When I was growing up in Bombay in the early nineteen eighties there were three elements that, virtually by law, had to be included in a middle-class child’s birthday party. Cake, obviously; pass the parcel (which your parents would rig so that you didn’t win); and the ‘return present’, a small but covetable item that each child would receive just before going home. “What’s the return present?” it was common for youthful guests to hiss, virtually on entering the house and delivering their gift into your sticky hands.
At Cape Town, censorship today, whether literature should be political, and whether or not there is a national literature were debated. These are questions that seem to belong to a more innocent time; certainly the notion of a group of writers getting together to debate them, then come to an interim position on them seems almost wilfully innocent, like Esperanto, or the League of Nations: the kind of idea that obviously belongs to an era pre-Guantanamo Bay, pre-waterboarding, pre-Fifty Shades of Grey.
But if these are questions that may never be susceptible of definitive answers, there was nonetheless something charming about seeing them debated. I was in the audience for Keith Gray’s witty address on censorship in writing for children and young adults, and I sat at the back of a packed auditorium to listen to Njabulo Ndebele’s warm, humanist speech about whether literature should be political, and Antje Krog’s laceratingly brilliant rhetoric on the same subject. Equally, I noticed the young man next to me, who spent the entire address smiling appreciatively to himself, checking Facebook on his phone, taking out an unbelievably smelly embrocation named Zam Buk with which he anointed his lips, and peeling and eating a banana – do you remember how singular and strong the scent of a banana is, when one isn’t actually eating it oneself? In between, at rhetorical crescendos, he made loud noises that seemed to come from his mid-thorax. These were halfway between grunt and boom; like an unarticulated ‘hear hear’ and, with all the zeal of the visitor from another place to infer patterns, I thought they might be particularly South African. I may have been quite wrong.
So all of this was in Cape Town: the serious and the unserious, the lapidary and the aleatory, the important and the trivial (my mind has more than once returned to an eye-opening late night conversation with a young South African writer, on her recent conversion to become a Jehovah’s Witness). I came home with an armful of books – they must have been the return present – by, among others, Siphiwo Mahala, Margie Orford, and Imraan Coovadia. In Margie’s taut Daddy’s Girl I enjoyed rediscovering bits of Cape Town where I’d walked alone one afternoon; in Imraan’s delightful Green-Eyed Thieves, I read, among other things, about Lucky Packets, which I had to Google. Ernest Hemingway, lifting a term from a Catholic almanac, famously said Paris was a Moveable Feast; in that case, it struck me, maybe Cape Town is a Lucky Packet?
Anjali Joseph, 2012