in the Drakenstein Mountains.

To bring audiences into the fold net year I suggest the organizers pair each author, or panel, with a distinguished local tipple, perhaps even a solid local cheese. Instead of the redoubtable ladies who bossed the doors they could source well groomed students from the local tasting rooms. ‘Welcome sir, madam,’ they would say. ‘Andre Brink will shortly take the stage with Susan Mann. They’ll be talking about his life, so may I suggest a digestif…a little Fine de Jourdan Potstill Brandy, perhaps, together with a slice of Fairview chevre?’

One shouldn’t, after all, hide’s one’s light behind (sculpted) bushels