By BRUCE DENNILL
As with so most enterprises, the Franschhoek Literary Festival – and every other cultural event in the calendar – was forced to endure a fallow period during the Covid pandemic. Happily, though, despite the enthusiastic naysaying of every influencer claiming that there is no place for writing or books where videos and posing are easier and supposedly generate more interest, it continues to attract an audience of both regulars and newcomers. Venues are reassuringly full – it’s as difficult to find a seat in the NG Kerk for a talk about fiction writing as it is to elbow in for lunch at one of the more popular eateries on Huguenot Street.
The range of talks and personalities and input on offer is as varied as the restaurant menus. Writer and performer Nataniel is perhaps an unexpected way to start a day of delving into literature and how it affects your life, but it’d be difficult to find a more entertaining bar-setter. Effortlessly funny and engaging, he’s an interviewer’s dream – Diane De Beer needs only to point him in a direction and let him loose. This session (about storytelling in its many forms) is exactly the sort of thing that a festival, where a live audience assembles to connect over a shared passion, is so great at delivering. And leaving a literary assembly with painful cheeks because of sustained guffawing is an unanticipated pleasure.
Later, the aforementioned fiction panel brings together the formidable intellects of Rachel Joyce, Sue Nyathi and Margie Orford, marshalled by fellow bestselling author Gail Schimmel. The panel is ostensibly about exploring the choice to write fiction (including the general how-tos and all the rest of it), but it wanders into fascinating territory about the nature of created characters – not who they’re inspired by or what sort of actions they’re capable of, but things like whether their interactions involve being gentle with each other or more inclined to other agendas. And once an audience member calls writing fiction a “gym for developing empathy,” a further philosophical layer is added to proceedings.
It’s a touch darker over at Pamela Power and Sara-Jayne Makwala King’s session, with both authors chatting to Joy Watson about their books, which deal with addiction in varying degrees, as well as the effects of such behaviours on loved ones and professional and personal productivity. Both women are straight shooters with a disarmingly relatable line in brusque honesty. The session is designed to examine writing your way out of a crisis, but like the others, it morphs into something different and more meaningful, showing the authors to be people with versions of problems we all face, but also with the courage to be publicly vulnerable about those issues. All of which underlines the real and lasting positive outcomes of going to a literary festival: the words on the pages matter, but becoming part of the stories behind the stories allows you to join a community that transcends traditional boundaries.