Time Of The Writer Festival and the Passing of the Baton
04 May 2017
Our hotel in Durban, Blue Waters, not only stares into the ocean but its blue and white paint catches the sun as it rises. One morning, after a jog, I saw the glint of the sun, showing off all the energy it brings to the hotel. It was quite beautiful. Though I had to bend my neck beyond the open windows of the next flat to see the ocean, the smell and the wet air confirmed that the ocean rested there, across the road from the hotel. Beside this, the showmanship of Durban, which is widely spoken about and lauded by other cities, the Time of the Writer Festival was happening, and in the week that the proceedings were scheduled, the one thing that stood our for me was how the old writers mingled with the young, passing advice at every turn, cautioning about the usual habits of writers, the ways to navigate a narrative and tips on how to answer the old question, ‘who do you write for?’.
One night, at the bar at the hotel, I sat next to Zakes Mda. He finds me at the bar waiting to order two drinks, one for me and another for the writer Megan Ross, who had a few days earlier been named a runner up of the Short Story Day Africa Prize. Earlier in the day he had greeted me in passing but that evening, there we were, him seated on a bar stool and me standing, waving my hand at the barman nervously. I greet Mda and he says “Ah, ah, Lidudumalingani, this is you, my pleasure to meet you”, a greeting that almost causes my heart to come to a stop.
This interaction defines most of my experience at the festival, the generosity of writers who have been wielding the pen for many years, even before I could think of writing as something I wanted to do.
During the opening of the festival, the opening speaker, the wonderful Gcina Mhlophe, told a story of how when she was young, she made her way to Johannesburg and how her jaw literally dropped when she met her favourite writers and how she was worried about saying something stupid. Her worry suddenly was mine throughout the festival. There was however nothing to worry about, writers like Mda, Nkosinathi Sithole and Fred Khumalo came with their hearts opened, ready to share.
In the conversations that lasted into the night and the occasional chatter during dinner, was a process I now believe to have been a way in which an invisible baton was being passed, from the more experienced writers to the young. That ‘here take this, the literature of South Africa and charge forth’.
There is much to expect, no doubt, from the old writers that were there and from the young writers who left with their fists folded, holding on to the wise words, that the literature they are producing is important, that their words matter, not only as literature but as a means to unfold and fold this country, to make sense of it, to write against power.