Darryl David, founder of the Midlands Literary Festival, ten years ago, commented on Saturday evening, “May I say that today was probably the greatest day in the history of the Midlands Literary Festival. A day befitting our 10th anniversary.”
200 book lovers filled the theatre at Fern Hill Hotel from early in the morning and quickly everyone was drawn into conversations about our country, with threads of truth, honesty and compassion all woven together to create a remarkable experience.
Fiona Snyckers opened proceedings with her reinterpretation of JM Coetzee’s novel Disgrace through the eyes of Lucy Lurie in her book Lacuna. “I didn’t believe that Lucy Lurie would have reacted in the way that JM Coetzee wrote. We do not have to sit back and accept the way Lucy’s rape was dealt with; it is possible to rewrite, there are different versions of the truth. Lacuna is a conversation with Disgrace.”
Julia Martin’s Blackridge House moved many to tears. The evocative smell of syringa blossoms, so familiar to many, in her story about going home. Jenny Button, who also grew up in Blackridge, came especially for Julia’s talk and stayed for the weekend. “I cannot believe that I have missed this festival for the last 9 years,” she said at tea time. Julia sold more books than any other author at the Festival.
Next up was Fred Khumalo who read part of the delightful title story from his book of short stories Talk of the Town. A vibrant collection, celebrating life in South Africa and being human in the world which explores identity and belonging – at times hilarious and at times gut-wrenching. “I loved the Afrocentric relatable stories. He captured well how many SA families lived in the 70s and 80’s with furniture repossessions the norm in the townships,” said Penz Malinga.
Confident young writer Zanele Njapha encouraged everyone to write, saying it was a gift one could give to the world. Zanele is passionate about empowering young people and encouraged aspirant writers to find their voice and overcome obstacles.
Elana Bregin commented “Zanele is such a treat to listen to… she will have you writing even if you don’t want to!”
On Friday afternoon, Zanele was part of the Young Writers Workshop for participants in the Young Authors Book Initiative (YABI). On Saturday morning, each participant received a certificate of recognition from Zanele as their first edition of the YABI book containing their stories was launched. Proud parents and teachers arrived to support the youngsters, who spoke of their reading and writing journeys. Lungile and Cuba Ikaneng are the initiators of this project and were pleased to have partnered with Mid Lit Fest. Read more about the YABI project here.
Lungile said “We’ve never experienced so much love and appreciation from strangers gathered in one room, all at the same time. Thank you MidLit for awarding us this opportunity. What a great weekend it was.”
Yabling, Seemeem Sayed of Howick Secondary School and author of Mother Earth “Hearing the authors personal experiences and how they use writing as a tool to integrate into their lives was very insightful. The organisation of the festival was excellent and the support from residents was superb, but I would have liked to see more participation from the youth.”
Pamela Mtshali from Mconjwana High School, author of My Neighbour, My Enemy “In the words of Zanele Njapha ‘It is selfish not to write if you have something to share, because writing is your gift to the world.’ The way the authors were telling their stories gave me the motivation I need to continue. I want to bring light to the world.”
Sisanda Mthembu from Injoloba High School, author of Hello Ameena “If I am ever given the chance to go back in time, I would choose 31 August 2019 because it was a lit day. I learnt you don’t need to be perfect in everything to become a writer and that you can make a story out of anything.”
Ashley Berejena from Injoloba High School author of Xenophobia in South Africa “The festival was full of different emotions, different stories by different authors. Meeting them was a great inspiration and gave me the courage to continue writing.”
During tea time, hot copies of the YABI book flew off the table, raising much-needed funds to continue their important work of inspiring the new generation of readers and writers.
Bridget Krone was utterly enchanted, “What struck me most was the delicious diversity of the programme: this festival comes in many flavours – delicate, outrageous, harrowing, tender, provocative, analytical, humane and kind. Each speaker gave us something beautiful. The presence of the Yablings definitely added a lively new element to the programme. In the tea break after their book launch, I saw three parents reading the YABI book in the garden radiating quiet pride and amazement. One mother was just stroking the page where her daughter’s name appeared. This is the magic of the published word.”
Thenjiwe Ngcobo was delighted that she had attended the festival. “I feel honoured to be part of this celebration and to find myself rubbing shoulders with such high profile people.”
Ekow Duker, who has worked as an oil field engineer, investment banker and corporate strategist has written a number of award-winning books. He told us that he feels compelled to write when there is a story that needs to be told. His latest novel Yellowbone is an enthralling story exploring identity, justice, deceit and truth.
Not only did the audience have a great time, but the authors did too. Participating throughout the day, asking questions, referring to earlier presentations and ensuring the thread of truth continued throughout the festival. A number commented that they liked being able to engage more fully with the audience in their own 30-minute slot rather than being part of a panel discussion. Ekow Duker said “A wonderfully, intimate event in a magical setting. I enjoyed every minute!”
Charming and energetic Siya Khumalo shared how once he accepted that he was gay and stopped beating himself up, “everything good in me started to blossom.” His book You have to be Gay to know God tackles the three taboos: religion, politics and sex and how the expectations of African cultures mingle with greed and colonial religion. “It is interesting to observe the mental gymnastics people do to justify their perspectives on these issues.”
“Not only is Siya Khumalo an activist for the LGBTQ community but an advocate for human rights in general. The theme of speaking up and against, instead of just going along, came up often,” observed Penz Malinga. Lindiwe Mkhize added, “Siya opened my mind to seeing a link between politics and religion which I had never thought were linked together.”
Steve Wimberley is a born storyteller. By day (and through some nights) he tends to small animals suffering from a host of ailments. Tales of Dr Grumble is a collection of twenty of stories which he’s told his friends around a campfire over the years. They encompass the joy as well as the sadness of being a veterinarian.
Hugh Bland talked with passion about the beautiful Trappist Missions of KZN and enlightened us on their religious practice. Astonishing to believe that they were able to build these architectural gems under a vow on silence. Afterwards, he sent this message “I was blown away by the hospitality, organization, attention to detail and of course, the diversity of subjects and authors. Events like this don’t just happen. They take a huge amount of organization and passion. I think your YABI initiative was great and the sharing spirit among authors so encouraging. Thank you for a truly memorable event.”
Ex-Bishop Peter Storey , author of I Beg to Differ reminded us that Robert Sobukwe was a Methodist preacher and spoke of the role of mission education in the fight against apartheid. He shared memories of District Six forced removals with a trembling voice and lamented the fact that the church is no longer the force for good that it used to be in South Africa.
Afterwards, Peter said “It was my first Midlands Literary festival, and I was blown away by the kindness, warmth and appreciation shown by so many people. You have achieved something very beautiful – the sheer variety and excellence of presentations was quite remarkable.”
Yvonne Spain was moved. “There were times when the humanity of many the authors and their willingness to express in their books and in public, their vulnerability, unexpectedly moved me to tears. I think the venue encouraged a real connection with the authors whose sincerity as South Africans and commitment to the country at this time presented an alternative to the current dire headlines and endless commissions of enquiry. The diversity of genres – biographies, autobiographies, commentaries and analysis, detective and romantic stories, travelogues, cookery books, short stories were as diverse as the authors and this diversity was also reflected in the audience who were deeply engaged and appreciative of the opportunity to listen at such close quarters to authors of national and international renown . The presence of the young people through the Young Authors Book Initiative added another and positive dimension to the programme. The serious and sincere way in which the authors addressed the YABIs was an act of respect by all the authors.
Ralph Mathekga surprised many with his unassuming manner and razor-sharp intellect. He laughed when someone suggested they had been expecting a dour, besuited, middle-aged man “I am South Africa’s greatest disappointment!” He is a respected political analyst and academic, who writes in an accessible manner. In his latest book Ramaphosa’s turn: Can Cyril save South Africa? he turns his attention to the pressing question of whether Ramaphosa can pull South Africa out of the quagmire of state capture, poverty and corruption.
Spha Mabaso was thrilled to meet Ralph. “The festival experience is a gathering of knowledge lovers and a platform to influence minds and change them. I loved the openness of people – it shows they are free thinkers and that gives me hope for a better South Africa.”
Desiree-Anne Martin shared her heart-wrenching story of abuse and addiction. We don’t Talk about this. Ever. “This is my truth, I am very vulnerable right now. But the more we open up our hearts, fearing we will lose ourselves, the stronger we become together.” The rawness of her talk will be remembered for years to come.
Lindiwe Mkhize “We often believe that an abusive situation will pass with time. We became fearful of being weak and getting help for healing. Our communities only recognise the mental health issues that are obvious but we rarely pay attention to depression and anxiety. Desiree-Anne gave me the strength to hope that those using drugs or under the influence of alcohol can still make it if only they have the choice to do so and start the journey of healing.”
Richard Hunt, KwaZulu-Natal farmer, conservationist and photographer has always had a deep love for the Drakensberg mountains. His gorgeous book The Spirit of the Drakensberg captured the magnificent mountains in all their glory, with evocative photographs depicting the entire Drakensberg range, providing an unprecedented overview of the region.
The last speaker on Saturday was much anticipated – Ronnie Kasrils. His memoir Catching Tadpoles (to be launched in November – including in Howick) not only recalled the time he spent with his grandmother as a young boy catching tadpoles – but the tadpoles also represented the elusive, slippery, hard to catch memories. He related how it was his mother who kept his mind open, allowing him to explore the world without the prejudice that dominated white society and giving him the freedom to abandon a life of privilege for the role of life long rebel.
“Remember the child is father to the man,” he said. “If you are able to make your own choices, you are a free man” he quoted philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. “I have seen great growth in our society; people are finally reflecting humanity in arts and literature.” Ronnie loved his time at MidLitFest, saying, “the audience, the MidLit team and fellow presenters of all ages give great hope for the beloved country! I am privileged to have been part of it.”
Lindiwe Mkhize was impressed “I appreciated his sharing what impacted on his life, that his mom was the role model who instilled boldness to do that which is right. His mother’s advice changed his life for the better.”
Antonia Mkhabela was enthralled. “The festival made me love Howick more – Howick rocks! It was a life-changing journey. It changed the way I perceive the authors – their brilliant ideas, the energy and passion they put in their books. Having an opportunity to see and hear them in person made me connect deeply with the books they had written, developing my love of reading as well as enticing young people to read more books. Ronnie’s presentation made me feel that there were tadpoles battling in my head that needed to be transformed into frogs.”
Farmer Kemsley Wood said afterwards, “I never thought I would ever go to literature festival but, we couldn’t possibly miss Saturday afternoon to listen to Ralph Mathegka (political commenter and analyst) and Ronnie Kasrils (ANC icon – the old school version). I love reading about and following the drama that is South African politics. But the talk that affected Megan and I the most was Desiree Anne Martin. Talking about her upbringing and the absolutely horrific ordeals she went through in a so-called ‘perfect family”. It made us realize what a privileged and sheltered life we both grew up in. What an enjoyable afternoon.”
“I felt very privileged to be part of the 10th Midlands Literary Festival. It is one of the moments in my life which is far too significant to be hidden. The festival was very powerful and thought-provoking and provided deep insights into the importance of literacy in society. I had inspiring encounters with book lovers and respected authors from across the country. I learned to take advantage of cultural diversity instead of treating it as a problem. As an author of a non-published manuscript I learned many things which will sharpen me, as the saying, ‘Iron sharpens iron’.” enthused Nomawele Njongo.
Penny Purchase was disappointed that she could only attend the Saturday afternoon session – but thrilled with what she heard. “WOW! Each presentation was brilliant in its way. I was exposed to so many new ideas from people of the rainbow nation. Peter Storey was so eloquent. Desiree gave an emotional, heart-rendering expose of an addict. Ronnie Kasrils showed his strength as a master raconteur. When I arrived home at 6 pm, I said to my husband, “I’ve had so much food for thought, I can’t eat dinner… but I’ll cook for you!” I thought it very reasonable at R100 per session. I’ve had such good reports from many people – so please keep going with this special festival!”
Khara-Jade Warren “I had such an inspiring and refreshing morning at the festival. I soaked in the insights and themes raised by each speaker, from the thought-provoking and profound to the light-hearted and playful. As a writer and editor working mainly in the online space, and particularly with American readers and writers, it reinvigorated me to spend a whole half a day listening exclusively to African and South African voices and stories. I could almost feel my roots sinking a little deeper into South African soil.”
Martin Prozesky opened the Sunday morning session speaking about Truth – the thread that wove its way through the entire festival. “Those who do not live by the truth become the enemy of truth. We need to insist on the sacredness of truth, to embrace the truth and stand up for it, speak it, live it,” he said. Martin thought the Festival was a wonderfully rich experience in all sorts of ways.
Siya Khumalo likened the festival gathering to church – “packed to almost overflowing (without it being claustrophobic), we were treated to a series of brilliant, passionate speakers who kept returning to the same theme: truth-telling. It’s worth starting to save up for next year’s instalment (and for all the books); it’s an investment in your career and in your artillery as an active citizen.”
Chris Hoare introduced us to his father ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare and shared startling stories of truckloads of artillery arriving at their home in Hilton, visits from CIA and Mike’s pardon from prison by PW Botha. At the end of his presentation, Bill Daly stood in the audience and introduced himself as the attorney who had defended Mike during his trial regarding the Seychelles coup! One of the many moments of special connections that took place throughout the weekend.
Carol Addis commented “I have never attended the MidLitFest before and it was completely different from my expectation. No way I pictured myself staying the whole day and no way would I have expected every author to be so spiritually uplifting. Even ‘Mad Mike’ came across completely differently to the character I had followed vaguely through the news – a mercenary who was never my idea of ‘a gentle soul’. The day went by too quickly. It was uplifting, inspiring and uBuntu came through loud and clear from all who spoke.”
Elana Bregin spoke about ‘Not Being Wanted on the Voyage’, the challenges of getting fiction published in South Africa and its important role. “Fiction is the mirror held up to society – it is more than fabrication, an imaginary story, it is well-observed reality married to the imagination. Fiction speaks in the voice of collective truth.” All copies of her newest novel The Antbear Cabin were sold at the festival.
“I wish we could bottle Elana – her depth of understanding, her knowledge of writing and deep connection to our society,” commented Karen Worth, “the entire weekend was absolute bliss.” Elana thought that this year’s Midlands Literary Festival was the best out of all that she had attended. “Such great energy, interesting diversity of talks, new friends and contacts. Sorry for those who missed it this year. Only 360ish days till the next one!”
Self-taught writer Gloria Keverne achieved her life’s dream 34 years ago when her first novel become an international bestseller. She’d left school at age 15, married at 18 and started writing immediately. A Man Cannot Cry was born in the little town of Luanshya, on the Roan Antelope Copper Mine which employed her father and husband in colonial Northern Rhodesia. An ex-editor of LIFE magazine, the legendary New York Agent, Julian Bach, called the book the finest first novel he’d read in his almost 50 years in the literary world. Her new novel Broken Wing looks set to follow a similar trajectory.
Izak de Vries (LAPA publishers) spoke to Hannes Barnard, J.L. Powers and Luke Molver about their representation of Africa’s past and present. These three authors have, between them, written five books about Zulu-speaking people overcoming imperialism, slavery and the ravages of apartheid. The conversation examined the question of cultural appropriation and whether or not writers should be limited to writing within their own cultures. Luke Molver launched his graphic novel/comic Shaka Zulu – The Legend at the festival. He explained that his research had embraced oral myths, which often had changed over time according to the teller, the written history by colonial with hidden agendas, and that his portrayal of Shaka may surprise some people who had a set view. J.L. Powers spoke about her work exploring social issues involving violence, sexuality and race set in Imbali in Pietermaritzburg where she had spent time living with a local family. Hannes Barnard said of his book Halley se Komeet – “writing it was a journey, I didn’t know how it would turn out when I started. “
Marketing guru, Khaya Dlanga told us that his books had the dubious honour of being the most stolen books in South Africa. “It’s OK. I want to get people to read. To appeal to those who have not picked up a book before. People are hungry for stories.” Cleverly, the cover of his latest book – These Things Really do Happen to Me – is a shot of his Instagram account – the social media platform where young people spend most of their time, and the chapters are short so that before the reader knows it, he is halfway through the book. He shares stories from the rural Eastern Cape where he grew up and was the youngest person able to speak English in his community, which was cause for much fascination. “All the men were away working on the mines, so the women would ask me to read the letters from them and dictate letters for me to write in return. I think that because I was a child, they believed I wouldn’t understand all the scandalous things they were saying!”
Themba Zakwe had particularly looked forward to meeting Khaya. “Being at the MidLitFest was such an insightful experience for me. I was able to escape to the wonderful world of literature and was reminded once again why books play such an important role in society. The small and intimate set up at the Festival ensured that we could directly engage with authors which is something I value so much. MidLitFest was amazing.”
Regular MidLitFest fan Jeanette Stewart was impressed at the diversity of authors, stories and attendees this year. “It was all put together so professionally -the organisation of the event and the presentations.”
Peter Church, crime fiction writer based in Cape Town, thoroughly enjoyed his visit to the Midlands. He recommended that every writer get hold of a copy of The Elements of Style – first published in 1918 – and read their work aloud to get a real feel of the flow of the story.
Mogau Seshoene was an auditor before she chucked it in for cooking school. “My father was horrified! He thought I was having a 1/4 life crisis!” Trying to show the gorgeous food photos from her best selling book The Lazy Makoti (published by Quivertree), while holding the mike, was a challenge. Up leapt gallant Khaya Langa to hold the book on her behalf. “Who needs a projector when you have a Khaya?” she quipped.
Andrea Nattrass (Pan McMillan), commended Mogau for the effort she put into promoting her book – attending festivals, giving talks, having a vibrant social media presence – which all help to ensure this cookbook outsells Jamie Oliver in South Africa. “Pan MacMillan has been a part of the Midlands Literary Festival from the very beginning. What a pleasure it has been to see it go from strength to strength. This year’s tenth festival surpassed all expectations – both in terms of the diverse and engaging authors and the considerable audience that was so appreciative of every author’s story.” Andrea commented.
Xola Sibisi had come especially to hear Mogau speak, but loved the entire festival. “I found it revitalising. I loved how diverse it was in terms of content, speakers and the people who came to the to support the event. Also, I loved how we were not limiting ourselves – both speakers and the audience addressed issues that people often find hard to talk about and choose not to talk about, but that affect our country as a whole.”
Sonje Kruse – the uBuntu Girl delivered the Ian Player Memorial Lecture. Her presentation echoed with honesty and humility. “Knock, knock,” she called at strange doorways across the country during her (almost) year-long journey, “I am Sonja, I am hungry and have nowhere to sleep tonight. I am a white girl who wants to learn about uBuntu. Can you help?”
She explained “uBuntu is not about my space or your space. It is about our space. This book is about a journey of discovering and exploring how we can better use this space to share one another’s stories with open hearts and open minds. I learnt that one never comes with nothing, you come with everything you are to every situation. Sometimes I was a little afraid, during my journey, but I told myself that I was the keeper of these stories. I had to keep going and keep them safe.”
uMuntu ngumuntu ngabantu – people are people through other people.
Poems and Music for the Nature Hungry Soul was the title for John Roff’s slot on Saturday afternoon – and he certainly delivered. Reading from his own work as well as David Whyte, Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry, and playing handmade instruments powered by breath – a wooden flute and a metal Jewish harp or istolotolo. We were transfixed by his dexterous playing of the Kalimba finger piano, the beautiful sound echoing around the room. “South Africans have deep connections to the land. That is the place where all creativity comes from”. John particularly appreciated the range of viewpoints and lenses that came together at the festival.
Debra Anderson was inspired to write a poem of her own after the festival.
This Magnificent, Written Word
So many people gathered, in one place,
We came, with our histories, our pasts laid bare.
This eclectic group; some greatly esteemed
Some, humble, ordinary even, at first glance.
Yet, the truth of it all; being so extra-ordinary and rare
The sharing and the telling, of dreams and lost hope.
Deceits and lies, the profits and the losses
All were held safe, elevated, prized and sacred.
Reverential devotion, to the purpose of preservation
Of a world that gave us birth; whilst we incubate its destruction.
In this place, all is allowed, all is hallowed; the vile with the beautiful
Simply, because of the honouring of this magnificent, written word.
We put together a special thank you bag of local produce for foodie Erica Platter who shared her latest food storybook Durban Curry Up2Date. She was delighted. “The organising team’s excellence was evident everywhere, including in the finest goodie-bag I, as a speaker, have ever received. I am allergic to Midlands winters after 7 years of boarding school in those unforgettably icy mists. But I do love everything else. Thank you for inviting me.”
Ashwin Desai closed the festival with a brilliant analysis of George Orwell’s 1984 and the state of SA politics. It was a scorching critique that would have had the ANC and EFF walking on coals. Mark de Wet remarked “The calibre of the authors/speakers this year were each, unique, interesting, thought-provoking and downright brilliant. I had only committed myself to attend one session and ended up attending all four sessions right through to the last utterly incredible speech by Ashwin Desai. Would I miss the Festival next year? If I am dead, take my coffin please.”
Michelle Sciacca, Lori Peterson and Kim Broughton held a storytelling session in Fern Hill Chapel on Sunday afternoon for children. Michelle was very grateful to be part of the festival. “Two jam-packed days of authors sharing their writing journeys, life stories, insights, opinions and so, so much more both on stage and off. I loved meeting so many diverse and inspiring authors, all filled with the most amazing desire to share!”
Regular festival attendee Ross Haynes has the final word. “Every year the Midlands LitFest has enthralled, enthused and inspired me. The 2019 10th Anniversary MidLitFest certainly did not let me down! After Darryl’s closing words on Sunday I commented that it is such a pity that occasions like this must come to an end. This MidLitFest was surely even more varied and deeper than previous gatherings. What struck me deeply was the plaintive voice that I heard calling our attention to the plight of our being, along with an overwhelming concern about our country. From the environment to religion, to spirituality, to our political landscape. To the ever-present need to bridge the gap between our peoples. And all along with the meaning of truth woven into the discourse. So many of the authors spoke on these issues – The MidLitFest was a veritable ‘call to action’.
I was reminded of Ian McCullum, where, in his book ‘Ecological Intelligence’, he wrote: ‘When we no longer shudder at the ecological warning calls of science, it would seem that the only voice left that can awaken us belongs to the poets.’ I transposed ‘ecological warning calls’ with ‘societal warning calls’ and added authors to McCullum’s poets, as in the body of artists, or creatives, as the last voices of reason and those that speak for our healing. The depth of the Midlands LitFest authors’ sharing was profound and deeply moving. We live in an interesting time where the authors’ voices are the ones that speak the truths of which most are so aware, yet remain silent. Thank you to the LitFest organisers for their role in surfacing this important voice. I treasure the stimulation that the LitFest offers me in what is often a rather mundane existence, keeping my head above water in a demanding world. My cup is filled for another year!”
Much gratitude to publishers Shuter & Shuter, Pan McMillan, NB and Lapa for supporting many of the authors to be at the festival. Thank you to Exclusive Books for their popup store that enabled many to take the part of the festival home to savour.
Diarise now: 5 and 6 September 2020. When we will once again hear voices, both presenters and audience, all contributing to creating a truthful, meaningful conversation between all kinds of South Africans.