Edinburgh World Writers' Conference » South Africa http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org The website for the 2012-13 Edinburgh World Writers' Conference Thu, 31 Oct 2013 16:37:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.5.2 EWWC Highlights Film http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/all-presentations/ewwc-highlights/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/all-presentations/ewwc-highlights/#comments Thu, 12 Sep 2013 15:43:51 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5435 EWWC Highlights Film Watch this video showcasing the highlights of the festival throughout the past year]]> Watch this video showcasing the highlights of the EWWC festival throughout the past year, and read more about the Conference on our About the Conference page. ]]> http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/all-presentations/ewwc-highlights/feed/ 0 “The lapidary and the aleatory” – Anjali Joseph revisits EWWC Cape Town http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/the-lapidary-and-the-aleatory-anjali-joseph-revisits-her-time-at-ewwc-cape-town/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/the-lapidary-and-the-aleatory-anjali-joseph-revisits-her-time-at-ewwc-cape-town/#comments Mon, 22 Oct 2012 11:53:55 +0000 tanyaandrews http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=1551 Anjali Joseph

Anjali Joseph


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

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“A nationality that carries a weight of assumption for the rest of the world” – Keith Gray on EWWC Cape Town http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/a-nationality-that-carries-a-weight-of-assumption-for-the-rest-of-the-world-keith-gray-on-ewwc-south-africa/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/a-nationality-that-carries-a-weight-of-assumption-for-the-rest-of-the-world-keith-gray-on-ewwc-south-africa/#comments Thu, 18 Oct 2012 12:56:02 +0000 tanyaandrews http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=1515 Keith_Gray_360

Before the Open Book festival began I was lucky enough to be invited into Cape Town Academy of Maths and Technology on behalf of the British Council. I spoke to a group of 15 and 16 year-old pupils about reading and books and even persuaded them to do some of their own writing. We did a short exercise where the pupils each chose an emotion or feeling and described it using the physical senses. How would happiness feel if you could hold it in your hands? What does curiosity taste like? What’s the smell of misery? Simple, fun stuff.

One spirited young woman said the sound of ‘escape’ was ‘music my parents hate’. But out of a class of twenty, four chose ‘solidarity’ as their feeling. One person described it as ‘a solid rough-textured block, very very heavy to lift, but very gluey too so you can never let go.’

I’d been warned that it was difficult to hold a conversation with a South African without having politics crop up somewhere along the way – a bit like Brits and the weather. Talking to the pupils I was surprised and impressed that they were so politically conscious. And more than a little shamefaced too (but I am able to name all the different cloud-types, honest). It was a pity none of them attended the debates staged by the Edinburgh World Writers Conference as part of Open Book. In fact, no young people did. A real pity because I’m sure they would have gained a lot from the discussions for themselves and added some fresh insight for the rest of us.

As an outsider I wonder what it feels like being a teenager in South Africa today. Born just after the dismantling of Apartheid, I wonder whether there’s a heavy expectation to feel fortunate, grateful, indebted. I wonder how much South Africa’s young people want to be associated with their parents’ all-engulfing history – how many of the past’s sins, scars, triumphs, ambitions they are willing to openly bear. It’s a nationality that carries a weight of assumption for the rest of the world. I wonder if sometimes, just sometimes, they’ll wish for an ignorant companion in an oblivious world.

Personally, I’m eager to read the writers who’ll grow out of this generation. I’m keen to know what it is they want to write. The young people I spoke to were equally knowledgeable about, and just as interested in, marking the ballot paper as they were about the X-Factor. It’s an intriguing mix. Will their stories look forward or back? Will their novels be Political? Will they want to cut ties and create a brand new national literature? Or will their targets be global? This generation is modern South Africa’s first generation after all.

Keith Gray

You can read the author’s address on Censorship Today delivered in Cape Town here.

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Margie Orford: Some thoughts in response to the EWWC in Cape Town http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/margie-orford-some-thoughts-in-response-to-the-edinburgh-world-writers-conference-in-cape-town/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/margie-orford-some-thoughts-in-response-to-the-edinburgh-world-writers-conference-in-cape-town/#comments Mon, 01 Oct 2012 12:45:05 +0000 tanyaandrews http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=1344 On censorship…

Censorship is a recent and painful memory for South Africans. In an event organized for the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiabo, several of the writers invited to read in his honour had been imprisoned for writing things the state did not like and seen their works banned. Many of the books I wished to read as a student at the University of Cape Town were banned. One needed special permission to read certain or you needed to travel to places where knowledge and imagination breathed easier. Being in possession of banned books carried heavy jail penalties.

Many individuals were banned too. This meant they could not be with more than one person at a time. It struck me then how much a repressive state fears its citizens when they talk to each other and when they turn, as a collective, to address the State. The most recent example of this was the power of social media and of crowds during the Arab Spring. The aftermath of the fall of corrupt and authoritarian governments is proving more complex to manage. Attempts to once more police freedom of expression and association – especially for women – in the wake of elections in Egypt and Tunisia, amongst other places have been met with shock and resistance

Censorship means the selective criminalization of thought, of reading, of enquiry, and of association. It is patently bad. It imprisons people, it burns books, and it curtails the political and the personal life of individuals and of nations. Censorship has other pernicious effects. It stifles creativity because it attempts to police the imagination by making people afraid to write, read, talk and think freely. Censorship, authoritarian, hierarchical and usually patriarchal, infantilizes people because the state usurps the individual’s responsibility for deciding what they read, writes, think and say.

The end of censorship in South Africa meant the end of Apartheid in South Africa. The unbanning of political organizations, of books, of ideas, of a way of visualizing a peaceful future opened up the complex, flawed but emancipatory dialogue that led to the turbulent, vigorous and contested democratic South Africa.

If censorship is the cornerstone of repression, then I would argue that freedom of expression is its opposite. Freedom of expression is the foundation of all other human rights. Mess with it, and all our other rights look shaky. That said the right to freedom of expression is not absolute: hate speech and the incitement to violence are the most common limitations to the right to freedom of expression. What it is, if and where the limits are to what one might say, have been hotly and violently contested. Increasingly this contestation has been around issues of so-called blasphemy and religious insult. The debate has focused on the trailer for a video that was posted on YouTube. This amateurish and provocative film, the Innocence of Muslims sparked a wave of protests that resulted in several deaths, including that of the US ambassador in Benghazi.

This led Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh Writers Festival to wonder ‘whether our passion for the idea of ‘freedom of speech’ has led us to overlook some other sides of the story. In the process of standing up for free speech, the word ‘censorship’ has gained purely negative connotations. Yet, if words are capable of having as much power as guns, are we taking a risk by relinquishing all control over them?’

Censorship, I would argue, is the last thing we need.  Bullets terminate conversation. Words can make trouble, I grant you that, but without words, without conversation, without literature too, there will be no rapprochement. Self-censorship is not the answer. Self-censorship all too often results in people remaining silent about things that are troubling, complex, difficult – is not the answer either. What one says, how one converses as individuals, as national citizens, as global citizens is the essence of tolerance, respect and democracy.

Words have great power. In an explosive and polarized world debates, especially the one around freedom of expression, are too often framed as the West versus the Rest. This is unhelpful, to say the least. Censorship is the lived experience of so many people in the world – from Russia, to China, to the Middle East, to many African countries, and less obviously, because of the post 9/11 Patriot Act, in the United States.

The answer might be a period of silence – but an engaged silence in which one can listen long enough to understand what people across religious or geographical divides are saying. It might help us understand what people right next to us are saying.

South Africa’s miracle, embodied in the person of Nelson Mandela, was one of listening. A range of diametrically opposed views were freely expressed, but the conversational space was held open long enough, with enough willingness to deal with complexity and conflict, to enable a peaceful transition to democracy. The complexity and the conflict are still with us; most apparent in the explosive racial and economic divides bequeathed us by a long and violent history.

The right to freedom of expression is only one half of the deal. The other half is the obligation, the responsibility that a person who speaks freely, to listen. Training oneself to hear is an art, as much as it is the foundation of a society based on reciprocity and mutual respect. Listening – and really hearing – is not easy. Sometimes it requires that we make ourselves understand the language of protest, anger and violence.

Margie Orford is an author and the vice president of South African PEN.

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Nick Barley on EWWC Cape Town, A National Literature? http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/nick-barley-on-ewwc-cape-town-a-national-literature/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/nick-barley-on-ewwc-cape-town-a-national-literature/#comments Tue, 25 Sep 2012 17:02:51 +0000 tanyaandrews http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=1317 In relation to the question of a ‘national literature’, I can’t help wanting to borrow and bastardise a quote by Pablo Picasso: ‘Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth’.

After the Writers’ Conference event in Cape Town on 21st September 2012, the subject of nationality and national identity has surfaced a number of times at subsequent author talks in the Open Book Festival. So, understandably, has the subject of apartheid. Evidently, eighteen years after the end of South Africa’s shameful period of repression and racism, authors are still struggling to come to terms with its past and there is a powerful desire for the country to emerge from Apartheid’s shadow.

It is equally evident that Apartheid is not something that exists as a solid, incontrovertible fact, a true history waiting to be exposed by scientific research. On the contrary, like all of history it is a mutating idea; a set of representations, each created from a different perspective. We know that two people witnessing the simplest of events will offer different testimonies; two translators working on the most straightforward of texts will always produce different results. Histories are not facts, but events people think they experienced. Perhaps this is why we have such a strong urge to tell stories.

Stories are to a greater or lesser extent, made up. They are, in Picasso’s language, ‘lies’. Yet it seems we often find them a more useful tool for understanding the world around us than the more apparently-objective tools of reportage and journalism. Alberto Manguel makes the same point in today’s Guardian review of Ismail Kadare’s newly-translated book The Fall of the Stone City: ‘In Kadare’s admirable and vast literature … mythology and history are equally competent to bear witness, except that the former is better at illuminating facts than the latter at reporting them.’

Stories are lies that make us realise the truth. But stories are also ineluctably rooted in place. Whether they’re South African, Indian or Scottish, it’s perhaps not surprising that some novelists should want to resist having nationalism imposed upon them, but they are nonetheless producing stories that emerge from a certain place or places. So, Jamala Safari’s new book The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods may not be set in South Africa (it is the story of one boy’s journey from the Congo to Mozambique), and Safari himself has only lived in South Africa for a few years. Yet at a discussion today Safari conceded, like it or not, that his novel has to be considered as part of South African literature. At another discussion, the South African writer Henrietta Rose-Innes argued that her short stories form small pieces of a mosaic that make up our understanding of her country.

In effect, storytellers cannot divorce themselves from the elements that make up their identity. Nationality is one of many lenses through which we can try to understand ourselves and our relationship with the world, and it is therefore my contention that every novel makes some sort of contribution to a ‘national literature’.

Nick Barley, 23rd September 2012

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Nick Barley (Director, Edinburgh International Book Festival) on EWWC Cape Town, Censorship Today http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/nick-barley-director-edinburgh-international-book-festival-on-ewwc-cape-town/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/nick-barley-director-edinburgh-international-book-festival-on-ewwc-cape-town/#comments Tue, 25 Sep 2012 16:57:46 +0000 tanyaandrews http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=1310 Blog from Cape Town

Table Mountain, such a powerful presence in Cape Town’s city centre on a clear day, is completely shrouded in cloud this morning. The noise drifting through the 11th floor hotel window is of car tyres splashing over wet tarmac. Beneath the dark skies and the brooding mountain, the city squats in the folds of the valley and the bay, its buildings rather sternly functional, save for the occasional moment of slightly tired wedding cake colonialism.

Whether or not it is raining, the mood in Cape Town, to an outsider at least, is of a city still trying to express its identity for the 21st century. Perched as it is on the edge of a vast continent, and also at the meeting point of two enormous oceans, it is clear that the city has for centuries occupied a strategically vital place in the world, a location exploited by people who understood that by controlling it they would also control a key international trading route. It’s not a surprise to learn that it was the Dutch East India Company which in 1666 started construction of theCastle ofGood Hope, a building said to be the oldest inSouth Africa. That strategic importance has probably diminished somewhat in the new era of digital trading, but it still feels crucial to Cape Town’s sense of itself. Alongside the colonial activity, there is also the legacy of apartheid, a policy and a period of history that remains much talked-about in the literary festival events I have attended here. Perhaps apartheid was the last gasp of colonialism inSouth Africa and perhaps it is officially dead, but you only have to drive through the outskirts of Cape Town past the largetownship of Khayelitsha, to see the scale of the task facing the government in trying to even out inequalities created over the centuries. Still the home to some half a million people, Khayelitsha is a mixture of small shacks and badly-built brick constructions with the minimum of civic infrastructure in between. No doubt many of its inhabitants take the bus into Cape Town’s centre each morning for work. And without a doubt, economic apartheid is still a reality.

Right opposite the hotel, one of the less ostentatious colonial buildings backing onto the Magistrates’ Court has signs outside in English and Afrikaans: Department of Correctional Services. In and out comes a steady trickle of young men who look as though they might be on probation for petty crimes. I think about Edinburgh’s law courts, and wonder what a skewed impression you’d get of the city if you looked out at it from a hotel room, but nevertheless it strikes me that in an unfamiliar country or city one is constantly on the lookout for confirmation of that society’s rules. Is jaywalking permitted? Do I give a tip to hotel porters? Is it OK to walk through the city late at night without fear of being mugged? Here inSouth Africa, there is evidence that people don’t feel all that safe: there is plenty of barbed wire around suburban gardens, and signs on urban buildings saying ‘ADT – Armed Response’.

What are the societal codes that make it possible for us to operate normally, to leave our house without fear each morning? Many of them are unspoken but ultimately our sense of ‘freedom’ requires that we operate within a system of agreed rules and control. I look up the news back in theUKand read about someone who’s been arrested inManchesterfor setting up a Facebook page celebrating the man charged with murdering two police officers. I notice the discussion about the princess who inadvertently exposed her breasts to the French paparazzi. In the UK at least, the mood in the press is clear: the photos of the Duchess of Cambridge should not be published, and the offensive Facebook page was rightly taken down. These wrongdoers’ freedoms have been curtailed in order to protect our own broader ones. But would we describe the use of the law in these instances as censorship, or something else?

I turn to a story about the international protests against cartoons in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and against a YouTube film mocking Islam.Egypt’s Grand Mufti is one of many people arguing that these are foolhardy acts of bravado, ‘asserting the superiority of western freedoms over alleged Muslim closed-mindedness’ and that they verge on incitement to violence. Indeed, so concerned are governments around the world by this that they have issued a statement: ‘We condemn any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to hostility and violence. While fully recognising freedom of expression, we believe in the importance of respecting all prophets, regardless of which religion they belong to.’ In the midst of all this it seems there’s a new death threat from an Iranian cleric against Salman Rushdie following this week’s publication of his memoir.

Against this backdrop, we are staging a Writers’ Conference asking what purpose novels serve in the 21st century. Last night’s discussion on ‘Censorship Today’ seemed particularly apt, and perhaps not surprisingly it was dominated by an unspoken agreement that censorship is a bad thing – something perpetrated by authoritarian regimes (or anxious parents) intent on preventing people from exposure to the truth.

It was a fascinating discussion in which participants questioned the extent to which novels might change the way we think or behave. Most seemed to believe that exposing teenagers to stories about sex or drugs wouldn’t be enough to make them go straight out and lose their virginity, or reach for a syringe. Yet all of the news stories I’ve just been reading are essentially about people believing that words, images or ideas DO have sufficient power to change behaviour. One of the audience members last night talked about the French writer Richard Millet, whose essay ‘The Literary Elegy of Anders Breivik’ has claimed that with Breivik’s acts of murder, Norway‘got what it deserved.’ This morning I look up the story to discover that the French essayist’s stance has generated huge debate in France, with another author, Annie Ernaux, telling Le Monde that Millet’s writing is ‘a dangerous political act’.

I begin to wonder whether our passion for the idea of ‘freedom of speech’ has led us to overlook some other sides of the story. In the process of standing up for free speech, the word ‘censorship’ has gained purely negative connotations. Yet, if words are capable of having as much power as guns, are we taking a risk by relinquishing all control over them? Most of the people in last night’s debate who were arguing so passionately for free speech, would – I guess – be vehemently opposed to the liberalising of gun laws in the USA.

At a time when tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims appear to be on the rise around the world, surely it is time for us to be responsible about what we say. Words, like guns, have become part of a globalised network, in which ideas as well as products are exchanged. Since much of this network lies outside the legal frameworks of national government, is it not time for us to balance our freedom to believe whatever we like, with a responsibility to avoid bloodshed if we can, by limiting what we choose to say? Is it not time for us to promote respect for other people’s beliefs, and to insist that there are times when those advocating intolerance, or worse, should not be given a voice? This is not such an authoritarian position as it might sound: indeed we already have a system operating on the comments forums of newspaper websites in which inappropriate postings are removed – censored – by a moderator.

Now that it is possible to write hurtful or hateful words and send them across the world at the touch of a button to people we do not know, we need to rethink our relationship to freedom of speech. Maybe it’s time to refine our ideas, perhaps even a new 21st century phrase to replace ‘censorship’, to explain why the use of words should also be subject to agreed codes of behaviour.

That said, many of the writers appearing in South Africa’s new literary festival can still remember a time when they and their friends were jailed for the things they wrote or said. The crime writer Margie Orford, for example, tells me that she was thrown in prison in 1985 and interrogated for taking part in a fairly innocuous student protest against PW Botha’s state of emergency. In a country in which free speech was brutally denied to so many, anything remotely resembling state censorship would be a repellent notion. But eighteen years after the people of South Africa bravely ended the oppressive nightmare of apartheid, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has today been moved by what he calls the ‘disgraceful, shameless’ anti-Islam movie, to claim that freedom of speech has its limits. Is it too much to imagine an addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that encourages responsibility, respect and restraint?


Nick Barley, 21st September 2012

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ANJALI JOSEPH – A National Literature? http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/anjali-joseph-a-national-literature/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/anjali-joseph-a-national-literature/#comments Fri, 21 Sep 2012 15:30:29 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=1074 Open Book Festival, Cape Town

Friday 21 September 3:30pm SAST

A National Literature?

Keynote address by: Anjali Joseph

Since the first Edinburgh Writers’ Conference in 1962, there has been a renaissance in Scottish literature, bringing the voices of Scottish people of different backgrounds into groundbreaking novels.  Have there been similar developments in other countries and do their combined voices amount to a ‘national literature?’ This event was Chaired by Imraan Couvadia.



Author Biography:

Anjali Joseph: Anjali Joseph was born in Bombay and grew up in England. She has lived and worked in London, Paris and Bombay. Her first novel, Saraswati Park, won the Desmond Elliott and Betty Trask Prizes and the Vodafone Crossword Book Award for fiction. Her second novel, Another Country, has just been published.

Reading, writing, and living in India and England has left her sceptical of the idea of simple, linear literary traditions that remain politely within national boundaries. The real lines of affinity between readers and writers, and writers and other writers, are elective, and sometimes unexpected.


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Joseph in South Africa – Keynote on A National Literature http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/joseph-in-south-africa-keynote-on-a-national-literature/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/joseph-in-south-africa-keynote-on-a-national-literature/#comments Fri, 21 Sep 2012 14:08:10 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=2272 A National Literature

Keynote address given by Anjali Joseph

First presented at the Open Book Festival, Cape Town

Anjali Joseph Keynote text: “A national literature: reading and writing across boundaries”

When I saw the title of this talk, ‘a national literature’, I felt mildly depressed. It was an involuntary reaction, like the way one feels when made to fill in a form and categorise oneself: nationality, country of residence, address, that sort of thing. I immediately felt alienated at the idea of a national literature, and I don’t think this was only because I’m an expatriate Indian who lives in England. The idea of a national literature sounded massive, like the kind of entity that would have a minister or an advisory committee, and a big white building somewhere with a security guard. I felt, “Oh, no, national literature has nothing to do with me.” Or maybe it could be something I would have read in a classroom somewhere. But it didn’t speak to my experience.

Straight after that feeling of rebellion, I had another thought, which was remembering an image from a novel first published in 1928, in Bengali. This is from Pather Panchali, by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. The title of the novel translates as something like ‘Song of the Road’; it was made into a famous film by Satyajit Ray. It’s about the life of Apu, a young boy, and his elder sister in a village in rural Bengal at the turn of the twentieth century. They come from a poor family and they play in the forest around the village, or near the river. I’m going to read a short passage in translation from the novel. Just before this passage, Apu’s father has subscribed to a magazine called Bangabashi for them, and this is exciting because there are serialised stories in the magazine. The passage begins when Apu and his friend have gone out on the river in a small boat, and they realise an enormous storm is about to break.

He could think of nothing but the storm. His body was tense, his eyes staring straight ahead, now at the sky, now at the waves that rushed down upon them. The water danced wildly. The paddy birds were flying. The cloud mountains writhed in convulsions; and on the bank he could see the heaps of shells that the boatmen from the south had piled up. A floating island of water hyacinth swept by, so wide that it hid the water from sight. Suddenly he was voyaging to England like that man in the Bangabashi. His ship had sailed from Calcutta. Sagar Island in the mouth of the estuary was behind them, and they were threading their way through a host of little islands in the middle of the sea. The dark green line of coconut palms on the shore of Ceylon was already in sight, and on the far horizon he could make out blue mountains in a strange land, which reddened as he watched them in the light of the setting sun. Everything was different! New lands! New sights! And still he journeyed on, further and further, into the unknown.

Apu has an incredibly responsive imagination, and whenever he reads, the things he reads become a part of the place where he lives, even though they are set somewhere quite different. The river on which he and his friend are boating is a distributary of other larger rivers that finally lead to the Ganga, and then to the sea, and there is a way in which Apu’s reading, also, opens him out to a much wider world than he would otherwise know. And his story, the story of a village boy reading serial novels and daydreaming of the world, is told in a serial novel which was made into a famous film that’s known all over the world. There is a two-way movement here.

I didn’t grow up in a village in turn-of-the-century Bengal, and yet this extract feels very close to me. I think because there something universal in it: that is, the experience of what it is like to read, and find what you read weaving itself into the texture of your own life. There is a way in which perhaps each of us has at any time his or her own internal cry or thing that must be expressed, even if it isn’t ever articulated in words. In Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet, ‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame’ the poet says of ‘each mortal thing’: ‘myself it speaks and spells, /Crying What I do is me: for that I came.’ So, when we read we are looking for an answering echo of this cry in the world; we read to receive messages from the world. Sometimes we read to go on a journey, and be someone else, while still remaining ourselves. A book can be like the magical flying carpet in the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.

The idea of reading feels close, but the idea of literature feels abstract, in fact like the idea of a nation. These notions seem more static and fixed, even congealed. When we talk of a nation, and literature, and national literature, we are talking about classes of things. ‘This type of man.’ ‘An Indian.’ ‘A South African.’ We move away from lived experience and into the generic. In fact, we become like some of the famous bores in fiction: like Polonius in Hamlet, or M. Homais the chemist in Madame Bovary, who deal only with generalisations. Writers don’t read only their own national literatures: they form affiliations, links of choice with the writers they have read and who matter to them. Maybe that means a French novelist like Claude Simon reading William Faulkner, or a South African novelist like J M Coetzee reading Samuel Beckett, or an Indian writer reading Yasunari Kawabata. And these links matter far more than the vertical lineage of nationality.

Perhaps the label literature has a defensive aspect. Possibly it is intended to validate or protect work that may not have an immediate appeal to everyone. Suppose I like reading and someone hands me a book and I open it and read this:
To one on his back in the dark a voice tells of a past. With occasional allusion to a present and more rarely to a future as for example, You will end as you now are. And in another dark or in the same another devising it all for company. Quick leave him.

And suppose that after reading this I feel frankly a little upset, as though I want to cry, because I can’t see the story, or the characters, or actually anything that I’m expecting, and I say to my friend who gave me the book, I don’t get it, I thought you said this was a really good book. And she says, Well, it’s by Samuel Beckett and it’s literature. Maybe then I will carry on reading the book, and maybe in its very strangeness I will find something that makes me see my own experience in a way that is quite true but which I wouldn’t otherwise have perceived; something in fact that brings me home to myself.

Because I think it is a myth that, inside, we experience ourselves in a linear way, like a nineteenth-century novel or a Hollywood film, a straightforward sequence of cause and effect where a virtuous action later results in a piece of good fortune. Maybe it sometimes feels like that, but often it doesn’t. And this is the great adventure of the modernist novel: to create an image of the soup of memory and thought and desire and urges and advertising and the internet and newspaper and television and sex in which our brains exist, and to give us back this image, so that we can recognise it, and laugh, and for a moment, be liberated from it.

There is nothing stranger than a human being. Sometimes there is nothing stranger than oneself. And sometimes these different varieties of strangeness seem quite hermetically contained, quite sealed, each inside its casing, walking around, or issuing messages through the ether, through the internet, or in print. It is a small miracle that these messages transmit and are received. And writing, and reading, are two of the most discreet, tactful, and beautiful ways in which it’s possible for a human being in a landscape to think to himself: ‘I’m here.’ And then feel lonely, and listen, and ask: ‘Is anyone else there? Can you hear me?’ And find a book, and open it, and realise, in a satisfying and internal way, ‘Ah yes, there is someone there.’ And it’s a way for a writer to sit in a room and write something, and wonder, ‘Am I mad? Does this exist?’ and for the words that represent her thoughts to be printed and later found in a book by someone else, in another country, and for the message to arrive home. And the operation of that basic magic is why literature and reading matter to us, and why we respond to them, but I think that has very little to do with national boundaries.

Copyright: Anjali Joseph, 2012

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NDEBELE & KROG – Should Literature Be Political? http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/ndebele-krog-should-literature-be-political/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/ndebele-krog-should-literature-be-political/#comments Thu, 20 Sep 2012 18:00:56 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=1065
Antjie Krog and Njabulo NdebeleOpen Book Festival, Cape Town

Thursday 20 September

Should Literature Be Political?

Keynote address by: Njabulo Ndebele and Antjie Krog

The 1962 Writers’ Conference organisers stated: ‘Many believe that the novelist has the duty to further by his writing the causes in which he believes.  Others think that literature must be above the problems of the day’. 50 years on, writers remain divided about the role political events should play in literature.

This free event and public event took place on 20 September 2012, and was chaired by Judith February, columnist and political analyst.



Author Biographies:

Njabulo S Ndebele: The writer of ‘Fools’ and Other Stories (1983) which won the Noma award as the best book published in Africa in 1983; Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Essays on South African Literature and Culture (1991, 2006) a seminal collection of essays; the novel The Cry of Winnie Mandela, (2004), received the Noma Award Honorable mention for 2005; and Fine Lines from the Box: Further Thoughts About our Country (2007) received the K. Sello Duiker Memorial Award. The two books can be viewed as interacting with each other from the perspectives of literary practice and theoretical reflections on it. How much is the social in the art, and the art in the social? The children’s story Bonolo and the Peach Tree (1991) is a tributary of some of the issues that have flowed from such a question. He is a commentator on a range of public issues in South Africa. He has received honorary doctorates from universities in the UK, USA, The Netherlands, and Japan for achievements in literature, creative writing and higher education leadership.

Antjie Krog: Antjie Krog is a poet, writer, journalist and Extraordinary Professor at the University of the Western Cape. She published twelve volumes of poetry in Afrikaans, two volumes in English, and three non-fiction books: Country of my Skull (1998), on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; A Change of Tongue (2004) about the transformation in South Africa after ten years and Begging to be Black (2009) about learning to live within a black majority. Country of my Skull And A Change of Tongue have been nominated by South African librarians (LIASA) as two of the ten most important books written in ten years of democracy. Krog has also co-authored an academic book There was this Goat (2009) with two colleagues Prof Kopano Ratele and Nosisi Mpolweni, investigating the Truth Commission testimony of Mrs Notrose Nobomvu Konile. Her work has been widely translated. Krog had been awarded most of the prestigious awards for non-fiction, translation and poetry available in Afrikaans and English, as well as the Stockholm Award from the Hiroshima Foundation for Peace and Culture for the year 2000, as well as the Open Society Prize from the Central European University (previous winners were Jürgen Habermas and Vaclav Havel).


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KEITH GRAY – Censorship Today http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/keith-gray-censorship-today/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/keith-gray-censorship-today/#comments Thu, 20 Sep 2012 15:00:10 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=1059 Open Book Festival, Cape Town

Thursday 20 September 3:00pm SAST

Censorship Today

Keynote address by: Keith Gray

Should freedom of speech ever have limits?  Freedom of speech is not only under threat in undemocratic countries: the American Library Association received challenges to ban no fewer than 326 book titles in 2010, including And Tango Makes Three, which attracted complaints because its young penguin hero has two fathers.

This free event was open to the public and Chaired by Mervyn Sloman, Director Open Book.

Author Biography:

Keith Gray: As a teenager Keith Gray went from reluctant reader to passionate reader – then straight on to being a dedicated writer. He published Creepers, which was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, when he was only 24. Since then he’s written a number of critically-acclaimed novels which have won, or been shortlisted for, several major awards including the Carnegie Medal, the Costa Children’s Book Award, the Scottish Children’s Book Awards and the Smarties Book Prize. Never an author to shy away from difficult subject matter Keith’s novels are often deemed ‘controversial’ and he recently edited two ground-breaking, if provocative, anthologies for teenagers – Losing It which tackles first sexual experience, and Next which explores ideas about the afterlife. His novel Ostrich Boys has been adapted for the stage and will embark on a UK tour in 2013. Keith lives in Edinburgh with his partner, their daughter and a parrot called Bellamy.



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