On Friday the 19th September, I attended the Open Book Festival’s Off The Page event held in the Fugard Theatre’s Studio from 16:00 to 17:00 pm.
It featured authors Andrew Brown, Ekow Duker and Jonny Steinberg and was hosted by writer, literary critic and Cape Times book reviewer, Karina Szczurek and as the host, Ms Szcuzurek discussed the impact that the content of the authors’ books has had on them as individuals on a more personal level, as well as the writing experiences of their latest books.
The authors need little introduction but I would like to give a brief summary of their published works and awards.
Ekow Duker is a Ghanaian (though he now resides in Johannesburg, South Africa) part-time author who, in the past, has also worked as an oil field engineer and corporate strategist in investment banking.
His first novel, White Whahala, was one of the finalists in the 2011/12 European Literary Awards. His latest book, Dying In New York, will be published, along with White Whahala, in 2014.
Andrew Brown is a South African advocate who practises law in Cape Town, as well as working as a reservist sergeant in the South African Police Service (more commonly known as SAPS) and is the author of five previously published novels: Inyenzi (2007), Street Blues, Coldsleep Lullaby (winner of the 2006 Sunday Times Fiction Prize), Refuge and Solace, both released in 2012. His latest book, The Devil’s Harvest, came out in May of this year.
Jonny Steinberg is a South African scholar (he also lectures in the African Studies Centre of Oxford University) and is the author of books such as the critically-acclaimed Three-Letter Plague (known as Sizwe’s Test in America), Thin Blue (2008), Midlands (2002) and The Number (2004) – both of which are winners of S.A.’s top non-fiction prize, the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award. His latest book is A Man of Good Hope.
Ms Szczurek began the discussion by asking the authors what had brought them to writing and I found it interesting to see that, whilst the written word connects them, writers – and their reasons for why they write – can be greatly varied.
Andrew Brown’s response to this question was, “I’ve always enjoyed reading, I’ve always enjoyed writing, I’ve never really thought – I think I still don’t really think – of myself as a novelist or writer. My day job is law and that takes up the bulk of my time. I think my first book, which was, in the end, set in Rwanda (during the Rwandan genocide), was a book that I felt I needed to write, that I wanted to write – it was a story I wanted to tell… When I sat down to write that book, I never had a vision of where that path might take me – I certainly never had a vision that I would end up, six years later, at the Open Book Festival… So I write because I enjoy it, because I feel a need to write – I feel an emotional need to express myself in that way.”
He further added that he has “an urge to write” but that he doesn’t feel pressured to write, as some full-time writers must no doubt feel, and this enables him to keep the option of writing another book open without ever feeling it is something that he must keep doing.
Ekow Duker jokingly implied that his mother was to blame for his infection with the ‘writing bug’, explaining that, “She’s always been a teacher so she’s always said to her children to read a lot and I guess it’s quite a big step from reading to wanting to write a book.”
However, he said that he cannot not write, phrasing it almost poetically by saying, “When I don’t write, I feel like I start to die and start to shrivel – it’s something that I need to do.”
Jonny Steinberg told us how, while most of his peers had been out in the working environment with full-time jobs for a few years, he only completed his studies over in the U.K. at the age of 28, after which time he came back to South Africa and, in order to finance the publishing of his first book, he worked as a journalist for 18 months.
When asked what it is that writing gives the authors that nothing else can, their answers ran as follows:
Andrew Brown: “For me, I think it’s the freedom to create… that you can take your thoughts and your emotions and your experiences and you can choose how you want to present them… I love that freedom.”
Jonny Steinberg: “Well, I think all human beings need a corner of the world that you’re master of and that you’re, in one way or another, in control of because so much of the world we’re not (in control of). With other human beings, we’re definitely not in control of those relationships… we’re taken by surprise, we’re buffeted around. With work as well… and for me, writing itself is having a corner of the world which is mine.”
Ekow Duker: “I think that, for me, writing makes me feel like a superhero… When I write, it lets me get into someone else’s head, to get into someone else’s sex, to move forward… to move backwards in time… that’s an amazing thing.”
Andrew Brown explained that whilst writers don’t necessarily have to only write about what is familiar to them – because they can travel to new places and discover new things – but he believes that they “ultimately must have had some experience” when it comes to what they choose to write about.
He said that research plays a big role, be it of the literal or purely theoretical kind, and that, with his latest book, The Devil’s Harvest, for example, he actually travelled to South Sudan and explored the country, saying, “I don’t think I could have written a book if I’d never been there… (if I hadn’t) met the people and walked around.”
Ms Szczurek next asked how, once a writer has physically seen, heard about or even experienced dark and terrible things – as all three men have done in some way or form – does one carrying on living with those memories floating around in one’s mind?
Andrew Brown said, “I think by writing the book in my case… Yes, I did witness horrific things, I heard horrific things… and it is a very, very tough country (South Sudan)… with a lot of trauma in it… If I had gone and not written anything and come back and said, ‘Right, here are my photographs,’ and showed my family my photographs of South Sudan and then left it there, I think I would be troubled by what I’ve seen and experienced with it in my life but because I put it down into a book and tried to make some kind of sense for myself in the book, I don’t feel that trauma living with me – I feel as though I’ve accomplished something by writing the book… I think writing is very cathartic.”
Jonny Steinberg then told us that, although Assad – who is a real person with whom Mr Steinberg remains in contact with – is the main character of his latest book, he is one of the few people who literally cannot read the book and that is because: “People say remembering is good and it’s cathartic… I actually think in his case that’s not true. In order to be a powerful person in the world, you need to forget (them sometimes)… and I don’t think it’s useful for him (to read the book) – I think it’s useful for me and useful for my readers.”
Mr Brown gave us something to chew on when he said that, while many people are happy for their stories to be told by someone else, they don’t necessarily wish to be publicly acknowledged for their input or even to have the stories and the information they divulged to the writer traced back to them.
Ekow Duker told a rather chilling tale of how he attended an event in New York a while ago that almost 500 women were present at. Towards the end, the lady presiding over the event asked the women who had been abused during the course of their lives to stand up and he said that: “And for a moment, there was no movement and then, slowly, you saw one and then two, then four and ten stand…”
Mr Duker said that, in the end, almost all the women present had risen from their seats.
He explained to us that, “They see themselves in Lerato’s (that is, his book’s main character) story and that gave me a sense of obligation…”
After that, Ms Szczurek asked him where the hope in Lerato’s story lies and his response was, “I think, for me, the hope lies in the fact that she never gives up so she retains her good, she retains her humour… her determination, regardless of what happens to her.”
When Ms Szczurek asked why it is that here in South Africa we are so drawn to the hearing and telling of such dark, horrific stories and Mr Brown said, “I think that we like to make sense of our world and I think our world is confusing and dark a lot of the time and… whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, writing and reading helps me to make sense and… living in a country quite as exciting but as troubled as South Africa… I think to write the kind of Bill Bryson enjoyable book isn’t going to necessarily work… much as I love Bill Bryson.”
He added, “And I agree with Jonny – ultimately, in all that writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, you’re going to see some kind of resolution towards the end of the book. There are very few books that just leave you in that dark place at the end of it.”
When asked to give an example of just one lesson the authors had learnt from writing their books, the authors gave some humourous responses.
Mr Brown immediately said, “Use less adjectives”, whereas Mr Steinberg’s answer was that he would like to write shorter books in future, preferably under 200 words, although Thin Blue was actually a few words short of that mark.
However, on a more serious note, when they were asked what regrets they have, Jonny Steinberg said his was probably the ordeal of having to write his very first book and get it published. (which is, happily, something he won’t have to go through ever again)
Andrew Brown said that, while it was necessarily a regret as such, he finds it so hard to “let go of the book… of characters… of themes, of the place and move on.”
He described the completion and eventual hand-over of a book as having a real sense of loss because, whilst other people will now read that book, the author probably won’t read it again.
Ekow Duker said that he doesn’t really have any regrets at this stage, given that both his books have been published quitely recently, but that he believes that “things happen at the right time, so I’m very pleased with where I am in the course of my life and in the course of my writing.”
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this event and felt that I walked away from it with a sense of fresh lightheartedness, especially after the slightly weightier topics that were covered at the first event I attended on the day: The Daily Maverick Gathering (which took place from 11:00 am to 13:00 pm at The Fugard), though I must say that both events turned out to be huge festival highlights for me and for different reasons.
The authors and the host that featured in Off The Page were delightfully humourous at times whilst maintaining a good balance of seriousness as well. I feel like this helped to educate us as an audience – most of whom seemed to be eagerly lapping up every spoken word with enormous relish, as I myself did – without it necessarily overwhelming us.
My hope is that it will have served as an inspiration to budding writers and will help them to craft and pursue whatever literary dreams they may hold – because it has certainly done that for me.
I wish you all happy reading – and happy writing!