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Liesl Jobson

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Not the London Book Fair, Youtube and Me

My original plan for this long weekend was to visit my sister, Megan, in Manchester after spending the earlier part of the week at the London Book Fair with my sister, Estelle, from Rome. We were going to cover the South African Market Focus, live-blogging the events for BOOK SA.

As it happened, I spent a lovely weekend with Megan in Cape Town. Her travel plans had also been thrown into disarray and was unable to return to the UK. On the upside it meant she was present at Not the London Book Fair held at the Book Lounge just a week ago. My account of NTLBF appeared in the Sunday Independent yesterday, albeit in a truncated form.

Because the uncut version gave a fuller account of the celebration, I’m posting my original here:

Leaving the UK’s visa agency in Adderley Street on Thursday noon with my freshly minted visa and DAC-sponsored ticket to the London Book Fair, the first whiff of impending calamity arrived by phone.

My sister in Rome, scheduled to join BOOK SA, the exclusive media partner covering the South African Market Focus, sent an email headed “Volcanic surprise”. She’s pregnant, I thought. She will be cross. But her message had news of a different baby altogether. Ash? Volcano? Iceland? Say what?

Soon, with 100-odd other writers and publishing industry professionals who’d invested thousands of hours preparing for this unique opportunity, hope was icy shards, stratospherically distant.

The emerging phenomenon was of such outlandish proportions. How would Mother Earth’s exhalations play out? A far-out proposal for a generous benefactor and a specially chartered flight for the stranded participants popped up, but not even Richard Branson could have saved the day.

Contingency arrangements sweated through the ether. Breathless conversations with volunteer back-up personnel advised how to set up stands and collect material freighted earlier. The show must go on, said Alistair Burtenshaw, the London Book Fair’s director.

Those who’d lingered in foreign departure halls returned, exhausted, only to discover rumbles of an underground event on the cards. By noon on Friday indie bookstore proprietor, Mervyn Sloman and BOOK SA’s Ben Williams were rapidly hatching a plan to channel the peculiar turn of events into something other than a stillbirth.

“Not The London Book Fair” would go off with a bang at the Book Lounge. South African literature would party, regardless. It would be live-blogged and videoed, linked to London. It would happen in reverse; a breech delivery, but a live celebration nevertheless.

Twitter. Facebook. Skype. Emails whizzed. Tickets were booked. Online friends offered their homes. Soon Victor Dlamini, Fiona Snyckers, Kopano Matlwa, and Phakama Mbonambi were flying from Joburg; Ingrid Anderson pitched from Pietermaritzburg.

Helen Moffett, just back from breaking the news of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in Delhi, was instrumental in organising an event that testified to the resourcefulness and resilience of South Africa’s literary community.

The evening kicked off with a video message from Alistair Burtenshaw and Amy Webster, expressing their dismay at the outcome. They promised to keep the pavilion going on behalf of those with scuppered plans. “There is a Joburg- and Cape Town-shaped hole at the fair this year,” said Webster.

Antjie Krog’s poem set the tenor of the evening: I belong to this land,/ it made me./ I have no other land but this one./ I do not believe in miracles but the existence of my country is a miracle./

Imraan Coovadia read an engaging extract on taxi poetry, Victor Dlamini’s insights and probing questions drove to the nub of of seriousness in which our literature breathes.

Coovadia reflected on how SA lit has been determined from outside for too long. “We’ve been told what to read from those who know what’s good for us. But all the interesting stuff, reflecting the different parts of South Africa that makes society interesting, isn’t on that list. If you read Coetzee, you don’t have a sense of walking down a Cape Town street.”

After readings by Liesl Jobson, Kopano Matlwa and Fiona Snyckers, Colleen Higgs spoke about Modjaji Books, an independent publisher that focuses on women’s writing, including the “unpopular” genres of poetry and short stories.

She had been looking forward to networking with other independent publishers – in particular the Norwegian who has bought the translations rights to Whiplash, the novel by Tracey Farren that was shortlisted for the 2009 Sunday Times fiction prize. “I’ve been practising so hard to be a ‘real publisher’,” she said.

Matlwa, whose second novel, Spilt Milk, was due to be launched at the fair, said she wanted to tell Londoners how excited she was at the wealth of stories coming from the country. Snyckers spoke of how vibrantly alive women’s fiction was. “From high literature to bright pink ‘chic-lit’, poetry and everything in-between, our writers are world class.”

The final event concluded with a panel comprising Arthur Attwell of Electric Book Works, Phakama Mbonambi, editor of Wordsetc, and Williams. They spoke about the challenges of raising the profile of South African literature internationally.

Mbonambi, who was hoping to secure subscriptions ‘in pounds’ for his magazine, said “We’ve put on a brave face. All is not lost.”

In true mythic style, several fairy godmothers attending any proper ceremony were present. The Annexe, Kalk Bay Books’ new arrival, provided a plethora of scrumptious treats to keep the festive hoard well nourished, and Leopard’s Leap not only furnished wine, but also created a video message of support featuring Not the London Book Fair attendees that was sent to London on Tuesday morning. At Not the London Book Fair, the link up happened at every level.

And how it has been my week for arriving on Youtube. Much to my surprise. After a life time of hearing myself from inside my ears, I find myself gazing at video clips on the net.

First, at the launch of Home Away, then, sending my best wishes to London. And now here:

Did I agree to this? I can’t recall that I did. Had I known how odd I sound, how peculiar I look, I’m not sure the self I recognise as my own would have consented had anybody stopped to ask.

Do others who discover themselves similarly caught and digitally rendered also peer through their fingers in morbid curiosity?

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    April 26th, 2010 @22:29 #
     
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    Lovely piece, Liesl. I see you have joined the throng of those disconcerted to see/hear yourself reading. It's part of being a performing reader...

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  • Estelle
    Estelle
    October 16th, 2010 @12:02 #
     
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    How delightful! Whenever I want my sister so faraway to read me a poem in her lovely voice and I can't find her online, I can look her up on Book SA. And others too. Bravo for cyberspace, that brings us together.

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