Several Capetonians gathered over the past weekend for the 6th annual Open Book literary festival, set in and around the bustling Fugard Theatre. This festival is more of a robust contemplation and discussion forum than a commercial book fair. And no stone was left unturned, with candid takes on freedom of speech, inspiring comedy, moving poetry, interactive workshops, and even an extensively charged-up youth programme. Despite the permeating chill of uncertainty in the current literary atmosphere, the local audience turnout was remarkable.
The Open Book Festival programme was once again an impressive chocolate box selection of both award-winning authors and new releases, but what instantly captured my attention was the Literary Activists panel. The star lineup included South Africa’s Andrew Brown, Norway’s Jostein Gaarder, and USA’s Nadia Hashimi, each touching on their respective novels. Honing in on her esteemed political prowess, the feisty Melanie Verwoerd led the discussion, extracting the activism components from each novel while slowly building up to a booming tirade. Verwoerd merged Brown’s autobiographical take on social injustice within the South African sphere, Gaarder’s unremitting global eco-crusade, and Hashimi’s intense and powerful novels dealing with the battle of gender discrimination in Afghanistan, to confront the audience with a riveting sense of self-reflection. Far from the self-congratulatory agenda to which festival audiences have become accustomed, Literary Activists was distinctly conversation as opposed to command. What ultimately tied these three authors together was their fierce and unrelenting spirit. And these are exactly the kind of voices which are relevant and much needed in our world today.
Beyond this hubbub, Open Book also brought issues of historical importance into sharp focus. Award-winning Canadian poet and academic Rosemary Sullivan introduced her compelling biography Stalin’s Daughter – an illuminating portrait of a Russian dissident trapped by her infamous familial legacy. Sullivan recreated the life of this brave woman, intertwined with flickers of Russian tragedy, with clarity and compassion.
French illustrator and children’s novelist Benjamin Chaud kept the young ones spellbound with his excessively stylised drawings and rich storytelling. It was remarkable to see children warm to Chaud’s quiet and attentive demeanour as he entertained with his best-selling books. And the exuberant comic artist Indira Neville from New Zealand steered a more laid back, girl-next-door approach. Neville’s informal discussion with Sebastian Brockenhagen was laced with comic anecdotes, much like catching up with an old friend. She chronicled a day in her diverse and fulfilling life, her plight to steer more woman within a male-dominated industry, while hilariously railing against the resurgence of aggressive and smut comics.
The sheer convenience of Open Book was the clustered geographical setup, which eased movement between venues. It reminded me of Tuning the Vine, but with intellectuals rather than wine connoisseurs! In a time and a place when literature can feel like an increasingly niche interest, this powerful and collaborative annual event is a reminder of the importance of creating a safe space to discuss the intersection of books and life: a space in which to bring authors together with their readers, to question, affirm and challenge each other’s values. And most importantly, to create an open space that is both welcoming and comforting while also – importantly – being unsettling.
Benn Van Der Westhuizen
The Open Book Festival ran at the Fugard Theatre and other venues from 7 to 11 September 2016.