Maverick Life

BOOK INTERVIEW

Books on the Bay – writers take the stage in Simon’s Town

Books on the Bay – writers take the stage in Simon’s Town
Antjie Krog reads to the audience at the Simon's Town Literary Festival in 2023. (Photo: Erica Lombard / Books on the Bay)

After a successful inaugural event last year, Books on the Bay is back, with over 40 writers set to take the stage in Simon’s Town. Festival founder David Attwell is expecting something special. 

The 2024 Books on the Bay programme includes some big literary names, including Ivan Vladislavić, Angela Makholwa, Imraan Coovadia, CA Davids, Darrel Bristow-Bovey and Justin Fox, and will take place from 22 to 24 March 2024 in venues around Simon’s Town.

Internationally renowned crime writer Margie Orford will be hosting a once-off writing masterclass at the festival, under the theme “Writing the Body”. There are limited participants for this event, so sign up early here.

Orford’s compelling and intimate new memoir, Love and Fury, will be launched at the festival on Friday night.

Also on Friday, Ivan Vladislavić will be launching his highly anticipated new book, The Near North, in conversation with Mark Gevisser.

On Saturday, hobnob with Cape Town poets at Salon Hecate, as Shari Daya, Athambile Masola, Nondwe Mpuma, Melissa Sussens and Stephen Symons perform work from their recent collections. (This event includes a glass of complimentary bubbly: arrive early!)

Books on the Bay

The Simon’s Town Literary Festival in 2023. (Photo: Books on the Bay)

On Saturday evening, theatre legend Nicholas Ellenbogen takes a comical look at Cape Town’s baboon dilemma — “more passionate than politics” — in his satirical show “Baboon In Revue”, joined on stage by Debi Thomas Hawkins, David Attwell and Rob Coutts, with live original music by Chris Haw.

For those with an eye on the upcoming general election, on Sunday, Max du Preez, Gavin Evans and Anton Harber — veteran founders of the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad — will get together to discuss the role of news media and journalists in South African politics, economics and democracy.

Also on Sunday, crime writers Mia Arderne, Angela Makholwa, Mike Nicol and Margie Orford will explore the question of whether crime fiction is fantasy, or whether it reflects the realities of our lives today, in an event chaired by award-winning author Andrew Brown.

The Reading list chatted to Books of the Bay co-founder David Attwell to find out more about the festival:

The Reading List: What inspired you to create an independent book festival, and what kinds of challenges have you faced?

David Attwell: Darryl David and I coincidentally moved to Simon’s Town around the same time. We had been in touch for years but never actually met until we got together in the Piping Bosun, Simon’s Town’s local. Darryl has run dozens of independent book festivals all over the country, with flair and often against the odds — he tells the story in his memoir, Boekbedonnerd! The Road to Elsewhere. When he suggested that we start a book festival in Simon’s Town, I couldn’t say no. It was obvious that we had to do this. Later we were joined by writer Karin Cronje. Books on the Bay is the brainchild of the three co-organisers and we try to accommodate one another’s interests. There have been more rewards than challenges — the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Darryl David, Books on the Bay

Darryl David presents lifetime achievement awards to Antjie Krog and JM Coetzee at the Simon’s Town Literary Festival in 2023. (Photo: Kiara David / Books on the Bay)

TRL: What sets Books on the Bay apart from other literary events in Cape Town or elsewhere in South Africa?

David Attwell: Most obviously, the setting. Simon’s Town is the perfect location for a book festival. On a good day, the geography is as good as anything in the Aegean. It’s also that there’s a feeling of being somewhere unique — the end of the line, so to speak (if only the trains would run), the last stop before Antarctica.

But equally, the history. Simon’s Town was hit very hard by forced removals. A third of the town left and much of its business life was lost. It’s recovering but the town is haunted by its past, which includes two centuries of cosmopolitan naval history. In every brick, window and quirky lane there’s a story in Simon’s Town. All of this makes it literary.

We are grateful to have Standard Bank as our sponsor, who have given us a free hand, and we enjoy the support of the University of the Western Cape, where Darryl lectures in the education faculty and I have a research affiliation.

“A lively reading culture is good for democracy anywhere, but in South Africa we have special needs …”

TRL: Books on the Bay was a great success last year. Can you tell us about your memorable moments or highlights from the 2023 edition?

David Attwell: Personally, I was most moved by an event in the Mosque, in which Zeid Baker told the story of his father, Imam Baker, who translated the Qur’an into Afrikaans in the late 1950s.

There were many other memorable moments: JM Coetzee reading a memoir about his school life in Worcester in the late 1940s; Antjie Krog performing blisteringly powerful poetry; Jose Eduardo Agualusa reading from a satirical novel about the Angolan revolution; Damon Galgut in conversation with Wahbie Long about our post-apartheid malaise; writers of popular fiction Justin Fox and Barbara Mutch revealing just how meticulously they had researched the town’s history. All of this and more.

J. M. Coetzee reading to the packed church at the Simon's Town Literary Festival in 2023. Image: Erica Lombard / Books on the Bay

J. M. Coetzee reading to the packed church at the Simon’s Town Literary Festival in 2023. Image: Erica Lombard / Books on the Bay

TRL: How do you select the authors and speakers for the festival? What criteria do you consider?

David Attwell: We wanted something special, a bit more than a trade fair, so we decided to approach writers directly, rather than starting with publishers, which is the norm. Just to be clear: we support the industry, we love the publishers, and we want them to sell their books! (Our bookseller is Clarke’s, Cape Town’s oldest independent bookshop.) Building a programme with writers as the starting point enables you to do creative things based on the writers’ wishes. A large number of our sessions are one-on-one conversations, and we tend not to emphasise large panels of speakers that debate the state of the nation. We aim at bringing out the creativity of writers and writing. All of this means that we choose books, and authors, that are a bit angular. The problem with this approach is that we don’t always know what the publishers have in press, which means we might miss some opportunities. We’ll try to correct this in future.

TRL: At one of the events, you will be interviewing Mphuthumi Ntabeni about his historical novel The Broken River Tent. What interested you about his book?

David Attwell: I first read Mpush’s second novel, The Wanderers, and did a podcast with him. After that, I went back to his first novel, The Broken River Tent, which is the first of a huge work-in-progress, a trilogy on the “frontier” history of the Eastern Cape from a Xhosa perspective. Ntabeni brings Chief Maqoma into the present, in a work of real ambition and creative energy. He is one of the most resourceful of writers in South African literature.

Yara Costa

Yara Costa reading from José Eduardo Agualusa’s work at the Simon’s Town Literary Festival in 2023. (Photo: Kiara David / Books on the Bay)

TRL: What role do you think literary festivals play in promoting a culture of reading and writing within a community?

David Attwell: I won’t be diffident here: a lively reading culture is good for democracy anywhere, but in South Africa, we have special needs. We are brow-beaten by public discourse that gives airtime to bullying, venality, power-grabbing, greed, ostentatious wealth — and that’s just a shortlist. Judging by the warmth of the response we get, there is a corresponding hunger for a freer, more creative climate.

TRL: How has the festival evolved since its inception, and what are your future plans for its growth and development?

David Attwell: Thanks to our sponsorship, from next year we’ll be able to include an international element. We’re also making tentative moves towards becoming a more broadly cultural festival. John Maytham will give a reading performance called “Rock, Sea, Freedom”, based on a century of literature about False Bay. Finuala Dowling has scripted it and it features a little-known short story by artist Peter Clarke. The Simon’s Town Art Group is mounting an exhibition of illustrated books, and renowned dramaturge Nicholas Ellenbogen has written a short satirical revue based on the baboon politics of the far south. There’s room for further developments in music and film. Watch this space. DM

Books on the Bay runs in Simonstown from 22 to 24 March. View the full Books of the Bay programme here and buy tickets here. Visit The Reading List for South African book news, daily – including excerpts! 

Books on the Bay

The Simon’s Town Literary Festival: Books on the Bay kicks off again this week. (Photo: Supplied)

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