The Book Launch is a bookstore in the centre of Cape Town, founded by Mervyn Sloman, who did not listen to the discouraging advice of his former colleagues at the publishing house where he was working. He opened his Book Launch in 2007.On September 8, 2015 during the opening feast of the Fifth Open Book Festival, organised by him and his team, and after receiving the prize for the best bookstore in the country, Mervyn advised his teenage daughters urgently to skip school the days to come, because by attending the program of the Festival they would definitely learn infinitely more.That applied not only to his daughters. For me, as a guest from the Netherlands, invited thanks to the American translation of my book The Hormone Factory, this festival opened the windows to a multi-coloured, omnifarious, high-profile world of books, writers and book lovers. As is not often the case in the Netherlands, this international group of writers, there were more than 100 guests who attended the festival, showed plenty of commitment, civic engagement, awareness of history combined with great love for literature. The festival itself was anything but an elitist affair. The Book Launch supports an educational project that strives to achieve equality and quality in education and used the presence of so many people at the festival to raise funds for this project and also several guests gave workshops at schools in the city. Whether it was about sexual politics, historical intimacy, urban landscapes, race in post-apartheid South Africa, unconventional families, or one of many other topics that were discussed during the extensive program, most of the time interviewed writers appeared to be gifted speakers and enthusiastic and involved global citizens.
Mandla Langa, former exile and anti-apartheids activist described both on stage and in his ‘political detective’ The texture of shadows, how Apartheid has given space to the creation of exquisite monsters on all sides.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor used the colonial history of Kenya and the subsequent violent outbursts of the Mau-Mau and the murder of politician Tom Mboya in 1969 for her novel Dust to describe the influence of the political turmoil in the lives of ordinary people, as Neel Mukherjee did in his The Lives of Others which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. ‘For him,’ as Neel said in one of his performances, ‘politics and personality are not separate entities. Politics, is a way of being in the world.’
The fledgling musician Nakhane Touré wrote a debut in which gay and lesbian people are protagonists, not to emphasize the fact that they are gay, but because he wants to tell a story about people to whom heterosexuality is not the norm.
These are just some of the many meetings I had during those five festive days of the festival. The interview of the infinitely charismatic Antji Krog with the equally charismatic and wise anti-apartheid activist, politician, teacher and poet Matthews Phosa could have lasted for hours. It was a pleasure to hear them talk. About Phosa’s childhood, about how he had remained intact during the horrors of Apartheid. And it was a joy to hear them read from his poetry. He performed in English, she in Afrikaans.
Lots of events and people moved me, but especially the fact that in this festival things like; politics, personal life, commitment and compassion, empathy and militancy, were not seen as contrary, but as elements that could strengthen each other.
I thank Mervyn Sloman, but also Frenkie Murry, the programmer, the entire crew of The Book Launch and the Fudgard Theatre, under the direction of the power mom Iris Bolton, all excellently prepared moderators, all co-authors, and not least the public, young and old, male and female, black and white, brown and yellow, that filled the halls for five days.
And somehow I envy those daughters of Mervyn Sloman. To them it is kind of ‘normal’, their father and his crew organising this enormous festival year after year. How wonderful it would be if children and adults all over the world could apply.
If you happen to get the chance, do not miss Open Book Festival.