Adré Marshall Reflects on the 2016 Franschhoek Literary Festival

02 Jun 2016
Adre Marshall

Read Adré Marshall’s reflections on the Franschhoek Literary Festival below and see links to other pieces on the festival here, including pieces reflecting on Eugene de Kock’s attendance of the Sunday Times Literary Awards and presence at the Franschhoek Literary Festival:


By Adré Marshall, PEN SA Board Member and member of PEN’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee

Once again, the literary festival was a highlight on the cultural calendar. A great variety of events was on offer and, predictably, festival-goers had to face the problem (or should we say “challenge”, in contemporary parlance) of selecting only one amongst three or four tempting events scheduled at the same time. Topics included history, poetry, all possible genres in fiction, South African politics, translation, publishing, and plenty more. The emphasis this year seemed to be more on local writers, which, considering the parlous state of the rand, was understandable. This was not a limitation, however, as plenty of very talented local writers were represented.

In addition, we were treated to a number of superb recitals in the NG church, and a powerful theatrical performance by John Maytham, who presented extracts from various writers on the subject of madness. These included memorable extracts from Shakespeare plays, novels by Virginia Woolf and other often moving or terrifying evocations of mental disorder.

The audiences seemed slightly more diverse this year, but the majority of participants were inevitably “of a certain age” (not necessarily the golden one). The schools events were, I believe, lively and well attended. The winners of the poetry competition, who presented their selected poems at a special event, “Poetry at Essence”, were impressively confident and articulate, and were warmly applauded. Some of the poets featured on the main programme, including Isobel Dixon and Sudanese/American Safia Elhillo, read a selection of their moving and well-crafted poems.

Poetry featured fairly prominently throughout the festival, and included a presentation on “the nature of poetry” where Hedley Twidle, in conversation with Isobel Dixon, discussed the themes of nature in the poetry of the late Stephen Watson. Other poets featured included Finuala Dowling, Genna Gardini and many others. The focus was on oral poetry, and the spoken word in general, in an event in which Victor Dlamini, sporting a resplendent gold and black scarf (an “indication of belonging to royalty”!) held a lively discussion with Sindiwe Magona and Javier Perez. Both Sindiwe, who now has 24 publications to her name, and Perez, who belongs to Lingua Franca, draw strongly on the oral tradition and multilingualism in their work. In response to a request from the audience, Perez gave an impromptu performance of one his poems, eliciting a delighted response. The importance of drawing from our rich oral tradition was also stressed in a session on children’s books with Bontle Senne, Marlene Winberg and Helen Brain.

New fiction was of course an important component of the festival and a great diversity of themes and styles was in evidence. In the session on “Writing relationships”, chaired by Karina Szczurek, Chinelo Okparanta, Nthikeng Mohlele and David Cornwell explored the difficulties experienced in depicting the intricacies of relationships based on romantic love, sex, friendship or family ties. According to Nthikeng, another important relationship in his novel Pleasure is that between the writer and language. “Language and character in literature” was also the complementary theme explored in another event with Harry Garuba, Claire Robertson, Rehana Rossouw and Finuala Dowling. The participants demonstrated how characters can be delineated partly through the language they use, their idiolect or at times catch phrases.

Our Cape weather, so unpredictable at this time of global warming, certainly put on a good show for the festival – bright sunny days made walking from one venue to the next a pleasure, in contrast to the deluge festival-goers had to contend with a few years ago when it rained non-stop all weekend. The only potential thundercloud threatening the sunny ambience was the presence of Eugene de Kock at the Sunday Times Literary Awards event, but this was quickly dispelled when he complied with the request to leave.

It is impossible of course to cover all events attended, and I must confess to adopting a more leisurely pace this year, trying to be more selective and having time to have lunch and coffee in between events. And like the proverbial ostrich, avoiding all talks on politics, the state of the nation etc, indulging instead in plenty of poetry and enjoying the exposure to new novels. There’s always such a buzz of excitement and animated discussion of the events attended, so it is relatively easy to block off depressing thoughts about political realities and simply enjoy the present moment!

Congratulations to all concerned in organising such a stimulating and vibrant festival. We look forward to another successful festival next year.