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Centre for Creative Arts

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Writers Address Free Speech at the Opening of Time of the Writer 2012

The 15th Time of the Writer International Writers Festival opened last night to a packed auditorium at Durban’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre. The evening was hosted by Karabo Kgoleng, Books Editor of the City Press.

Peter Rorvik, director of the festival’s founding body, the Centre for Creative Arts, began the evening by speaking about the importance of fighting censorship. He noted that free speech is a right which needs to be nurtured and that the arts must contribute to the creation of a vibrant civil society. Rorvik reminded his audiece that the right to freedom of speech is under threat as the government pushes for the passing of the Protection of State Information Bill.

Nigerian author Chris Abani continued where Rorvik left off, arguing that it would be a shame for South Africa to lose, in this way, all the gains it won during its transition to democracy. Abani, author of such novels as Graceland and Song for the Night, reflected on the role of writers as “curators of humanity”. Kgoleng concurred, saying that it’s a sad irony that South Africa is “fighting for its constitution, instead of celebrating it”. Pertinently, in addition to celebrating 15 years of South Africa’s Constitution, 2012 also marks 15 years of Time of the Writer. Time of the Writer, noted Kgoleng, is as old as our constitution.

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When Libya’s Ibrahim al-Koni took to the stage, he explained his belief that he writes to “save” his people, the Tuareg. Meanwhile, Sefi Atta, a Nigerian author currently living in the US, mentioned how she is less afraid of government response to her writing than she is of criticism from her community, which she described as being quite conservative. However, Atta also noted that fear of repercussions should not hold writers back – African writers are “changing the world”, she said.

Jamaica’s Colin Channer followed Atta, taking a fairly different approach. He performed a poem in Jamaican Creole which had, as its subject, the experience of being in South Africa. Channer’s poem was translated for the audience by Kwame Dawes, author of Wheels, who concluded that South Africa represents “everything about struggle and identity”.

Next up was Ronnie Kasrils, winner of last year’s Sunday Times Alan Paton Award for The Unlikely Secret Agent. Kasrils returned the discussion to the Protection of Information Bill, which he referred to as “a dog’s breakfast of toxic gruel”. For Kasrils, it is imperative that the controversial bill contain a Public Interest Defence clause and that South Africa continue to be a “torch-bearer” for human rights.

Assuming a more personal tone, Shubnum Khan spoke about the role of a writer and how it is both “humbling and terrifying to realise that the things I write can affect people”. Literature, according to Khan, is fragile and can easily be destroyed if not fought for. Ghana’s Benjamin Kwakye, author of Eyes of the Slain Woman, reiterated the view that writers must challenge tyranny and oppression.

Jassy Mackenzie delivered a short explanation as to why she writes crime fiction. Mackenzie argued that crime fiction, which negotiates the “fine line between order and violence”, helps her to explore the concept of “the city” in a new way. Chris Marnewick, a Durbanite now living in New Zealand, spoke about writers as an “endangered species”. He believes that the writer’s job is to expose what people want to hide. Unlike Mackenzie, Marnewick was adamant that he is not a crime writer. His novels are steeped in politics; they are about state crimes.

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Leila Marouane, an Algerian author based in France, followed Marnewick, giving an account of why she gave up writing overtly political books, and now writes about sex. Marouane warmed the hearts of audience members by reading the affectionate inscription Lewis Nkosi addressed to her in her copy of Mating Birds. She said that it was Nkosi’s writing that first formulated her impression of the city of Durban. Thando Mgqolozana and Kgebetli Moele followed on from Marouane. Mgqolozana emphasised the importance of reading, while Moele gave an account of why he writes.

Yewande Omotoso, author of Bom Boy, read from Martin Carter’s “A mouth is always muzzled”, a poem she always returns to when she feels “despairing”. Omotoso said that, while she thinks writing may be able to save the world, it is not doing so fast enough. Echoing the words of David wa Maahlamela, who spoke about the importance of maintaining a connection with indigenous languages, Dumisane Sibiya reflected on how these languages become “infantilised” as a result of publishing pressures and limited resources.

Last to speak was Egyptian writer Bahaa Taher, author of Sunset Oasis. Baheer spoke about the difficulties that Egyptians are facing post-Tahrir, especially now that it is becoming clear that the Arab Spring has not been completely successful. Taher’s impassioned address neatly rounded off a series of interesting reflections by a diverse range of voices.

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Tweets from the opening night:

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Photo by Sarah Dawson courtesy Time of the Writer on Facebook


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