Insights from the 2019 Franschhoek Literary Festival

21 May 2019
Insights from the 2019 Franschhoek Literary Festival

This past weekend, the Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF) brought authors, book-lovers and literati from across the country and continent together for three days of lively panel discussions, debate and good, old-fashioned revelry.

A number of PEN SA professional members participated in the programme and the PEN SA communications team was out in full force to show its support.

Although we sadly did not have the capacity to attend each event, we covered as much ground as possible. Here are a few of our insights from the FLF:

Short stories are making a resurgence

In a panel discussion titled ‘Short Tall Tales’, PEN SA member Fred Khumalo conversed with fellow author David Bristow and moderator, Karabo Kgoleng about the art of the short story. Khumalo’s  Talk of the Town was released last month, while Bristow’s The Game Ranger, the Knife, the Lion and the Sheep hit shelves in September 2018.

Both authors expressed their appreciation for the way in which this form of narrative helps bring hidden stories to light in a neat and succinct manner. Quoting Anton Chekhov, Khumalo said: “Every novelist is a failed short story writer and every short story writer is a failed poet.”

While novels may have ruled the literary roost for the best part of recent history, short stories seem to be enjoying something of a resurgence. Khumalo illustrated this point by mentioning that in South Africa, eight short story anthologies are being released this year alone.

One audience member suggested that perhaps this is due to shrinking human attention spans.

Nature remains a crowd-puller

This year’s FLF programme included a number of nature-related panel discussions. In the days leading up to the festival, a quick scroll through Webtickets revealed that most talks of this nature were sold out well in advance, suggesting that the natural world remains a fascinating topic… even at a literary festival.

With our wildlife and -places under threat from habitat fragmentation, pollution, climate change and resource exploitation, it’s also a topic closely related to our own survival as a species.

Earlier this month, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released a report, which found that nature is declining, globally, at rates unprecedented in human history. The report further reveals that species extinction is accelerating with grave implications for humans.

Perhaps Dr Helen Lunn, co-author of The Dance of the Dung Beetles, captured this sentiment most profoundly during the ‘Why the World Needs Dung Beetles’ panel when she asserted: “We will be in less trouble if we reframed the way we think about everything. We need to be less hierarchical. Everything is interconnected. If we think differently, we’ll act differently.”

Constructive debate is alive and well

What would a literary festival be without some heated discussions? Fortunately, this year’s FLF did not disappoint!

The ‘Schools of Though’ panel, in particular, led to robust debate between Prof Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand,  Wandile Ngcaweni, editor of We Are No Longer At Ease, and author of Whatever, Saskia Bailey. The question put to them was ‘what does it mean to have an education’; this panel was moderated by Prof Jonathan Jansen, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State.

While the three participants had vastly divergent ideas, they agreed on one thing: motivation plays a key role in the classroom, therefore maintaining this motivation – both from the side of the educator and that of the student – is vital for achieving better education outcomes.

A writer will invariably alienate someone

While every writer finds themselves at some point excluding perspectives or even stepping on toes, some do it more bravely than others.

In the ‘Risky Writers’ panel, PEN SA member and legendary satirist, Zapiro, joined Wandile Ngcaweni and Harris Dousemetzis, author of The Man Who Killed Apartheid, to discuss the ways in which their recent works have ruffled feathers.

The writers agreed that no matter how pure a person’s intentions, writing will always alienate someone. In fact, in many instances the purer a writer’s intentions, the more at odds they will be, not only in respect of people with whom they disagree, but even with those whose views are convergent with their own.

Want to write well? Indulge in this guilty pleasure

The ‘Authentic Voices’ panel saw PEN SA member and author of Lacuna, Fiona Snyckers and Heather Morris, author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz discussing writing techniques and creating convincing dialogue.

Snyckers said that to be a writer, one needs to be very good at eavesdropping – a guilty pleasure for many of us – and listening instead of talking. She also spoke about reworking dialogue, until it sounds right to the mental ear, “Until the music of the voices sounds right to you.”

All in all, FLF once again proved that the love for literature in all its forms is alive and well in South Africa and, also, that there is a wonderful diversity of voices, perspectives and topics to explore. We look forward to seeing the festival grow and expand further!