Some writer at the Hay-on-Wye litfest – I think it was the Spanish novelist Milena Busquets (but after three days of attending sessions back-to-back it’s something of a blur) – said that once you find your voice for a writing project, all else follows. Later, in the Commonwealth Writers session to launch Safe House, a collection of narrative non-fiction from Africa, I said that you needed perseverance, curiosity and empathy: all else could be learned. I do believe that when it comes to writing non-fiction, particularly the empathy bit, but as I listened to my fellow panellist, I realised that voice really did have to be on the list too.
For Safe House, HJ (Hawa) Golakai has written a journal-style account of being deported out of South Africa and then returning to live in her native Liberia at the height of the Ebola epidemic. Hawa has voice, voice in spades, and as she spoke in the session about her piece, she demonstated its range, and its depth, and its humanity. She became emotional about her family’s refugee history, and about the morbidity of life in a disaster zone. But she switched, on a knifeblade, to the kind of everyday humour that peppers her prose: “a girl’s gotta have shoes”. Listening to her, I realised that this was why I liked going to literary festivals: if great writers have distinctive voices, then what a thrill it can be to listen to them.
And so, yes, being a guest of Commonwealth Writers at Hay meant the wonder of listening to Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian Nobel prizewinner who is one of my favourite writers, speak a Russian that is both gravelly and soaring, even though I didn’t understand a word of it. Or of observing the intellectual banter, as if at the best possible dinner table, between Salman Rushdie, Kamila Shamsie, and the Latin-American greats Valeria Luiselli and Juan Gabriel Vasquez. Or of sitting on the edge of my seat during the performance by Simon Sebag Montefiore, who dances verbally on stage just as well as he does in prose.
There was some drudgery too, of course, along the way. And as I nodded off a few times while listening to other favourites, I pinched myself awake by reminding myself of an important truth, one that you should never forget if you go to a literary festival, or to any of the public events that authors are increasingly required to attend: a writer’s voice is primarily for the page.
In my youth I didn’t know if I wanted to be a writer or an actor. Fate made the choice for me, as I really was bad as the latter: I had a tendency towards bombast, and so was always Bottom the Weaver, or the drunk uncle at a Chekhov wedding. Finally, I called it quits, when after a summer school at a top drama school, I was commended on the bravery of my portrayal of a “pouffy” Oberon. I was actually trying to be commanding. Still, I won all the Public Speaking trophies at school. I know that my spoken voice is strong, and that I perform well at literary events.
But that’s not really what it’s about if you care about literature. It’s about the words on the page, these words you are reading, and how you, the reader, imagine my voice and my world, and thus breathe life into text. Much as I love literary festivals and actually meeting the people who read me, I love that imagined interaction more, although I can’t actually see it happening. Therein lies the alchemy of literature: the rest is just fun.
Mark Gevisser is a South African author and journalist best known for his biography of Thabo Mbeki, his country’s second democratically-elected president. His work has been published in The Sunday Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Observer, The Guardian and more. His piece ‘Walking Girly in Nairobi’ is featured in the anthology Safe House: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction.