City’s Ar­tic­u­late Africa Book Fair is the place to be for book lovers

The Independent on Saturday - - BEHIND THE NEWS - DAR­RYL EARL DAVID

A DECADE ago you could count the lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals in South Africa on one hand. But in the past decade there has been an ex­plo­sion of lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals in ev­ery cor­ner of the coun­try.

So peo­ple could be for­given for think­ing – just another book fes­ti­val. But this year’s Ar­tic­u­late Africa Book Fair at the Dur­ban ICC is be­ing seen as a pi­lot run for the holy grail of lit­er­a­ture – the ti­tle of Unesco City of Lit­er­a­ture.

Only 20 coun­tries have been ac­corded this hon­our over the past decade. If Dur­ban’s bid is suc­cess­ful, the city will be­come the first city in Africa to do so.

The eyes of the world are on Dur­ban – firstly, to judge just how ar­tic­u­late this east­ern cor­ner of Africa is, and sec­ondly, to see whether the city has the or­gan­i­sa­tional nous to stage a truly in­ter­na­tional lit­er­ary fes­ti­val.

On the first point, Dur­ban has an un­de­ni­able strength. Known for be­ing a melt­ing pot of cul­tures, Dur­ban is not only known for be­ing the King­dom of the Zulu, but also “Lit­tle In­dia”. Nowhere in the world, be­sides In­dia, will you find so many In­di­ans as in Dur­ban.

The line-up for the sec­ond chap­ter of Ar­tic­u­late Africa will re­flect the rich di­ver­sity of voices. To bor­row the ti­tle of Dur­ban writer Deepak Pan­day’s book, The Kings of Dur­ban, at this year’s Ar­tic­u­late Africa are two Sun­day Times Prize win­ners in Masande Nt­shanga (The Re­ac­tive) and Si­fiso Mzobe (Young Blood). The lat­ter also won the Wole Soyinka Prize, the Her­man Charles Bos­man Award and the SALA award as a first­time pub­lished au­thor.

Added to this, Dur­ban has not seen so many Afrikaans writ­ers in al­most a decade: Eti­enne van Heer­den, con­sid­ered the great­est Afrikaans nov­el­ist of his gen­er­a­tion; new kid on the block Hemelbe­sem (what a stage name!) and Deon Meyer, prob­a­bly among the top crime writ­ers in the world.

Then there is Greg Mari­novich, this year’s Alan Pa­ton Prize win­ner for his book on Marikana.

And more in such prize-win­ning au­thors as Kobus Mool­man, Carol Mashigo, Chris Mann, Ron­nie Goven­der, Gcina Mhlophe, Fred Khumalo, cou­pled with literati of the cal­i­bre of Jonathan Jansen, Chris Ni­chol­son, Ash­win De­sai, Bon­gani Madondo and many more. Al­most 80 in to­tal.

But no fes­ti­val can af­ford to be in­su­lar. While we want to show the world how ar­tic­u­late Africa is, we want to be in­vig­o­rated by voices from dis­tant shores.

Lead­ing the in­ter­na­tional brigade is Chris Mer­rill, di­rec­tor of the In­ter­na­tional Writ­ing Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­sity of Iowa, a man who has con­ducted cul­tural diplo­macy mis­sions to more than 50 coun­tries and who, in April 2012, was ap­pointed by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama to the Na­tional Coun­cil on the Hu­man­i­ties.

Eliot Wein­berger de­scribes Mer­rill’s Self-Por­trait with Dog­wood (the book Mer­rill will speak on at Ar­tic­u­late Africa) as “an ar­bo­real mem­oir, an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal den­drol­ogy: Mer­rill, like the dog­wood seeds and seedlings, roams the planet, ap­pear­ing or paus­ing at un­ex­pected mo­ments in his­tory. The mi­grant trees sink their roots in var­i­ous for­eign soils; the man, though wan­der­ing, even in zones of war, re­mains rooted in the hu­mus of po­etry.”

And Luis Al­berto Ur­rea: “Christo­pher Mer­rill is a na­tional trea­sure, both as a writer and a global war­rior for lit­er­a­ture and wit­ness. In a fine ca­reer of mak­ing ex­quis­ite books, Self-Por­trait with Dog­wood might be his most mov­ing. Beauty rises from ev­ery page… A quiet clas­sic.”

An­drew Harding, the sec­ond in­ter­na­tional writer we want to pro­file, has been a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent since 1991, liv­ing in Moscow, Tbil­isi, Nairobi, Sin­ga­pore, Bangkok and Johannesburg. His re­port­ing for BBC News has won him many awards, in­clud­ing a US Emmy. This is what some lit­er­ary lu­mi­nar­ies have said about The Mayor of Mo­gadishu, Harding’s first book.

“I can’t rec­om­mend this book enough. Writ­ten by one of the best for­eign cor­re­spon­dents of the past 25 years. An ex­cep­tional lit­er­ary achieve­ment.” – Euse­bius McKaiser, Ra­dio 702.

“Africa can be ex­plained in dry prose, in fig­ures, in news­pa­per re­ports; or it can be ex­plained, as An­drew Harding does in this book, through an as­ton­ish­ing per­sonal story, vivid and ut­terly mem­o­rable. This is a tri­umph of a book: sur­pris­ing, in­for­ma­tive, and hu­mane.” – Au­thor Alexan­der Mc­Call Smith.

There is also a star on the rise: Win­nie M Li. Win­nie M Li is an au­thor and ac­tivist around the is­sue of sex­ual as­sault. Her de­but novel, Dark Chap­ter, was pub­lished in the UK in June. Partly in­spired by her own as­sault, it ex­plores a rape from the per­spec­tive of vic­tim and per­pe­tra­tor. The book is cur­rently short­listed for The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize, and will be pub­lished in more than nine lan­guages world­wide.

The Guardian de­scribes it thus: “A pow­er­ful de­but novel… A de­fi­ant re-telling of per­sonal trauma… A tense, dra­matic read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence… Con­veyed with skill and emo­tional force.”

These are just some of the high­lights of the up­com­ing Ar­tic­u­late Africa Book Fair at the Dur­ban ICC from Septem­ber 29 to Oc­to­ber 1. All talks are free.

And did I men­tion it will be the best lit­er­ary fes­ti­val of 2017? I hope to see book lovers, like let­ters on a page, at this year’s Ar­tic­u­late Africa Book Fair.

David was for­merly head of Afrikaans at the UKZN and is now head of English on the Pi­eter­mar­itzburg cam­pus. He is the founder of Book­town Rich­mond in the Ka­roo, an ex­pe­ri­enced cu­ra­tor of lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals in South Africa and the cu­ra­tor of this year’s Ar­tic­u­late Africa. He is in­terim di­rec­tor of Dur­ban’s bid for Unesco City of Lit­er­a­ture.

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