25 June 2012 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

Book it

It’s always a good time to indulge in a little armchair travel and explore South Africa with some of its best-known writers as your guides.

Nobel Laureate Prof Wole Soyinka at the 2010 Cape Town Book Fair. Image courtesy Matrix Advertising & Communications

Words make great tour guides. Whether they're arranged into fiction, non-fiction or poetry, or whether they're whispering quietly in the background or pushing ambitiously into the world, words build landscapes and identities out of nuance and clever metaphor.

Arranged in a book, they make places and people that are unreal become real; and they render real places and people new. And while a book’s engineering is an inherited 1 of syntax and grammar, its animating force is the imagination. This is what brings the words to life, as writers reach right into the history of ideas and frame a couple of them in a particular context.

This is where the magic happens, when the writer, with reader as co-conspirator, creates meaning out of letters on a page...

This is where the magic happens, when the writer, with reader as co-conspirator, creates meaning out of letters on a page…

There are a number of South African writers who do this remarkably well. They, along with international writers, are celebrated at book fairs and literary festivals around the country, the most recent of which was the Cape Town Book Fair.

There are many others: the Franschhoek Literary Festival, the Knysna Literary Festival, the Open Book Festival, Woordfees and the Time of the Writer Festival, among others. I have a particularly soft spot for the smaller ones, like the Herman Charles Bosman Festival, the Olive Schreiner Festival and the Richmond Book Fair – which I stumbled into on a cold Northern Cape evening, and which I remember as much for the whiskey and warm fires as I do for words. 

There are without a doubt many more festivals I haven't listed, not to mention less formal literary events and gatherings. Bookslive does a better job than me of keeping track of all things book-related in South Africa, and you should check its website regularly if you're interested in South Africa's publishing landscape. What’s really exciting, though, is that there is so much to keep track of!

Each week, there are new works of fiction and non-fiction on our bookshelves. Not all are about South Africa and not all South Africans write about this country, of course, but I do love reading books set in a local context. It is 1 of the most wonderful ways to discover more about a place. On a literal level, reading books set in South Africa will teach you a lot about the places you can visit. You can explore South Africa's iconic landmarks and its secret streets, its imagined aspects and its gritty reality.

Literature does so much more than this though. It interrogates, interprets, represents and re-imagines...

Read Zoo City by Lauren Beukes and you’ll understand what I mean. Read The Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda. Read Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. Read Mafeking Road by Herman Charles Bosman, After Tears by Niq Mhlongo, Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer, A Dry White Season by Andre Brink or Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (a journey worth taking on so many levels).

There are many more I could mention, in every genre you can think of. Page by page, all of them will introduce you to people more real than the ones on the street and invite you to understand the complexity of events that weave our histories and identities together.

As they engage your mind and senses, they all say something about the beauty, dysfunction, history, humanity, fragility, morality and diversity that characterise life in South Africa. If the writers have done their job well, you’ll find bits of yourself tucked into chapters, too, and if you're lucky, you get to keep them when you're done, or visit them again when the mood takes you.

It’s this astounding generosity that makes me love books the way I do. 

Which of your favourite books explore South Africa in words? Winter’s here and I’m keen to indulge in a little armchair travel…

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