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Archive for the ‘Open Book Festival’ Category

Pretend you are in a dark room: Elnathan John presents 3 questions to ask yourself to avoid the pitfalls of identity politics in writing

Writers should pretend they are going into a dark room and move delicately, slowly, carefully so that they do not disrupt the balance of things. – Elnathan John

Elnathan John’s 3 questions to avoid the pitfalls of cultural appropriation in writing

Born on a TuesdayElnathan John shared his three rules for writing about other people’s experiences and communities.

John was a guest of the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, to chat about his debut novel, Born on a Tuesday.

Born on a Tuesday is a coming of age tale about a young Muslim boy who left his home to study Islam and ended up joining a gang of street kids. He and his friends are recruited to cause trouble during an election, and when violence breaks out he is forced to flee. He finds shelter at a mosque run by a kindly imam who takes a liking to him.

The book has earned praise all over the world and from some high profile authors and critics, including Petina Gappah, Taiye Selasi and Uzodinma Iweala. John was also recently shortlisted for the Nigeria Prize for Literature – along with Chika Unigwe for Night Dancer and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim for Season of Crimson Blossoms – an award worth $100,000 (about R1,4 million).

John grew up in northern Nigeria, but is not Muslim himself. At a panel titled Notions of Nationhood, where he shared the stage with Danish-Norwegian novelist Kim Leine, chair Andrew Brown asked him: “Are we entitled to write about other communities, other nations, from our own perspective?”

The question was topical, as We Need to Talk About Kevin author Lionel Shriver had caused a walkout just days before at the Brisbane Writers Festival in Australia with her keynote address, “Fiction and Identity Politics”, which many other writers considered culturally insensitive.

Elnathan John at the 2016 Open Book FestivalIn answering Brown’s question, John asked: “Is anyone entitled to anything? Does any experience belong solely to one person?”, and shared a story from his childhood to illustrate his point.

“My brother died in 2003. One of the biggest issues I had with my family was that at some point my parents were upset that I seemed to be grieving more than other people. It was almost like they were saying, ‘He was our child, we raised him, we gave birth to him, we put him through school. We have a greater loss than you. You cannot mourn more than us. Stop being a complete asshole.’

“And so the question that has always been in my mind is, to whom does any experience belong?

“I didn’t think I owned this experience, but I thought I was an integral part of it, being that I removed his body from the water, I did mouth to mouth; the last moments of his life were in my hands. I thought, well, I certainly should have a right to this experience. But even in this very close experience, I was being challenged. So you can challenge any experience.

“For me, what is important is not whether a person owns an experience they want to write about. Most experiences are external to us. If you have a female character and you are male, that experience is external to you. If you are writing about other nations, they’re external to you. Even if you are writing about your own nation, most of the experiences will be those you’ve not had.”

John said that instead of agonising over who the experience belongs to, writers should consider three questions before they start writing a story.

“What a writer needs is a certain level of empathy that allows us to show respect for the subject. That empathy, normally, would lead people to determine for themselves: One, if they should write a story. Two, if it is time to write that story. And three, how that story should be written, with the respect that it deserves. And if one cannot answer these three questions, then one should not write the story.

“Often people tell writers to write what they know. I like to say the writer should write what they want to know. What that does is that it pushes you into a dark space. And in a dark space you are more careful.

“Writers should pretend they are going into a dark room and move delicately, slowly, carefully so that they do not disrupt the balance of things.”

Read an excerpt from Born on a Tuesday here

Jennifer Malec (@projectjennifer) tweeted live from the event:

Main author image courtesy of Elnathan John on Twitter; image composite by Books LIVE/Secondary author image Retha Ferguson

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‘The Zulu part of me was taken’ – Nomavenda Mathiane tells her grandmother’s story, beginning as a child during the Anglo-Zulu War

nomavenda mathiane


Eyes in the Night

In Eyes in the Night, respected journalist and author Nomavenda Mathiane tells the story of her grandmother, who was a child during the Anglo-Zulu War.

Mathiane is at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, where she shared a panel with Daniel Browde, author of The Relatively Public Life Of Jules Browde, and Marianne Thamm, whose memoir Hitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and Me was recently released.

Mathiane explained how she “stumbled” into her grandmother’s story.

“My mother died when I was about 66 years old,” she said, “and after her funeral we were seated at the table with my brothers and sisters, and casually I turned to my older sister, and I said ‘Mum never used to tell us about her mother, why is it so?’ And frankly I didn’t think she was going to answer me, but lo and behold she said, ‘It’s because her mother’s story was too sad.’”

Mathiane says she remembers her grandmother as an imposing and capable presence, but her early years were far more precarious.

“I knew gogo as this big woman who could make cheese, could make butter, could make soap. All the things we could not afford, because my parents were officers in the Salvation Army, so there wasn’t much money around.

“But my sister told me that gogo was 10 during the Anglo-Zulu War. She was hiding in the caves with her mother and her little sister. Her father, who was the chief inDuna of King Cetshwayo, was killed during the war, and when they went back their land had been taken, their homes had been destroyed, she doesn’t have a father, her mother doesn’t have a husband. Then the Zulu culture kicks in. The brother must marry her mother. She says, no ways. They make her uncomfortable, and they flee the homestead.”

There began an extraordinary story, and Mathiane says she felt shocked that she had never heard it before.

“My sister was telling me this, and I couldn’t take it. My mother had died without telling us these stories. When you look at how her mother suffered, you realise that the story was too painful. But more than that, we were growing up in the 70s and the Struggle was gaining momentum. Between themselves my father and my mother decided that they mustn’t tell us the story, because because we would get so angry that we would walk straight into the liberation movements. But we ended up getting involved anyway; you couldn’t live in the township and not get involved.”

Mathiane says at times while writing the book she felt angry that a part of her culture and history had been denied her.

“The story of my grandmother has been a journey for me. I grew up in the townships, and I knew very little about Zulu ways. I’d never been to Zululand except on the occasional visit. Even Zulu language, I knew Zulu as a spoken language, but in a language there are idioms and expressions that I wasn’t familiar with. Of course I had heard of the Battle of Isandlwana, but I never knew about the warriors, the generals, what actually happened.

“The sad part is that our parents didn’t talk to us about these things. So the book took me to various areas. Sometimes I would get so angry that I was denied, I was impoverished by being raised in the township. Because there’s a part of me that was cut off, that I didn’t know about. It was just a Christian upbringing, period. And yet there was the other side of me, the African in me, that was never discussed. None of the Zulu rituals were performed. We were Christian girls. The Zulu part of me was taken.”

Mathiane says she hopes her book helps to “inculcate a sense of questioning”.

“Young children, both black and white, must question their parents, their grandparents: where do we come from? You cannot know where you are going, if you don’t know where you come from. It’s time that we told our own narratives. This is the first book of the victims of the Ango-Zulu War. Nobody has ever written about what ordinary Zulu people went through. I would implore you to talk to your children.”

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Open Book Festival shortlisted for London Book Fair International Excellence Award

Alert! The Open Book Festival has been shortlisted for a 2016 London Book Fair International Excellence Award in the category Literary Festivals.

The other events up for The Literary Festival Award are The Krakow Festival (Poland), Flupp (Brazil) and FLIP (Festa Literaria Internacional de Paraty) (Brazil).

“It is an honour we share with all the authors who have joined us and given so much during events over the years,” the Open Book organisers said on their website. “And of course, the audiences who have been so vital in transforming discussions into meaningful engagement on so many different topics.

Other awards include The Bookstore of the Year Award, The Publishers Weekly Literary Translation Initiative Award, a number of publishers’ awards and The Bookseller Adult Trade Publisher Award.

London Book Fair director Jacks Thomas said: “Now in their third year, the LBF International Excellence Awards are a one-stop showcase for some fantastic innovation and sheer determination to get books and content into the hands of consumers in a variety of classical and creative ways. Just looking at the shortlists makes me want to shout a big three cheers for the global publishing industry and all who work in it!”

The Open Book Festival is held annually in Cape Town.

Congratulations from Books LIVE!

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2015 Open Book Festival Round-up

The 2015 Open Book Festival took place in Cape Town from 9 – 13 September this year. Have a look at some of the big event reports:

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“I Wanted People to Hate Me!” – Nakhane Toure Chats about Killing off His Characters at the Open Book Festival

Nakhane Toure

Piggy Boy's BluesNakhane Touré and his publisher Thabiso Mahlape chatted to Mervyn Sloman about Touré’s new novel, Piggy Boy’s Blues, at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town recently.

Piggy Boy’s Blues is the first novel to be published under Jacana Media’s new imprint BlackBird Books, which, as Mahlape explained, will focus on black writers and black stories.

“I have got questions from a lot of people asking, ‘Why only black narratives?’,” Mahlape said, “but, as I said to a journalist from the Financial Times in New York, I don’t think that’s a valid question. But that article never saw the light of day.

“Anyone that knows the history of our country, anyone that knows the history of our literary landscape – something that’s been heatedly contested this year alone – will know that we don’t have enough black writers, and that is what we inherited as a country.”

Mahlape says Piggy Boy’s Blues exemplifies the work she is hoping to do. “Nakhane was turned down by other publishers, but aspects of his story resonated with me, so for me it was a ‘yes’ from the beginning.”

Touré’s debut album Brave Confusion won a South African Music Award for Best Alternative Album last year, but he started writing long before his music career took off. “It’s just that music happened to become more successful!” he said.

On the different creative processes, Touré said he finds music more collaborative and more conducive to the exchange of ideas, while writing is much more solitary.

“With writing, you spend so much time alone”, he said. “And you have to understand your characters as individuals. It’s almost like method acting, where you have to go back and remember something awful that happened to you when you were seven years old, and how it made you feel, which is not necessarily healthy.”

Touré mentioned an early conversation he had with Mahlape about the dialogue in the novel. “We said the dialogue was too normal for prose that was so lyrical,” Mahlape agreed.

But the clash between lyricism and realism is what Touré insists he set out to achieve: “I personally do not believe it when I’m reading a novel and someone is speaking in such considered dialogue. Who speaks like that? So I was going for some form of … postmodern realism, if that makes any sense.”

Touré says he was tempted to kill off his main character Davide, which was another thing he and Mahlape had a number of 2 AM conversations about.

“I had no real good reason to kill Davide except the I wanted to affect the reader,” he said. “That’s how it is when you write, sometimes. You make a decision because you want to make people cry and hate you.

“When I was in my first band we had a rule: The song comes first. And I realised that that rule is similar to writing a book. The character comes first, the storyline comes first. Not your shock tactics. But my decision to kill my character had nothing to do with the character, it had nothing to do with the story, it had everything to do with me, as Nakhane. And that’s something my editor, Alison Lowry, has helped me with.”

Sloman pointed out the delicate way Touré treated his characters. “Homosexuality is at the centre of everything that happens in the book,” he said, “and the thing that isn’t there is the reaction against that. At no point are any of the characters dealing with homophobia.”

Touré says Njabulo Ndebele’s landmark 1991 essay “The Rediscovery of the Ordinary” was an influence on this aspect of the novel.

“I wanted to normalise homosexuality without going, ‘Hey! I’m normalising it.’ Because the moment you say that, you are not normalising it. You’re othering it.”

“The three main characters have a very strange relationship, but it’s not strange because they’re gay,” Sloman said.

“Exactly,” Touré replied.

Touré also commented on the fact that some readers’ reports, before the book was published, categorised it as “queer literature”. “I honour the fact that there are queer characters in this novel, but when does something become queer literature, when the writer is queer, or when the characters are queer? Usually when the writer is queer, bookshops put it in a corner behind the business section where nobody will see it.

“When I was finishing this novel I read a lot of supposedly queer literature. I’ve read A Single Man, I’ve read Giovanni’s Room, and many others, so I understand the tradition. But to rebel against this tradition.”

Touré says he did not want to write another story about a young gay man rejected by his family who ends up living on the street and working as a prostitute.

“Not that I don’t think those stories are important, they are, and they helped me,” he said. “But I did want to make homosexuality a central theme in the novel, but just in a different way. I wanted my characters to be complex.”

Touré also revealed how an earlier draft of the novel was slated in a reader’s report, which contained the line: “If it was up to me I wouldn’t publish this.”

“Being me, I thought ‘I’ll show you!’,” Touré said. He cut the novel down significantly and, among other things, shortened the chapter length. “I wanted it to be more punchy and accessible,” he says.

“Well I think it achieves that, absolutely,” Sloman said.


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Jennifer Malec (@projectjennifer) tweeted from the event:



Photographs from Open Book 2015:

Photos from the third day of the 2015 Open Book Festival, happening in Cape Town from 9 – 13 SeptemberBooks LIVE…

Posted by Books LIVE on Saturday, 12 September 2015

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The Most Explosive Event of Open Book 2015: Xolela Mangcu, Hlonipha Mokoena, Crain Soudien, Ashraf Jamal Debate the Complexity of Race (Plus: Podcast)

Crain Soudien and Xolela Mangcu

The diversity of opinions present on stage at the Open Book Festival during the conversation on race illustrated the complexity of this important issue.

As the audience began to leave at the end of the event, the panel continued the discussion – on their feet. A recording is available to listen to below.

Xolela MangcuBikoThe Colour of Our FutureXolela Mangcu, editor of the new Wits Press book The Colour of Our Future, was joined by contributors Hlonipa Mokoena and Crain Soudien in a session chaired by Ashraf Jamal – who kicked off the fiery debate by saying he is “bored of this depressing topic”.

Mangcu disagreed: “First of all I have to liberate myself from his frame. His frame is not my frame. I don’t find race depressing. I don’t find it to be something that we should not be talking about, at all. The whole idea is that we have different ways of thinking of these things, and that was the idea behind the book: to find contrasting perceptions of race.”

Referring to Steve Biko’s interpretation of race, Mangcu stated: “We as South Africans can create a society in which we do not have to deny race, where it is not a biological concern, but as he [Steve Biko] defined it – race as a political concept, and as a cultural concept.”

He summarised his views on race, largely relying on Biko’s construction of what it means to be black, and stated that modern movements like Rhodes Must Fall “are talking about race in a way that Steve Biko would never recognise”.

He went on to say: “They are talking about blackness as gendered, as queer. For me that is what a political understanding of race is: That it is always contextual, always responding to the moment, but it’s never biological. And the idea that it is biological is a straw argument that people bring up.”

Mangcu stressed that talking about blackness is not making a call for the return of apartheid identities. “We are not bringing back apartheid identities. We are bringing what Biko said, and what Biko said actually undermined apartheid identities because he said ‘no, we are not coloured, we are not Indian, we are black people’; and he provided a political definition.”

In closing his introduction, Mangcu made an important observation, similar to that which features on the back cover of The Colour of Our Future: “Our identities are important, but our identities are not all that we are as human beings. We are not just black, or women or gay, or whatever. Those identities are important, but there’s obviously something that is much bigger than those identities and that is something that Biko is trying to achieve with his notion of a joint culture. He is not the first one to do so!”

Crain SoudienAt this point Soudien, who contributed the essay titled “Interogating transformation in South African higher education” to The Colour of Our Future, was integrated into the conversation.

“Let me say quite emphatically … that non-racialism is not dead. It’s really important to be clear about what non-racialism is. We come to think that non-racialism started in 1956, when the ANC adopted the freedom charter, but it’s actually older,” Soudien explained. He went on to say that the way in which the concept of race was constructed as early as the 17th century is so toxic that we, as a society, will never be able to recover from it. The idea that what you look like has a deep signification of what you are is so absurd, yet it is impossible to get away from, the academic explained.

Soudien made a call for the celebration of differences, for people to see that “the fact that I look different to you is a great thing”. However, he believes that we should stop turning race into a value, “which comes to count in the economy of culture”. He rejects the notion that looks, and most importantly skin colour, should dictate identity – much to Manqcu’s chagrin.

Hlonipa Mokoena

Mokoena offered a very different view at this point, describing the way we see race as a phantom limb which does not exist. She explained this concept, which she discusses at length in her contribution to Mangcu’s book on race:

“Race in South Africa is our phantom limb. We are aching for it precisely because it’s just not there. We look down, and we cannot see race but we ache for it. It’s a kind of internalised aching for the presence of race in our lives, in our workplace, in the way that we talk about each other.”

Mokoena believes that race and conversations about it are only important to academics and have become an intellectual debate rather than a lived experience. Mokeona went on to say: “Ordinary people, throughout the century, have always disregarded race. Ordinary people have got many more problems that do not obey racial identities.”

Unsurprisingly this controversial, albeit fresh, take on race in a country as racialised as ours did not sit well with everyone. What followed on from the introductions to the three contrasting views on race in a post-apartheid South Africa was a fascinating, passionate debate that ultimately deserved more than just the one hour allocated to it.

For a better understanding of what the three academics were trying to get across, and more of Jamal’s contribution, listen to a recording of the conversation:


Helené Prinsloo brought the conversation to us live from The Fugard Theatre, using the hashtag #OBF2015:



The Colour of Our Future: Does race matter in post-apartheid South Africa? – edited by Mangcu with contributions by the likes of Soudien, Mokoena, Joel Netshitenzhe, Lawrence Blum, Mark Swilling, Nina G Jablonski, Steven Friedman, Suren Pillay, and Vusi Gumede – aims to shed light on the complexity of our racial identities and the overarching things that influence it.


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2015 Open Book Festival: And That’s a Wrap

Antjie Krog and Mathews Phosa


The Chameleon HouseWe Are All Completely Beside OurselvesThe Alphabet of BirdsInvisible OthersChants of FreedomNever Tickle a Tiger
The House That Jack BuiltForeign Gods, Inc.This One TimeDub Steps

Sunday was the final day of the 2015 Open Book Festival, but the intrepid Books LIVE team kept its foot on the pedal to bring you the events as they happened.

In Limited Space, Melissa de Villiers, Karen Joy Fowler and SJ Naudé discussed character development in short fiction with Karina Szczurek. Helené Prinsloo listened in:



Mathews Phosa read from and discussed his new collection, Chants of Freedom, with Antjie Krog. Annetjie van Wynegaard was on the spot:



Erin Devenish was at Pop the Culture: Comics as a Platform and Springboard to Animation!, where Marc Boutavant, Richard Morgan-Grenville (Strika) and Su Opperman chatted to Wendy Spinks:



In So Hot Right Now, Terry Morris talked fictional trends with Jakob Melander, Okey Ndibe and Alex van Tonder. Erin Devenish was all ears:



Helené Prinsloo was at Hand Me the Mic, where Emile YX, Andrew Miller and Shameema Williams spoke to Adrian van Wyk about the connections between Hip Hop and spoken word:



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The festival was covered by Books LIVE editor Jennifer Malec (@projectjennifer), deputy editor Helené Prinsloo (@helenayp), assistant editors Erin Devenish (@ErinDevenish811) and Annetjie van Wynegaard (@Annetjievw).

Have a look at our Facebook page ( and our Twitter profile (@BooksLIVESA) for more information and pictures!

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2015 Open Book Festival: Sex in the Citadel, Blood on the Lands and Geographic Influence (Sunday, 12 PM)

Fallen LandThe Dream HouseDustLiterary LandscapesSynapseSex and the Citadel

It’s Sunday, 13 September – the final day of the 2015 Open Book Festival – and conversations remain riveting.

In a session called “Blood on the Land” Patrick Flanery, Craig Higginson and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor discuss the soiled history that informs their novels with Harry Garuba. Jen Malec was there, reporting via Twitter:



Antjie Krog, Mbongeni Nomkonwana and Shirmoney Rhode read from their work and discussed how their location impacts upon it in a session titled “Where I’m From: Language and Geography”, chaired by Raphael D’Abdon. Erin Devenish brought us the conversation:



Annetjie van Wynegaard tweeted from “Sex and the Citadel” where Shereen El Feki spoke to Kharnita Mohamed about intimate life in a changing Arab world:




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The festival is being covered by Books LIVE editor Jennifer Malec (@projectjennifer), deputy editor Helené Prinsloo (@helenayp), assistant editors Erin Devenish (@ErinDevenish811) and Annetjie van Wynegaard (@Annetjievw).

Keep an eye on our Facebook page ( and our Twitter profile (@BooksLIVESA) for more information and pictures!

Book details

  • Literary Landscapes: From Modernism to Postcolonialism by Harry Garuba, Ina Grabe, Merry M Pawlowski, Carrol Clarkson, Johan Geertsema
    EAN: 9780230553163
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

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2015 Open Book: Russia Under Putin, Missing Pieces, Shades of Green and Books I’ve Loved

Michele Magwood, Imraan Coovadia, Namwali Serpell and Justin Cartwright

The last session on the fourth day of the 2015 Open Book Festival was packed with riveting conversations.

The Man Without a FaceUkraine DiariesWonderboomThe RaftFind MeThe Seed Thief
Green LionThe Impossible FiveUp Against the NightTales of the Metric SystemSeven Modes of Uncertainty


Annetjie van Wynegaard tweeted from the PEN Dialogue where Pippa Green spoke to Masha Gessen (The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin) and Andrey Kurkov (Ukraine Diaries) about Russia under Putin:



Helené Prinsloo covered the talk between Lien Botha, Fred Strydom and Laura van den Berg on memory:


Erin tweeted from Shades of Green, where Jacqui L’Ange, Andrew Miller and Henrietta Rose-Innes talked ecological fiction with Justin Fox:



Justin Cartwright, Imraan Coovadia and Namwali Serpell shared the highlights of their bookshelves with Michele Magwood. Jennifer covered the gig:




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The festival is being covered by Books LIVE editor Jennifer Malec (@projectjennifer), deputy editor Helené Prinsloo (@helenayp), assistant editors Erin Devenish (@ErinDevenish811) and Annetjie van Wynegaard (@Annetjievw).

Keep an eye on our Facebook page ( and our Twitter profile (@BooksLIVESA) for more information and pictures!

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2015 Open Book: The Black Sash, Political Journeys, and Performance Poet Croc E Moses

DriftwordThe Black SashTriumphs and Heartaches

It’s Saturday night at the 2015 Open Book Festival – check out what’s going down.

Mary Burton and Mosibudi Mangena reflected on their political journeys in the company of Africa Melane, in With Respect. Annetjie was there taking notes:


Dejavu Tafari discussed innovation, poetry and being up on stage with Croc E Moses. Erin was Face to Face with Croc E Moses.



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The festival is being covered by Books LIVE editor Jennifer Malec (@projectjennifer), deputy editor Helené Prinsloo (@helenayp), assistant editors Erin Devenish (@ErinDevenish811) and Annetjie van Wynegaard (@Annetjievw).

Keep an eye on our Facebook page ( and our Twitter profile (@BooksLIVESA) for more information and pictures!

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