UCT English Department showcases some of its skills at annual Open Book Festival

24 Feb 2015 - 11:30
Open Book Cape Town


The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) English Department featured prominently in 2014’s  Open Book Festival. The festival is an annual event hosted jointly by the Book Lounge and the Fugard Theatre. This year, four of our post-graduate students were invited to speak at Open Book event about their experience of the English Department’s creative writing programme. In addition to these students, head of the creative writing programme Imraan Covaadia, lecturers Hedley Twidle, and Derrick Higginbotham were also invited to contribute their literary expertise to some of the festival’s most interesting events. With such a promising line-up, the choice of what to attend proved a tough one.

The four  events that stood out for me were,  in no particular order of importance: ‘The Art of the Essay’ with Geoff Dyer, Imraan Coovadia and Hedley Twidle, ‘I Write What I Like’ chaired by Derrick Higginbotham with Sheng Keyi, Fiona Leonard and Niq Mhlongo, ‘The Episodic Novel’ with Imraan Coovadia and Philip Hensher, and lastly, ‘Writer Sports’ with Niq Mhlongo, Sarah Lotz, Imraan Coovadia, Zukiswa Wanner, Mike Carey and Geoff Dyer.  


Twidle, Covaadia and Dyer debate the essay as form.

Dyer, who turned out to be one of the stars of the festival, chatted candidly to Coovadia and Twidle about the essay – a rather tricky form, Twidle suggested. Coovadia offered his perspective by describing Transformations, his collection of essays published in 2013, as taking the form of a literary experiment. The essay, Covaadia offered, functions as “an expression of doubt in the book.” Dyer agreed, saying he often thought of the essay as a testing ground for ideas. This, the three essayists decided, was possibly the defining characteristic of the essay as a form.


Niq Mhlongo was another prominent figure of this year’s festival. Taking part in ‘Writer’s Sports: Would I lie to You?’, Mhlongo proved himself to be adept not only at writing but also at lying. Perhaps, Mhlongo suggested, these are essentially the same thing.

Mhlongo showcasing his skills of deception, flanked by fellow panellists Dyer and Wanner.


At ‘I Write What I Like’, Higginbotham chaired a panel that comprised three very different writers. Despite their diverse styles, the writers agreed that fiction opens up a space for readers to think about the world differently, critically and sometimes brazenly. Mhlongo added that his book, Way Back Home (2013), began as a critique of the corruption informing South African politics after the fall of Apartheid. Leonard, on the other hand, spoke about her latest novel, The Chicken Thief (2013), as influenced by ‘what-if’ questions and saw the fiction writer as uniquely placed to tell the bigger story of a country. Chinese writer, Sheng Keyi, spoke openly about the difficulty of having her novel, Northern Girls (2013), published due to its critique of forced female sterilization. 


‘The Episodic Novel’, with Coovadia and Booker shortlisted author Philip Hensher, made for great debate. Coovadia commented (ironically) that he doesn’t understand young people, this despite his position as lecturer at the English Department and having recently written Tales of the Metric System (2014), which tells one of its stories from a teenager’s point of view. 

Covaadia’s latest book, published by Random House Struik.


These four events made up only a handful of events on the festival programme. That said, they are testament to the ways in which the Open Book festival gets better with every passing year. The UCT English Department is privileged to contribute some of its intellectual heft to this annual event.