Photo Essay: Panel Discussions At The 2009 Cape Town Book Fair
A Literary Feature

South Africaby Mandy J Watson
Posted: 15 July 2009

In the last in our series of photo essays on the 2009 Cape Town Book Fair we highlight some of the interesting discussions that took place during various panel sessions with authors and academics. Visitors to the fair can attend almost all the panel discussions for free, which makes them a popular feature of the fair every year. As a special bonus for this essay we have included video clips from two of the most popular sessions.

My final post on the 2009 Cape Town Book Fair is on some of the panel discussions that I attended. A few are a bit of a blur as I was rabidly posting highlights to my Twitter stream even though I said I wouldn't but, at times, no one else was doing it besides the Book SA team so I felt compelled to impart.

Also, before we continue, a disclaimer: please disregard all the conspicuously placed bottles of a certain "vitamin water" that has been appearing at every large event I've been to in the last three months and which - to be honest - tastes like watered-down Mix-a-Drink (as a friend once dryly observed). I thought it might be a bit disruptive (and possibly inappropriate) to ask people trying to participate in Serious Panel Discussions(TM) to move them out of my photographic framings.

On to the panels:

Cartooning As Social And Political Commentary In South Africa

Andy Mason, Antjie Krog, and Jonathan Shapiro
Above: This panel discussion was on political cartoons and how a country as culturally diverse as South Africa's interprets them - do they go too far and how much should one go in criticising one's leaders, do they represent accurate perspectives, and does the average citizen understand them? The panelists were Andy Mason, who has recently finished a book, What's So Funny: Under the Skin of South African Cartooning, looking at political cartoonists in South Africa (it hasn't been published yet but I am looking forward to reading it), academic and author Antjie Krog, and political cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (aka "Zapiro") discussed how cartoons can be used to fight for a viewpoint and, for example, against a repressive regime, and how that viewpoint can be misinterpreted depending on the readers' experiences and perspectives. Many of Zapiro's more recent cartoons, for example, have been championed by right-wing fanatics who are perhaps unable (or possibly unwilling) to grasp the subtlety of the satire and who will republish the cartoons en masse on a web site in a way that takes them out of their context and creates a new, disturbing context as, put together, they seem to reinforce the reactionary viewpoints. In doing so this also misrepresents what Zapiro is trying to say in his cartoon and his personal beliefs.

Andy Mason and Antjie Krog
Above: Antjie Krog had a very valid and interesting question for Zapiro that caused a bit of a stir in my Twitter stream as I reported it (with difficulty, as it was hard to condense the discussion), which was whether he feels that he still represents the voice of the poor or if he has rather become the voice of neo liberalism. Zapiro replied that it's hard to say because the poor are the people who voted, in their millions, for the current government, and the president in particular, who has been the focus of many of his most controversial cartoons in recent years, which has resulted in lawsuits. He also pointed out that in Cape Town, most noticeably, there is a huge physical, geographical, and psychological divide between people, which makes integration, collaboration, and discussion, as well as the ability to break down barriers, harder and therefore while he doesn't think he is a tool for neo liberalism he hopes that he is still speaking for the poor but he cannot be sure that he is. He counterbalanced this by pointing out that when he used to work at the newspaper Sowetan readers were surprised to find that he was white because, in his cartoons, he provided a voice that spoke directly to the readership's issues and its perspectives.

Andy Mason further contributed to this point by saying that many young, emerging black cartoonists in South Africa initially start out with a style that emulates Zapiro's because Zapiro has been their core influence - it is to his work that they have been primarily exposed. In time, however, they begin to find their own "voice", so to speak, and their style evolves with their experience and takes on more of their own individual characteristics.

The talk was absolutely fascinating and unfortunately had to be cut short as the panel ran out of time even before, in fact, the audience could be given the opportunity to ask questions.

Jacana New Fiction

Megan Voysey-Braig, Zukiswa Wanner, Elana Bregin, and Lauren Beukes
Above: Three of Jacana's authors, Megan Voysey-Braig, Elana Bregin, and Lauren Beukes, discussed their experiences as writers, moderated by author and poet Zukiswa Wanner, who asked the authors to introduce their books and then gave her interpretation, as a reader, of what the books were about.

Megan Voysey-Braig and Zukiswa Wanner
Above: Megan Voysey-Braig summarised her book quite succinctly, describing Till We Can Keep An Animal as being "essentially about forgiveness, forgiving injustices and deeds, the need to forgive and to move forward and not repeat the same cycles that we are used to in South Africa". Zukiswa Wanner expanded upon this for the audience explaining that it is the story of a woman who gets killed (she is attacked, raped, and murdered by armed robbers) but then is "kept alive" by the narrative so that her family members can tell their stories through her. We learn, for example, about her grandmother, who was held in the internment camps during the Anglo-Boer War and was raped by the British soldiers and then become pregnant but the people who rescue her are a British couple, and so it is essentially interwoven stories about forgiveness. Zukiswa Wanner says that the story teaches us that nothing is ever as we like to think it is and you shouldn't categorise people according to your perceptions (" people are like this, Zulu people are like this, Xhosas are like this, English people are like this, Afrikaners are like this..."), as people will surprise you in their ability to love or hate.

Zukiswa Wanner and Elana Bregin
Above: Elana Bregin describes Shiva's Dance as being "about the politics of being human. It's about the difficulties of just being here in this existence, born into a set of circumstances that we didn't choose, born into dysfunctional families - many of us - that load us with baggage that we then carry through the rest of our lives, the difficulties of being part of this moment - not just in South Africa but in the world - where we have so little power to change things or in the larger scheme of things to do something about the things that worry us. And then what it's really about is the need to rise above all of that and find some kind of transcendent picture for your life. So the girl in the story encounters a Buddhist monk and he's the one that helps her kind of reassess where she is. So you can say it's about a girl, it's about a dog, it's about a Buddhist, it's about a boy, it's about a motorbike, and a whole lot of things in between."

Zukiswa Wanner elaborated further on the plot by explaining to the audience that Shiva's Dance is a coming-of-age story of a young girl who is a product of rape and how she interacts with her mother, who is the victim of that rape, and that it also highlights her friendship with a Buddhist monk, as Elana Bregin mentioned.

Elana Bregin and Lauren Beukes
Above: In Lauren Beukes' words, "Moxyland is speculative fiction. It's set in a dystopian future Cape Town about 10 years from now where all the problems that we're facing right now have evolved in ways that are sometimes surprising and unexpected. Your cellphone is used to control you. It affects the way you access buildings. If you misbehave in public the cops can send a taser shock to your cellphone. There is a corporate-apartheid system in place. The police have genetically-modified dogs. Branding is viral and literally addictive." Zukiswa Wanner, in turn, summed up the undertones of Moxyland quite succinctly by describing it as a futuristic Cape Town in which everyone is controlled by the government and the government is controlled by the corporates.

Zukiswa Wanner commented that all three books have been called "contemporary South African literature" so she asked the authors if they are consciously trying to be different and cutting edge. They all responded that this was not the case and rather they are drawing on their experiences and interests to form an engaging story. Lauren Beukes, for example, likes to write about "all the interesting places where culture and technology intersect". However she also made a valid point in that we are all a product of apartheid and that "those roots are very deep and are still going to trip us up for many years" and, therefore, this will very much influence an artist's work and where he or she is coming from even if we've moved on from writing the straight "apartheid" novel.

The panel also discussed how these stories, although very different, are all very much South African stories and debated whether they would have written the same thing had they not come from South Africa.

John Van De Ruit Discusses His Writing Life

John van de Ruit
Above: John van de Ruit, author of the Spud series of books, spoke, as in previous years, to packed rooms as he is a popular author and fans are very keen to hear him speak (he is also an excellent speaker). He discussed how he became a writer, read from his latest book in the Spud series, Spud - Learning To Fly, and talked briefly about the Spud movie, which is expected to start filming around Easter 2010 for a December 2010 release.

John van de Ruit
Above: I couldn't resist. Now watch the video below!

Above: John van de Ruit talks about his life-changing experience in being caught up in the 2006 tsunami and discusses his split from his theatre partnership with Ben Voss.

Two Dogs: The Art Of Irreverent Publishing

Tim Richman and Ndumiso Ngcobo
Above: Tim Richman, co-author of Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Kak? The Whinger's Guide To South Africa [interview] and Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Still Kak? 2Kak 2Furious [review] and Ndumiso Ngcobo, author of Some Of My Best Friends Are White and Is It Coz I'm Black? joined forces to discuss Two Dogs' philosophy of "irreverent publishing". These sessions weren't included on the original schedule so unfortunately a number of visitors may have missed them, especially the session that was held on the first day of the fair and got buried by more high-profile panels.

The company's position is that publishing in South Africa is often a Little. Too. Serious. and that there are too many sacred cows and too much tiptoeing around everyone else's sensibilities for fear of offending everyone all the time. It believes that it is time that South Africa gets over itself and learns to laugh at the differences. When the company was started in 2006 the market was crowded with, as Tim Richman put it, "heavy stuff", with very little humour, or books that were geared for women so Two Dogs set out to change that, publishing books that, as its tagline suggests, "men read".

Ndumiso Ngcobo explained that part of his attraction to Two Dogs was that it was trying to turn the whole literary scene in South Africa "upside down" and that "one of the problems in SA is that we are trying so hard to be PC because we don't know enough about each other".

The discussion, which very much involved the audience and was, in itself, irreverent and fun, turned to where the line should be drawn as to what is politically correct, what isn't, what's offensive, and what's not, and Tim Richman pointed out that usually the line is drawn where the lawyers say it is acceptable, rather than where a particular cultural group determines it should be.

Ndumiso Ngcobo signs autographs after the discussion
Above: After the discussion Ndumiso Ngcobo signed autographs talked to some of his fans one on one before everyone was chucked out the room to make way for the next panel discussion.

Simon Gear Goes Green

Simon Gear
Above: Climatologist Simon Gear, who recently published Going Green - 365 Ways To Change Our World [review] discussed how the book came to be and shared eco-friendly tips with the audience. He explained that the book is a compilation of suggestions that people can use as a guide to make small adjustments in their lives that will result, collectively, in big changes for the planet and said that he "had one rule: anything that is in the book I must have done myself or be prepared to do myself".

He also changed some perceptions about the green movement by arguing that former US president George W Bush inadvertently did more for the green movement than Al Gore because in 2003 he invaded Iraq, which pushed up oil prices and caused consumers to re-evaluate their purchasing choices (such as cars) because humans have self interest (in this case lower costs) at heart. Of course, one can argue that the destructive, denialist environmental policies that Bush's government put in place may have cancelled out that green gain but it still gives one pause for thought.

Simon Gear
Above: Simon Gear also shared some of his experiences growing up and being exposed to meteorology, for which he has to thank his father, and offered some humorous anecdotes about being a weather reporter at the SABC.

Satire And Humour Panel Discussion

Anthony Pascoe, Tom Eaton, Rehana Rossouw, and Jonathan Shapiro
Above: This panel discussion was originally supposed to comprise Anthony Pascoe and Tom Eaton from Hayibo and Justin Nurse from Laugh It Off but Justin Nurse disappointed everyone by being off at something soccer related (WHY?!?) and so Jonathan Shapiro stepped in to join the panel in its discussion of satire and its role in contemporary culture. Rehana Rossouw, executive editor of The Weekender moderated the discussion.

Above: The panelists define satire and the effective role humour can play as a satirist's tool to make a more impactful point.

Anthony Pascoe and Tom Eaton
Above: Although there was the possibility that the topic might sway into territory already covered by the "Cartooning As Social And Political Commentary In South Africa" session, highlighted above, which had occurred the day before, the different selection of panelists brought a fresh perspective to the discussion, although at one point Tom Eaton also brought up the point that Zapiro had mentioned in the previous session that the reactionary right wing in South Africa has also adopted some of Hayibo's content as being representative of their viewpoints, completely missing the point that it is satire, which makes him incredibly uncomfortable.

In the light of Zapiro's ongoing lawsuits, Rehana Rossouw specifically asked Anthony Pascoe and Tom Eaton whether they were afraid that they would cross lines and draw the kind of wrath that results in lawsuits. Tom Eaton amusingly replied that they are not afraid while they are making no money. Zapiro pointed out that he is aware of artists who are beginning to self censor themselves due to the fear of being sued and that this is obviously a very serious predicament.

Rehana Rossouw also asked the panel whether they think there are no-go areas when it comes to satire. Anthony Pascoe replied that there are a few, such as murders and instances in which people are experiencing personal issues unless it's public and suitable. Zapiro agreed, stating that it's inappropriate to make fun of people dying and real misery, but that public figures, especially those that are dubious or "evil" or are appalling human beings, are the exception and are fair game. He also said that religion can be a no-go area for some people and that religion and sex tend to be the most explosive areas.

Members of the panel also talked about how South Africa is such a fertile place for satire and, in Tom Eaton's words, "when you spend any amount of time outside South Africa you miss the chaos. You get addicted to it. There is enormous energy [in this country]".

As with the previous satire panel, the discussion was fascinating and just getting started when it, unfortunately, had to end to make way for the next item on the book fair schedule. Towards the end, as the panelists discussed freedom of expression, Zapiro threw out the pertinent question as to why people have a freedom-of-expression line that always pertains to someone else and never themselves.

That, in itself, is worth a panel discussion all on its own. Perhaps next year.

Rehana Rossouw and Jonathan Shapiro
Above: I quite like this photo because there's no vitamin water in it.

Some Of What I Missed

• Denis Beckett, apparently, while appearing on a panel about whether fiction is just a narrative illusion, defending South African president Jacob Zuma and some of the scandals with which he's associated, in response to a question from a member of the audience.

• Moeletsi Mbeki giving a number of fascinating, eye-opening talks concerning his new book Architects of Poverty.

• British author Adele Parks enthralling audiences with stories of her experiences as a so-called "chick-lit" (or "women's fiction") author, a genre that has fast been growing in popularity in South Africa, and elsewhere.

• HSRC Press launching a number of new books and hosting discussion sessions around the topics covered by some of these titles, including The Prize And The Price: Shaping Sexualities In South Africa, with a discussion with the authors that centred around whether some sexualities are more equal than others, whose desire counts, and whose desire is undervalued.

• Writing, copy editing, and proofreading workshops hosted by a number of industry professionals and organisations.

On The Internet
Official Site: Cape Town Book Fair | Blog

Elsewhere On
Feature: Photo Essay: Authors At The 2009 Cape Town Book Fair
Photo Essay: Authors At The 2009 Cape Town Book Fair
The opportunity to meet authors - both local and international - and hear them talk about their writing processes and experiences is one of the most exciting aspects of the Cape Town Book Fair. Here is a selection of some of the authors that were manning stands, launching books, and signing autographs for fans at the 2009 fair.
By: Mandy J Watson  |  Posted: 30 June 2009  |  Add Or Read
Category: Books > Features

Feature: Photo Essay And Report: The 2009 Cape Town Book Fair
Photo Essay And Report: The 2009 Cape Town Book Fair
Thousands of people braved crazy winter weather over four days to attend the fourth Cape Town Book Fair, which was held earlier this month at the convention centre in Cape Town, South Africa. Here is a showcase of some of the highlights from the stands and exhibition areas, in the first of a few reports we have compiled.
By: Mandy J Watson  |  Posted: 26 June 2009  |  Add Or Read
Category: Books > Features

Feature: A Look At Earth - The Comprehensive World Atlas
Earth - The Comprehensive World Atlas
In 500 years' time what will the legacy be that we have left on this planet? With wars, clashing religious ideologies, and climate change threatening to decimate the world as we know it Earth - The Comprehensive World Atlas, with its detailed descriptions of countries and cultures as they stand today may become one of the few remaining published records of the time we spent here during one of this planet's most tumultuous periods.
By: Mandy J Watson  |  Posted: 15 June 2009  |  Add Or Read
Category: Books > Features Speak Your Mind

Bookmark This Page
Post to | Digg! Digg!

Shop | ZA
Shop | Amazon US

Shop | Amazon UK

Ads | Google