Dis-art-iculate(d) continent ... in which, through a clumsily organised litfest, the writer emerges from Durban with a manifesto for rescuing her self-worth.
Of all artistic professions, writing is perhaps one of those where the inputs never quite measure up to the outputs. When Oliver Mtukudzi plays his guitar or Angelique Kidjo sings, those who listen to them appreciate and dance or are in awe and that is the end of it. With literature, every published writer has engaged with readers who feel that they could have crafted the book in a certain way to make it better. And that is when a writer is lucky. Other times the writer will encounter someone who informs them that they too have a book they have been thinking of writing --they just need to take time out from their hectic schedule so that they can finally execute it. Because unlike other art forms, many people believe that everyone can write.
As a family member once told me when I informed them that I was quitting my nine to five employ so I could write full time, "We all learnt to write in first grade, why can't you aspire to anything better?" It is this, I think, that has writers underrating themselves and willing to earn what other artists would never get out of bed for. I was one of those writers until this past year and it was all because of the Essence Festival in Durban.
Towards the beginning of the last quarter of last year, I became aware that the famous Essence Festival, which has taken place in New Orleans for over 15 years, would be having a similar festival in New Orleans' South African twin city of Durban. I received the communication from the person who had been asked to curate a literary part of the festival dubbed ARTiculate Africa which would see writers and poets having discussions and launching books. According to the curator, there would be payment for attending while travel, accommodation and food would be catered for. And as one of the artists in attendance, there would also be VIP tickets for the musical shows. It seemed like a festival one would not want to pass up.
After we agreed on payment, I sent all necessary documentation to ensure purchase of tickets within a week from the first communication. But then there was silence. Follow-up communication to check on delays fortunately elicited some response. As the event was partially organised by the City of Durban, information coming to me--and it would turn out, to many other writers who were invited--suggested that there was some bureaucratic red tape to cut through but all would be well. Having mentally bid farewell to cold Copenhagen where I was doing a writing residency, I finally received my ticket two days before my departure date and was set for sunny Durban. I once talked to a literary organiser who informed me that a writer had pulled out of a festival because they had been given an economy ticket. Personally, I prefer travelling in economy as much as I prefer road trips, as there has better material for writing most times but, I should have been worried when my flight ticket showed that I would be flying for a whole day with two stops in Cairo and Johannesburg. In fact, I should have withdrawn then. But the Copenhagen cold led me to make unwise decisions.
Twenty-four hours after I boarded in Copenhagen, I had finally arrived in Durban. The most organised part of my arrival was the pick-up. The driver was there on time. Everything else was chaos. On arrival at the hotel where I had been informed I was booked, I found out I was not booked at all. But by then the driver had left and I had to get a cab to the actual hotel where l was staying. Mine was not the worst experience though. It turned out that everyone who had been invited for ARTiculate Africa had had similar or worse misfortunes.
One of the writers had to buy her own plane ticket when the organisers took too long to send her one. They promised that they would refund the cost. Last l checked, she had not been refunded. None of the panels ran on time and it took a lot of vocalising to get the promised VIP tickets, which turned out to be worthless because by the time we received them, the artists we wanted to see had performed. A leading writer was barred from entering the space where literary events were being held because, as the security guards put it, "there are VIPs looking at art in there." The VIPs turned out to be the mother of some American pop stars and the wife of an American comedian. That African artists who had a valid reason to be where the visitors were walking were barred because of Tina Knowles and Marjorie Harvey's presence has less to do with them and more to do with organisers who seemed to respect the Americans over their own artists. But it left a sour taste in many of our mouths.
And then two months after the event, despite numerous emails which went unanswered, we writers had still not been paid. It took a leak to two leading South African newspapers for City of Durban to pay a few of us. Other writers wrote off their losses while the writer who bought her own ticket has had to send a Letter of Demand through her lawyer to the Durban Municipality.
What is interesting about all this is that it became apparent that everyone else who participated got paid immediately after the festival. The musicians, the former beauty queens who were emceeing events, the comedian and his wife, the mother of the popstar, the reality television star--everyone but the writers. Most musicians, for instance, receive 50 per cent before they even depart for a gig and then need to be sure that the 50 per cent balance has been paid by organisers before they can start performing. That many writers are the only artists who will attend an event without asking for a percentage of payment in advance, speaks volumes about how the world that purports to love literature sees them. But worse, how we see ourselves.
So this year after the debacle with the Essence Festival Durban organisers, I have resolved that I will not attend an event without getting at least half of the payment up front. Unless I am doing it for charity, I will also no longer attend festivals for free. I fail to understand why a festival organiser would pay the people who design the posters with the writers' names on them but not pay the writers that are there for the show. Because l love books and I buy many when I attend literary festivals, attending a nonpaid festival means I will be losing money from my attendance. It makes no sense.
So while the experience at the Essence Festival is not something I ever want to duplicate in my writerly life, I am grateful that I experienced it so that I never allow it to happen again. Previous festival experience had given me at least one of the bad experiences I went through at Essence but I would now be a fool to allow their repetition. NA
Caption: Left: Burna Boy wowing fans at Essence Festival. Writers should follow musicians' example and request 50 per cent of payment before they depart for an event
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|Title Annotation:||Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2017|
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