Sunday, 22 May, one of those glorious winter days in Cape Town: all light and revelation. It wasn’t even 9 am, but the queue in front of the Gardens Community Centre in Hatfield Street looked overwhelming.
“Do you by any chance have a spare ticket for sale?” a woman near the entrance asked as we approached. I shook my head in confusion, and her pleading eyes moved on to the next person. My companions, the writers Helen Moffett and Diane Awerbuck, looked just as surprised as I felt. This was no rock concert, nor a sports event. We were here for the inaugural Jewish Literary Festival. We’d heard that the tickets had sold out about a week in advance, but people desperate to get into a literary festival seemed quite unusual.
We were spotted by one of the friendly volunteers assisting festival participants and visitors (the lucky ones with tickets) and ushered through the security and registering desks. The crowds inside buzzed with excitement. “Are they giving away something for free?” I wondered aloud.
The idea for the festival was born in July last year. In February the organisers – Joanne Jowell, Cindy Moritz, Viv Anstey and Gary Anstey – asked Beryl Eichenberger and Caryn Gootkin to help with the marketing. Together they reached out to a team of volunteers, secured the venue and the sponsors, and began composing a programme which would “appeal to all ages and cover a range of genres” with the aim “to promote constructive dialogue and discussion in the true spirit of Jewish life without promoting any single political or religious agenda”. From food, sports, politics, academia and journalism to fiction, poetry or memoir, the topics on offer were geared to satisfying nearly all tastes. Seven venues, 49 different events, and a palpable atmosphere of being part of something special made for a wonderful mix. There was a programme for children, but I attended only events for adults. However, I often spotted young people in the audiences, which is always heartening.
The festival opened for me with “Faribels and foibles in fiction”. Next to me in the Nelson Mandela Auditorium sat a woman crocheting, while Rachel Zadok, Rahla Xenopoulos, Marilyn Cohen de Villiers and Liesl Jobson spoke to Helen Moffett about the faribels and foibles which drive their writing. What could easily have turned out to be a light-hearted conversation quickly became a serious discussion, as an appreciative audience member commented afterwards.
In A Beautiful Family, the first novel in her Alan Silverman saga, Cohen de Villiers wrote about abuse and domestic violence to counter the myth that “it doesn’t happen to us”. She was initially scared that she would be accused of fanning the flames of antisemitism, but her work had been received with gratitude. Similarly, Zadok, Xenopoulos and Jobson are not afraid to explore mental illness in their fictional and autobiographical writings, often giving voice to experiences which would otherwise remain unnamed. Asked about how to cope with the exposure, Xenopoulos, who has written a memoir about being bipolar, said, “You owe your reader the truth. In a room, the person telling the truth, the one most vulnerable, is the one with the most power.” To which Zadok added that “there is something about owning your story”, as well as about not fearing to communicate how difficult being a writer actually is…
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