My South Africa Love Affair by Kate Furnivall
A smorgasbord of cakes and dainty scones is arrayed before me. My eyes are out on stalks. I ponder my choice, I reach, I raise a delicious pastry to my lips.
“How do you know what it feels like to be tortured?” a voice asks.
My cake pauses. I focus on the beautiful young university student seated opposite me. She has read all my books, so I have nowhere to hide. Her question attracts attention. I gaze around the table at the dozen eager faces, all expecting words of wisdom to spring forth from my lips. One person has a pen poised. I lick a tempting curl of cream off my cake. I want to tell each one of these passionate book lovers that they are the cream on my own personal cake.
The thing is, you see, I am a prize in a competition. Yes, I am. Really. Not one of my books. Me! Like a cuddly toy or a spa break at a Cheval honeypot. Scrumptious high tea with Kate Furnivall. Stop laughing and listen.
It all started quite simply. The wonderful Gemma – my Simon & Schuster Publicity Manager – contacted me.
Gemma: “Guess what? Franschhoek Literary Festival has invited you to come over as their guest to speak at their book festival.”
Gemma: “It’s near Cape Town in South Africa.”
Me: “Wow! Sounds exciting. Never been to SA. Always wanted to. A three-day festival will be easy, won’t it? Not too demanding. And I’ll get to see Table Mountain which is on my bucket list. Okay, I’m in.”
At that point I was frantically struggling to finish my latest book, The Survivors, by its deadline (deadline is a word that authors spit out like blood through gritted teeth), so I gave the subject no more thought. My head was in Berlin with a pelican called Charlie and a fisherman rowing past Soviet guards at night. So imagine my surprise when some time later I received a copy of my itinerary in South Africa. I blinked. What? It had morphed from just a three-day festival into a twelve-day flat-out speaking tour, starting in Johannesburg. How did that happen?
But the timing was perfect. Book was finished. Edits completed. So I bought myself a new lightweight shiny suitcase, packed my shades and my nerves, and trekked up to Heathrow. South Africa, are you ready?
What can I say, dear reader? It was thrilling. Spectacular. Awesome. An unforgettably glorious experience of a lifetime. Yes, I’d expected the unending blue skies and a landscape so vast it could slip the UK in its pocket. But I wasn’t ready for the warmth of my welcome wherever I went, the easy friendliness of everyone I came into contact with and the constant sound of laughter. There was plenty of that, I can tell you. And wine. Lots and lots of fruity South African vino to keep the voice silky smooth during all that talking.
It was late autumn in Johannesburg, so the temp hovered around 18c. Just pleasant. Out there they called it damn chilly. When I did a big book-signing one evening in Jo’burg’s wonderful huge main bookstore, Exclusive Books, (it has an amazing restaurant in it, so you can eat baboti, drink a macchiato and read your choice of book all at the same time!) my attentive PR/minder – the drop-dead gorgeous Jennifer B – was fretting that no one would turn out on such a cold night. Wimps, I muttered under my breath. In the end they turned up in droves for a fab boisterous evening. Red carpet and champers all the way.
I was petted and cossetted everywhere I went by the superb Jonathan Ball Publishers team and I loved every audience I spoke to, all responsive and full of questions. But it was impossible to ignore the elephant in the room: the racial inequality. It was all around me.
It saddened me that most of my audiences were 90% white. Blacks can’t afford to buy books. Blacks and whites out there inhabit different worlds and much of the time speak different languages. Many of the shanty towns consist of shacks you wouldn’t leave your dog in. It was impossible not to feel deep anger and sorrow, but the strength of the young black voices is growing and they are making themselves heard. I met passionate black men and women who gave me hope for the future of South Africa, a breathtaking country that I fell in love with at first sight.
- Sharing a platform at Jo’burg BookFair and Franschhoek Festival with the wonderful Kate Mosse. Huge fun.
- Sitting in “make-up” at TV studios at 6am for live breakfast television interviews and being beautified by a professional. Yesss!
- Listening to an author-talk by Sisonke Msimang, a young black woman. Inspiring and emotional.
- Visit to the Apartheid Museum in Jo’burg. Heartbreaking.
- A dinner where I got to sit next to two long-time compadres of Nelson Mandela. Beyond words.
- Table Mountain. I punched holes in the clouds.
- Being downgraded on my long flight home because of over-booking. Bastards!
Anyway so THAT’s how I ended up as a prize at a tea party in Johannesburg. And what was my answer to the student’s question about torture? I told her that the intense emotions of terror and sorrow, of love and joy are inside each of us. It is just a matter of digging deep within myself to find them. Yes, the process can be painful – but that’s what writers are for.
My huge thanks to Simon & Schuster UK for giving me this unforgettable experience.