Q&A with Time of the Writer Festival curator Siphindile Hlongwa

08 March 2021 - 11:46
By Mila de Villiers
Time of the Writer Festival curator Siphindile Hlongwa reveals what audiences can expect.
Image: Charles Dlamini Time of the Writer Festival curator Siphindile Hlongwa reveals what audiences can expect.

The 24th edition of the annual Time of the Writer Festival will take place virtually from March 15 to 21.

Presented by the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Creative Arts, this literary festival usually takes place in Durban, but owing to the era of the pandemic, it will be broadcasted via their social media channels this year. 

Festival curator Siphindile Hlongwa chats all things SA literature, the significance of the 2021 theme, and what we can expect from future festivals.

The 2020 Time of the Writer Festival was pioneering because it was the first virtual book event in the country. How did you go about restructuring the festival and what challenges and advantages did the online nature involve?

The 2020 edition came both as a challenge and opportunity, and we had little time to adapt the programme to fit on digital platforms. Usually, in the physical version, fewer audiences have access to the programme. The digital festival gave access to more audiences who were new to the festival. We are aiming to maintain this for future editions for local audiences to be incorporated.

This year’s theme, ‘The Writer: witness, canary in the mine, or testifier?’, was inspired by an essay written by American author Daisy Hernández in which she states: ‘While it may well be that no book has ever prevented genocide or fascism, we still have a necessity for literature to testify to the political conditions of our lives - not only so that we might have a record of those we have lost, but also that we might have a reason to gather with others to read and to continue resisting.’ Can you elaborate on Hernández’s observation in relation to the main themes of the author conversations, panel discussions, public participation programmes and exhibitions of this year’s festival?

We will have the main panel opening on March 15 at 7pm, a panel that speaks on the theme featuring Athol Williams, Brent Meersman, Mandy Wiener and Themba Maseko.

Throughout the centuries writers have been a vital cog in our societies. It is through their craft that we are inspired, challenged, invigorated. They offer us moments to immerse ourselves in deep reflect, to engage critically and analytically and also to re-envision newer possibilities we may not have thought about.

All the sessions will be broadcast via your social media channels. We live in a digital world - increasingly so in light of lockdowns and social distancing - and are heavily reliant on the dot com-sphere to stay in touch with local and international events. How can virtual book occasions reach areas without reliable/any internet access?

Initially we had hoped this years edition would be a hybrid version to give audiences a chance to experience the festival. Due to the new Covid-19 variant, we cannot risk the lives of our audiences. We are hoping we can share the festival’s recordings with community art centres we work with so they also screen for their communities.

The virtual nature of the festival allows for a wider audience and panelist participation. How much international attention are you expecting to receive in 2021?

We gained new partners and followings on our social media pages due to the festival being digital last year. We are anticipating more international partners because we have writers of international repute in the line-up.

Which sessions of last year’s festival were audience favourites and what one can glean from SA’s reading habits/our current zeitgeist from the popularity of those sessions?

The audience was generally very supportive of the festival and sudden change last year. We had the ‘luck’ that a lot of people were at home and felt defeated by the situation and as a result we turned to our cellphones and computers.

It was a very interesting exercise to explore the connection between social media and reading as a lot of people may pick up books to escape and stay away from the noise on social media. This time we had to bring the two together with online conversations where writers were going live during their virtual book launches and hold Q&As on Twitter and Instagram.

The many questions from readers during these live moments showed us reading is very much alive among a variety of generations and the connection between writer and reader is important to maintain.

Are we allowed a sneak peek into 2022’s programme? 

We are going big and positioning the festival as a gateway to African literature. We are going to be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the festival.