Review: Open Book Festival 2014

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OpenBookCapeTownIt is always interesting to see who attends a festival. Would the first day of the Open Book Festival be dominated by retired folk and part time poets? Absolutely not. All manner of people were thronging the east city on Wednesday, a fact which made it all the more fun.

The Open Book Festival aims to hook in as many people as possible, providing everything from story time for the little ones -­ via films, comics, and an excessively polite argument on the themes employed in short stories – ­ to the opportunity to have a unique poem written just for you at a Poetica ‘Takeaway Booth’. The difficulty is in knowing what to choose.

Happily there is a detailed and user-­friendly programme available both in print and online. Personally, I decided to make a full day of it, bouncing from one venue to the next, sampling the diversity of it all. My day started with British author and columnist Philip Hensher in discussion with writer Marguerite Poland and journalist Melissa Siebert, guided by editor Michele Magwood at the first Book Club Morning. For a ten o’clock start on a Wednesday morning, it was very well attended. A full house in fact, with people still trickling in late into the hour. It was a great opportunity to be introduced to authors that I don’t normally come across. Each with their own style ­ romance, drama, non­fiction ­ they drew the audience in, sharing writing anecdotes and passing out tips for the budding writer. Having this session in the ever­-welcoming Book Lounge was a pleasant bonus, if only for the comfortable chairs.

A slow wander down Roeland St (who has time for that these days?) brought me to one of my favourite places: the Central Library. This is a place a true bookworm is loathe to leave except for the necessities of survival. My purpose was to observe a programme for the youngest of readers, and the place was crammed with 5 and 6 year olds from a local school. Their treat was a story from author Satoshi Kitamura. A small box theatre told the tale of a lion trying to find a new hairstyle with large colourful pictures and few words. Kitamura allowed the children’s emphatic sense of fashion to guide the story; and that lion looked very bizarre by the end of it. Songs, drawing activities and games helped them to relate books to a sense of discovery and excitement. What a joy to see.

Taking some time between the various events allowed valuable minutes to travel between venues (all within walking distance) or to regroup, refresh or even to take the chance to explore. Better signage might have made the exploration less involuntary, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. Seeing old buildings that have turned new, soaking up some unusual street art and tasting some delectable food kept me in a very happy mood.

The launch of the latest book by the indomitable Professor Jonathan Jansen, A Journey from Early Childhood Development to Fixing our Schools, allowed for some education to sneak in. The case studies in the videos and the book are filled with positive examples and hope ­ something which is sadly lacking in most views of our current education system. And to further elevate our mood, we were blessed with a performance by the great Vusi Mahlasela.

By this stage of the afternoon, more and more students from the colleges and universities were flooding in, many not only there to listen but to take notes. The blustery weather was not turning the crowds away, nor was the lack of parking. An added draw for many was the chance to ask participating authors to sign books in the District 6 Museum’s Homecoming Centre, complete with a satellite book store from the Book Lounge ­ just in case you forgot to bring your copy.

The centre of operations at The Fugard Theatre was humming with people picking up their tickets, buying extra tickets, finding a drink, getting a snack or just curling up on one of the couches with a good read. In such a relaxed environment, surrounded by fellow enthusiasts, conversations were being struck up between strangers based just on the book in their hand or whichever author they had just seen. I met someone who had driven from Tulbagh just to see Raymond E. Feist in person, and we had a long chat about our favourite characters and events, and how these books had changed our lives.

For others it might have been Wilbur Smith or André Brink or Francesca Beard. For me, seeing Raymond E. Feist was an absolute highlight. In the first evening session for the Open Book Festival 2014, Sarah Lotz led the questions but it was almost unneeded. Feist came across as a relaxed, friendly man with much to say. The fortunate fans who arrived early got to hear him talk casually about all sorts of topics before the event officially started. Here was a man who wasn’t bored from decades of similar questions: he was still eager to try something new and say something new, happy to crack bad jokes, take photos and spend time with loyal fans while signing their books. This author fulfilled the dreams of many long­-suffering fantasy readers of South Africa.

The Open Book Festival utterly succeeds in its aim to bring scores of authors within the reach of the everyday South African. At the same time it enlightens the writing process, and makes connections between topics which are not normally considered connected. A fine example of this was the topic ‘Author as Ambassador’, discussed by Zakes Mda and Deon Meyer with Margie Orford, which examined the struggle of being seen as a South African, as a South African writer or just as a writer; either in life or in the novel. Their personal accounts and ideas were fascinating to hear.

The Open Book Festival runs for a few more days, and offers something interesting for everyone. And if you are on a budget, relax. Each event is priced individually, with an average price of R 40, and a number of them are free. Just make sure you have a bag big enough for all the books on the return journey.

Samantha Orange

The Open Book Festival 2014 runs from 17 to 21 September at the Fugard Theatre and neighbouring venues.

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