Thursday, 25 June 2009

Cape Town Book Fair 2009:The world of ideas is alive and well

There might have been some initial concern about the recession’s effect on the success of this year’s Cape Town Book Fair, and with 60 fewer stands in the exhibition hall than last year, those concerns may have seemed well founded.

However, from the first hour of the four-day fair, the public began pouring in and the organisers might well find that the previous record of 51000 visitors has been matched. The drop in the number of stands seemed to work better, as the hall was less crowded and the event seemed more manageable, with room to breathe.

There were also some initial concerns about the programme this year, with several people feeling that it was flat and uninspiring, placing an emphasis on issue-related discussions rather than opportunities to meet a wide range of authors. But this did not deter the crowds. There were a few repeat events, such as eight book-signings by Spud creator John van de Ruit , but, judging by the long queues of people wanting their copies signed, this was absolutely necessary.

One of the highlights on the first day was a discussion on cartooning as social and political commentary in SA, with Jonathan Shapiro, Andy Mason and Antjie Krog. Krog started out by highlighting the admiration she has for Shapiro, whose work involves putting himself at risk daily, particularly in such a divided society as SA.

There has been criticism that Shapiro is not “a real cartoonist” since he is “fighting for something”, and Krog asked him whether he felt he was still fighting, or whether he was now “an official cartoonist”. Shapiro’s response was that he felt he was still fighting but with a subtle difference and that he had become more of a commentator, a social analyst or “shit stirrer”.

He did, however, feel that he was no longer an activist, and that the political landscape of SA had changed, particularly as his critics have forgotten how critical he was of the previous regime.

Shapiro said a big challenge was how to be critical of the government and at the same time avoid becoming a tool of neoliberals, or worse, the right wing.

He has been particularly concerned to find some of his cartoons on right-wing websites, posted without his knowledge and taken out of context. The most difficult issue, however, has been dealing with the controversy of the “rape of Justice” cartoon, but Shapiro said that while he could defend a cartoon he had created, he could not take responsibility for readers’ interpretations.

An interesting panel discussion at the Via Africa forum on Sunday was with the editors of the book Load Shedding — Liz McGregor and Sarah Nuttall, with contributor John Hyslop — and Kevin Bloom, author of Ways of Staying.

Both books look at contemporary SA, with themes of personal loss and how to continue living in such a violent society. There are concerns about how to come to terms with painful events, especially where loved ones have been lost as a result of violent crime, and how to deal with the hatred that leads to violence, including self-hatred, which sometimes leads to xenophobic violence.

The topic of crime and violence continued in a slightly different vein at a discussion among local crime writers Mike Nicol, Deon Meyer, Joanne Hitchens, Margie Orford and new crime writer Roger Smith.

One focus was the rise of local crime writing as not only a popular genre, but one that is now being taken seriously and being respected. Orford suggested that one of the reasons crime writing is proving so popular in SA is that it is escapist literature. It is different from crime depicted in novels such as JM Coetzee’s because in crime fiction there is a resolution and criminals are brought to book.

Sunday was just as busy, if not busier, than the first day, and by 6.30pm the exhibition hall was far from deserted. There were, however, some complaints about noise levels , particularly with fans cheering on their teams at a 2010 Soccer World Cup stand.

While Monday seemed slightly quieter than the weekend, the aisles remained packed, and there were also a number of schoolchildren in attendance.

In collaboration with the Goethe Institute, the fair this year also ran an Africa Invitation Programme, bringing to Cape Town publishers from other African countries such as Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Libya. However, their stands seemed to be mainly unattended.

On Tuesday, the public holiday and the final day of the fair, there seemed to be a drop in the number of visitors, but only slightly.

One highlight of the morning was a well-attended talk at the Dalro Literary Forum by Mahmood Mamdani, whose new book — Saviours and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror — has just been published in SA by HSRC Press.

Mamdani examines why, when conflicts in Africa are so often reported about sparingly and shabbily, the conflict in Darfur has received such detailed attention in the media.

Debates continue over how many deaths have occurred in Darfur as a result of direct violence, and how many from disease and drought, but still there is often a refusal to look at the real causes for the conflict, to study the historical context and find peaceful and constructive resolutions.

Instead there is an attempt to demonise the perpetrators, and to advocate “good violence against bad violence”.

It was also extremely encouraging to note that while previous Cape Town Book Fairs have tended to be mainly middle-class white affairs, this year there was a noticeable change in the demographics of visitors.

(Published in The Weekender, June 20, 2009)

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