We wanted to listen to poetry. We arrived at the venue, a restaurant, over an hour early. There were no customers. The [white] owner / manager was behind the bar. He didn’t say hello. Then again, I guess we didn’t look like much. I was in jeans, flats, cotton jersey and a scarf my mother had knitted. The [white] writer with me is between jobs, and doesn’t dress to impress. But a waitress came forward: ‘We’re not serving food. There is an event tonight.’ We explained we’d come for the event. Were there any seats unreserved? The waitress smiled. Said there was. Told us we could have coffee while we waited. She sat us. We ordered coffee.
[White] Owner / manager didn’t say a word.
This was only my second year at FLF. Last year I’d been brought in as a last-minute replacement for another writer. I’d stayed at the Travel Lodge, cheap, clean and cheerful, which my stipend from the fest basically covered. I met wonderful people, my panel was with two writers I admired, and I had a lot of fun. This year, however, I was at FLF only for work purposes and not on the programme. Sill at the Travel Lodge, work was covering it, and the place remained clean and cheerful.
But FLF wasn’t as much fun. Some of it had to do with work. There had been a comedy of errors – not of our doing – that we’d had to scramble to fix. But there was something else in the air I couldn’t quite place. [White] writer next to me, who I had driven to the fest, had also noticed. Night before he’d been frisked. He had been walking along the streets of Franschhoek. Ran into a group of youths who’d come together after the news that BB King had died. The gathering morphed into a soccer game. This, apparently, warranted police investigation. The most dangerous thing they uncovered during the pat downs was a melted chocolate ball. ‘What the fuck is this?’
The venue was starting to fill up. A [white] woman – fancy scarf, expensive jersey, jewels so gaudy that if she swam with them on she’d have drowned – approached us. ‘This is my table,’ she squeaked.
‘We were told this table wasn’t reserved.’
She kept squeaking. Loudly. That she’d handed over her credit card. That we must move. The waitress came over. She calmed the woman down. She assured us we were fine at our table. Then she directed the woman to the table next to ours, ‘That’s the table you reserved.’
Not a word of apology as she and her party sat down. They were quickly given menus. Offered food.
We were offered more coffee.
We ordered more coffee.
People kept coming in. More tables sat. More menus dispatched. [White] owner / manager greeting many. Standing room was gone. Now there were people standing outside the restaurant, peering through the glass.
At last the poetry night began. First the [white] organiser of the event gave a welcome and summary of what was to come. Then the introduction of the first poet. A [white] woman stood up and read a few poems. They were cute. The sort that make you think, ‘Oh, bless.’
Next poet was introduced: Phillippa Yaa de Villiers. From the first line, she had me. Thus, I didn’t see him approach. It wasn’t until the [white] owner / manager was in my face that I realised there was a problem. He was loudly demanding we leave. He was saying the table was reserved. I glanced over at the bar. Philippa was still performing her first poem. But a [white] wealthy-looking couple was indeed standing at the bar.
We told the man that we had asked, repeatedly, if the table was unreserved, and we’d been assured we were fine. The man went on a rant – loudly – about his staff. He blamed them. Despite having been there the whole time, he claimed to have no knowledge of our presence, or why we were there.
Phillippa was still performing. It was embarrassing, such a scene. I told the man we would leave, but not until the poet was done. ‘It would be rude to get up during her set.’ He looked startled. Glanced back at Phillippa, as if he’d forgotten the poet was there.
The following evening I would attend an award ceremony. I’d RSVP’d, but was informed I wasn’t on the guest list. An admin mistake, perhaps. My publishers got me in. During the event I met a lot of wonderful people. Discussed interesting possibilities for work. But at one point I found myself awkwardly jammed against a wall, hemmed in by the crowd, while a prominent male author conversed with my left breast. Or maybe he was simply shy, found it hard to make eye contact. Regardless, it was a relief when the crowd shifted and I could break free.
It is now over a month since FLF, yet people continue to ask me about how the weekend went. I think of the festival. I think of the literary debates. ‘Interesting times,’ I say.
This post originally featured on Books Live