It’s Open Book Festival time at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town. Yesterday I managed to tear myself from the scintillating people watching of literary, wannabe-literary and hipster types in the ruggedly plastered book and bar-lined lobby to attend the Travel Writing panel discussion chaired by Don Pinnock.
Once editor of Getaway and travel writer extraordinaire, Don gently probed the panelists, all of whom he knows well, with humour and insight.
Sitting next to him was Justin Fox (former editor-at-large of Getaway, academic, author of travelogues and a new novel), Martinique Stilwell (author of Thinking up a Hurricane, wife, mom and anesthetist) and Sihle Khumalo (property developing corporate and author of three published books including The Dark Continent, My Black Arse and Almost Sleeping my Way to Timbuktu).
Don started of by asking each of the panelists what they thought travel writing was, and each of their answers revealed as much about their own personalities as it did about the genre. Fox went through the full literary spectrum of this “capacious genre” (reportage, journalism, new journalism, travel narrative, travel memoir, blogging and fiction), in true literary critic style. Khumalo sees it as simply the relaying of a story, of an experience for a reader who might never be able to travel to where one is, except through the pages of the book. As well as tagging his writing style as that of “a grumpy old man”, Pinnock described Khumalo’s narrative as one where “every bump in the road” can be felt. Stilwell distilled the art to the essentials – “stuff that happens while you travel” – a person (usually male and from the West) describing their travels. She also emphasised that blogging has changed the traditional travel writing sphere, and mentioned that a new form of travel writing that is being seen more and more is that of an author immersing him or herself in a place for a longer period of time, and reporting their experiences.
When asked about who their writing influences were, Bryson and Theroux were common to almost all of them. Stilwell admitted to enjoying the style of “grumpy old men” such as those mentioned above and also enjoyed the writing of Kapuściński (author of In the Shadow of the Sun). Her own work of family memoir is closely related to the style of Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. Khumalo enjoyed many Cape-to-Cairo narratives before embarking on the trip himself, such as Just Add Dust (by Fox, Pinnock et al). Fox enjoyed Bruce Chatwin for his elliptical style, as well as Jonathan Raymond.
Everyone writes through the eyes of a narrator, a character who is a part or version of yourself. As Fox says, “Bill Bryson, I’m sure, is not nearly as funny in real life”. Fox is himself still finding his own narrative persona and has tried a humorous, self-effacing Bryson style, a pragmatic, cynical Theroux style and yet another voice in his upcoming Somali pirate novel. As her book started when she was nine and finished when she was sixteen years old, Stilwell (having had the adventure thrust upon her and not having had the narrative control of planning her trip) had to adjust her voice and tone to allow for the growing consciousness of a growing child. She says that one of her secrets is to describe something through the eyes of a child that the child doesn’t understand, but that the reader is able to understand from the child’s description. Next time she writes a book she’d like the narrator to fall into the background as other characters and places take centre stage. While Pinnock describes Khumalo as “a very thirsty man”, Khumalo says, with a refreshing lack of airs, graces and self-consciousness, that he doesn’t give conscious effort to his voice, but just tells his story as “an open-minded adventurous man exploring his own continent”.
Justin Fox cleverly evaded Pinnock’s question of how much he ‘cheated’ as a travel writer and was able to laughingly pass the buck to Stilwell, after admitting that writing tries to encapsulate “the spirit of the truth” which is academia literary jargon for ‘I changed and created what I needed to so that it is true to my perspective’ indeed. As it was impossible for her to remember exact dialogue from decades ago, Stilwell has reconstructed it around the very real facts of her family’s journey, describing dialogue as “a sketch of what somebody says”. Khumalo takes note ever night of his day “sometimes under very trying circumstances” and really enjoys the process once he is reliving his trips from the comfort of his own home and Pinnock agreed, saying that sometimes “it’s better to have been somewhere than to be there”.
Lastly, the writers discussed and commiserated about the publishing industry. It’s interesting to know that Fox’s first three books were rejected by publishers and only his fourth was accepted. He is now proud author of eleven published books. Print runs in South Africa are remarkably small, not helped by the fact that, as Khumalo said, there is not a general culture of reading books in South Africa. A lot of reading has migrated to on-screen media (Fox mentioned Mampoer and Mahala as platforms) and as Stilwell said, young people “consume instead of read information”. The value added tax on books in South Africa make them very expensive. A hand-raised consensus showed that the crowed was unanimously agreed that it should be removed.
Although I would have liked to hear a bit more about travel writing from Pinnock himself, and about the mechanics of it from the others, the discussion was an interesting look into the perspectives of successful South African writers. As a result of the conversation I would really like to read Thinking Up a Hurricane and can’t wait to read any and all of Khumalo’s books. His funny, forthright style, relaxed way of speaking positively about Africa and South Africa and lack of any self-importance completely won the audience over. I can’t wait to see what he does next!