Margie Orford chatted to Books LIVE about her recent appointment to the board of PEN International, the work she is doing as head of SA PEN, and why her fans will have to wait patiently for her next novel.
Orford, a celebrated crime novelist and award-winning journalist, was appointed the head of SA PEN this year, and voted onto the board of PEN International this month. Orford says her work with the international chapter will focus on strengthening ties between PEN Centres from the north and the south, as well as looking at solutions to the worrying trend of threats to freedom of expression.
With much important work to be done, Orford admits she has little time for writing, but does reveal that she is working on two novels, saying: “books are like mistresses – eventually they make you spend the time and attention on them that they need”.
Are you enjoying your new role as head of SA PEN? Could you tell us what projects have you been involved with so far?
I became president of PEN South Africa in May. It was really an honour as PEN SA’s membership is growing and our projects are expanding. We have three main areas of work – the first is on issues of freedom of expression. This grew out of work around the Secrecy Bill but we keep a close eye on infringements on the rights of journalists to work freely and more broadly in freedom of expression in other African countries. We have worked closely with PEN Zambia and PEN Ethiopia. We partner with Nal’ibali – a wonderful organisation that provides books, libraries, mentors and training for children in a range of South African languages.
PEN is founded on the idea that literature knows no boundaries and that linguistic diversity is crucial to creativity and a free society, so what we do is fund (as much as we can afford) translations of children’s literature in as many South African languages. Literary culture is, in my view, of great value and we also partner with Open Book and the Franschhoek Literary Festival – we have hosted a number of PEN Dialogues and brought some great writers to South Africa. There’s lots to do – check out our website and that of PEN International.
We are focusing our work in the near future on Criminal Defamation and Insult Laws, both sets of legislation that are used to limit freedom of expression in many countries. That will keep us busy.
Congratulations on being voted onto the board of PEN International. Did you expect it?
Thank you! Well, I was nervous – there were five candidates for two places on the board of PEN International. I was nominated by PEN Denmark and PEN Mexico – so it was a real honour to be elected at the PEN International Congress in Bishkek in Krygyzstan. The board is so diverse. (Click here to see the Board of PEN International.)
Have you met your fellow board members yet, or when is your first meeting?
Yes, I know most of them from previous PEN Congresses – these take place annually and I have worked closely with PEN International on a number of projects. My first board meeting was straight after the PEN Congress – very interesting working on strategy for the coming years and looking at ways of dealing with the increasing threats to freedom of expression that have come from mass surveillance (Snowdon blew that out of the water), the rigid legislation against LGBTI people that was pushed through in Russia and is now being passed in a number of ex-Soviet countries and in a number of African countries.
Freedom of expression – when you see how people are silenced and imprisoned – can never be seen as a “nice to have” right. It really is the foundational democratic right – it ensures the right to assembly, to privacy, to live out your life according to one’s own sexual orientation, it is crucial for women’s rights to a public life.
With board members from all over the world, what do you expect your contribution to be, or where do you feel your expertise lies?
I am an organiser and networker – so I think I will focus on doing that. We will be hosting a meeting of six PEN Centres from African countries in December with the Wits School of Journalism – and next year a large meeting of about 20 African PEN Centres. These connections are crucial for developing literary culture and an embedded notion of freedom of expression in the media on the continent. I believe in the strength that comes from working collectively and in building partnerships – so getting PEN Centres from the north and the south to strengthen their ties is crucial. PEN South Africa has worked closely with PEN America, PEN Norway and English PEN. These relationships – both organisationally and the friendships that develop between writers – are of great value.
You and Mohammed Sheriff of Sierra Leone are the only two board members from Africa. Considering the threats to press freedom that we see so frequently in Africa, do you feel you and Sheriff have a disproportionately large role to play for Pen International?
We have worked together before – Mohammed has done amazing work with PEN Sierra Leone – grassroots literacy work and organisation development. I think that we will complement each other well – South Africa is a very different place to work in, but I have worked in the grassroots education sector too and I understand its value. Mohammed also brings the wealth of francophone Africa’s literary heritage to the fore. So South and West – lots to cover – but we will manage. We collaborate with very interesting centres in Africa and are guided by the PEN African Network which is a wonderful network of African centres. Its not easy – resources are scarce and people are busy – but the network is energetic and great to work with.
Are you still finding the time to work on your fiction?
Ha ha! The joke question I guess. Not right now – but it will come – I needed a break. I have been writing like a mad woman for years now and I missed being in the world and busy. So its a good feeling to be doing this. I am going to have to carve out the time but my last daughter finished school this year – so I will have a different kind of time to play with. There are two books – novels – in the pipeline, a bit different to the Clare Hart series, but I am excited about writing something different, and books are like mistresses – eventually they make you spend the time and attention on them that they need …
Gerald Kraak, author of Ice in the Lungs and prominent figure in the South African LGBTI movement, has lost his battle with cancer, passing away last Sunday.
The great number of tender tributes from various human rights organisations and prominent social activists bear testament to Kraak’s invaluable contribution to the South African society.
Zackie Achmat writes on GroundUp: “Gerald’s work, love, activism, intellectual contributions and personal generosity lives on in all of us.” The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) writes, “We will always remember Gerald’s rock-solid support, his careful and wise counsel and his wicked sense of humour. He will be sorely missed.”
In their tribute the organisation Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA) stressed, “the sector as we know it would not have been possible without Gerald’s vision, courage and determination”. They continue, “There are very few LGBTI organisations that have not benefited from Gerald’s dream of a better world.”
Rest in peace, cherished Gerald.
Read the tributes:
Gerald Kraak (1956-2014), who was responsible for organising funding for many leading civil society organisations, died of cancer on Sunday night. Zackie Achmat pays tribute to his old friend.
Gerald Kraak was a friend, ex-boyfriend but above all a comrade to me and many others. As one of the leaders and organisers of the Committee of South African War Resisters in exile, Gerald helped divide white youth conscripted to the Apartheid army. Before that he was active in NUSAS in Cape Town.
It is with great sadness that we mourn the passing of Gerald Kraak – a beloved friend, comrade, mentor and supporter of the South African lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) movement.
Gerald Kraak thought differently. He believed that South Africa’s transformation would not be possible unless all people – including LGBTI persons – could access their human and socio-economic rights. His broad vision for social justice encompassed all South Africans – from migrants and refugees to farm workers and activists fighting for freedom of information.
With profound sadness, SERI marks the untimely death of Gerald Kraak, former programme executive at the South African office of The Atlantic Philanthropies. Gerald was a fine scholar, a level-headed philanthropist and a deeply compassionate and supportive man. He played a crucial role in SERI’s foundation.
His creativity, passion and commitment to holding South Africa to its promise of rights and equality for all people was evident in all of his grantmaking for The Atlantic Philanthropies.
Our hearts go out to his family, colleagues and countless friends.
Sophy Kohler muses on the Richmond Bookbedonnerd book festival, now in its seventh year, taking place from 23 to 25 October. View the programme at Richmondnc.co.za.
For Boekbedonnerd organiser Darryl David, Richmond is the perfect place for a literary festival — it is in the middle of nowhere, so once you convince your participants to make the trip, they are compelled to stay. But are they? A friend had her husband keep the car running while she delivered her talk. They lasted less than two hours, unprepared to face a room in the eerie motel alongside us and Norman Bates.
Richmond lies on the N1, just beyond the comfier bounds of the Western Cape and roughly equidistant between Johannesburg and Cape Town. My boyfriend and I have done the drive from both sides now. It’s an extra hour versus the Freestate (“Dis mos mielies!“).
Few people set off with Richmond in mind as their final destination, it is a conduit and one less desirable than Graaff-Reinet or even Colesburg. But it has modeled itself as a “book town” for the purposes of tourism — you can find Willard Price in hardback — and books journalists know Richmond for Boekbedonnerd, now in its seventh year. The festival traps no more than four gullible reporters annually (two of them I can usually account for) and a handful of the rarest authors you will ever see. And this weekend, it is happening again.
The permanent residents are a Lynchian ensemble cast — a hunchback rides around on a disability moped offering to show unsuspecting visitors “his snakes” and The Giant is there, somewhere, too. In one bookshop, a sign proclaiming “Welcome to the Old South Africa” is only slightly more unsettling than the massive giraffe that looms in the passage behind it — a taxidermist’s magnum opus.
We joke about buying property in Richmond; it seems a natural halfway point between the two cities that divide our lives and has become an unlikely constant in our relationship. But beneath our banter is something more serious — we are aware of the pull of the margins, the allure of the Karoo’s timelessness; we are attracted to this strange nowhere.
During one of the long drives we plan a restaurant, a gastronomical companion piece to the festival, a refreshment station to ward off scurvy and stasis, born out of endless days of lamb chops and chips. Like the town’s other restaurants it would be open for two days a year, its staff brought in from the township or the prison for their lucky moment of employment.
We imagine the Double R spliced with Leo’s, a place where local authors fight to swap eponymous dishes beneath the mounted heads of sable antelope; where Rian Malan would kill for A Change of Sliced Tongue and Antjie Krog only ever orders My Artichoke’s Heart.
Our signature dish, Ah, But Your Lamb is Beautiful, would take care of the Karoo’s staple menu item and appease any regulars who feel threatened by change. And, while our morning customers may be restricted to a Story of an African Farm Breakfast, for lunch we’d allow a choice between The Seed Loaf is Mine and the more decadent Daughter’s Burger.
Our cocktail list would be equally ostentatious with Rumours of Cane and Portrait with Key Limes likely to be favorites. Layers of chocolate sponge cake and white mousse will embrace in our famous dessert, The Quiet Violence of Creams. But perhaps our real monkey maker will be the 24-hour pizza special, Gobbling at Night.
But Richmond’s hallucinatory effects wear off when you hit the edge of the dome, 20 kilometres out, and our desperate attempts at entertaining ourselves are short-lived. We are left with the sense that Richmond’s own humour will always be better than our best attempts at faking it, that we will never be as interesting as its residents, nor have enough backbone to rejoin the past.
But I still imagine JM Coetzee, that prodigal son, wandering into our little diner (heavy curtains, red plastic booths, neon lights) to find that someone’s named a sandwich after him. And he’ll sit down and order a glass of tap water and the Book of Raw, because nobody liked White Whiting.
~ ~ ~
Oscar Pistorius has been sentenced to five years in prison, and three years suspended.
Judge Thokozile Masipa handed the sentence down today in the High Court in Pretoria, saying that sentencing was a “challenge” and “about achieving the right balance”.
On the first count, culpable homicide, Pistorius was sentenced to the maximum of five years.
On count two, contravention of the firearms control act, he received three years’ imprisonment, wholly suspended for five years.
The sentences shall run concurrently. There was no appeal.
Live tweets from the courtroom as the judgment unfolded:
Local and international authors who attended the 2014 Open Book Festival in Cape Town have shared their reactions to the event on various platforms. In general the five-day literary feast seems to have been very, very good:
For a literary festival that has only been in existence for four years, Open Book punches way above its weight and has achieved significantly more than literary festivals that have been in existence for longer.
Thank you for a wonderful week in Cape Town. It was fun, stimulating, impeccably organised – and I’m SO glad I was part of it.
It was my first time attending a literary festival and I was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm and friendliness everywhere I went. It was a thrill to be on the same panel as authors whose work I’ve read and enjoyed, like Jonny Steinberg, Andrew Brown and Zakes Mda. The experience led me to ponder my own writing and made me appreciate this gift of words even more.
Raymond E Feist:
You could tell the people who were there loved it. They were just great, I really enjoyed it.
What I didn’t understand until I got here was the position of fantasy relative to the rest of the market, and the fact that here it’s still a bit of a ghetto. Whereas in the United States and Australia and Great Britain – especially since Harry Potter – the fantasy genre has been 10, 15, 20 years in the mainstream.
The Open Book Festival was a lot of fun, loved it. Best thing was that the audience was always engaged.
It was a pleasure to be involved in the Open Book Festival and to have the opportunity to share the excitement and enthusiasm for books displayed by all the children I met during my events. It is clear how the love of reading is a passion that can be shared by all, both young and old, and the Open Book Festival is doing so much to make this joy available to all. Congratulations to everyone involved, and I wish the festival ever greater success in the years to come.
Open Book 2014 felt like a gigantic party in which writers and readers came together to celebrate the texts and the stories and the media they love. Across five days of brilliant programming, I immersed myself in writers I’d never come across, genres outside my comfort zone and conversations on a hundred topics with strangers who quickly became friends. It was a show well worth coming six thousand miles for.
Thank you so much for including me in the fabulocity that is Open Book, I don’t know how you did it, but it was spectacularly ambitious and diverse and eclectic and genuinely inclusive of different literary genres and also, certainly for its scale, the most friendly and intimate and relaxed literature festival I’ve ever appeared at. You made me feel really welcomed and valued and I think you were like that with everyone, a miraculous gift of warmth and charm and smarts. It was a pleasure and a privilege, I am a life-long fan and will be telling anyone who will listen to get themselves to Cape Town in September for a visit.
Thanks so much for all the hard work and careful thought that obviously went in to Open Book 2014. It is such an unique and important space that you create each year in Cape Town. Also, the fact that it attracted such diverse audiences, in a city that rarely manages to achieve this, made it rare and very special. Congratulations.
Karina M Szczurek:
What these snippets of conversations, memories, and illumination make explicit is the often mercurial (a word I always associate with Jonny Steinberg) network of sharing that underlies the otherwise solitary endeavours of writers. And nowhere is it more visible than at events such as Open Book. For me, the festival laid bare the more or less obvious symbiotic relationships between local and international authors. Their influence on and their necessity for our craft should not be underestimated.
Books LIVE offered extensive coverage of the festival, from interviews to tweeting live from the events. Follow the link to see more:
Published in the Sunday Times
1. Which books are on your bedside table?
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, He Wants by Alison Moore, History of the Rain by Niall Williams, my son’s art homework, and a rose catalogue.
2. Which book changed your life?
I remember very clearly the first time I read Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. It has such a delicate, haunting intelligence. I think I read with my mouth open.
3. What is the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?
I like to experience things before I write them – or at least get a glimpse into how it might be. I spent a long time sitting in the dark on a haystack in a barn in order to describe Harold Fry’s first night out in the wild.
4. Who would you like to be stuck in a lift with?
I wouldn’t like to be stuck in a lift. I would be quite scared. But if I had to be stuck in a lift with anyone, it would be my husband. He would keep me laughing.
5. What novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?
I remember reading The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden to my youngest daughter. That really moved her. And I would recommend Wonder by RJ Palacio too.
6. Who is your favourite fictional hero?
I love John Irving’s Owen Meany. I could see and hear him as soon as I started reading. He moved me. He surprised me. He is both funny and tragic. That is some achievement.
7. What is the best piece of writerly advice you’ve received?
Keep a diary or journal. It doesn’t have to be anything you would ever show anyone but it keeps you writing every day. You wouldn’t expect an athlete to perform without training; it’s the same with writing.
8. What book do you wish you’d written?
I wish I had written The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald. Or Anna Karenina. (Of course.)
9. How would you earn your living if you had to give up writing?
I am quite good at making curtains. Maybe I would do that.
10. What are you working on next?
I’m working on a television adaptation of my second book, Perfect, and I am also writing a new novel about music and its healing powers. It’s partly a love story, partly a treasure hunt through music.
Rachel Joyce’s latest novel is The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy (Random House)
Image courtesy of Gaby Gerster Laif Camerapress