A Conversation with Frankie Murrey

Frankie Murrey worked in the book trade for a number of years before becoming the Festival Coordinator of Open Book Festival, which runs from September 6th until the 10th right in the heart of Cape Town. In addition to working on the core festival programme, she works closely with others on CocreatePoetica, Comics Fest and the Youth Fest. She is the facilitator of the Mentoring Programme and the Open Book School Library Project. In 2015, she was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

When I was growing up, books were central to my entire identity. I’ve always been in library spaces around books, reading anything I could get my hands on. When I left school, it made sense for me to go and study English which is what I did and while I never considered a career in books or around the book trade, that is sort of where I ended up and I am really happy with that. It’s made my life quite a nice one. Initially, I was in this retail space but then seven years ago Mervyn Sloman of The Book Lounge approached me and said this is what he is doing and asked if I wanted to come onboard. I was like, “This is as close to a dream job as I am going to get.” It’s incredibly exciting being able to showcase the talent in South Africa, being able to create these events where these kinds of discussions are able to take place. It’s an incredibly creative space to be working in and very rewarding.

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Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

You’ve been with Open Book Festival since the very beginning, what was the process like creating this festival?

When we started, none of us had ever been in this kind of space before. None of us had any kind of event organization experience. The initial idea was to maybe do 60 events over the five days of the festival and almost immediately, the number of events doubled and we were just kind of making things up as we went along. It was an incredibly exciting process. That first year was chaos…controlled chaos. I think all things considered, we handled it really well but there are certainly things that we learned which we did our very best to get right for the following year. I think that the core to the festival is this thing where we try really hard to do something new each year so that even if you have been coming to the festival right from the very beginning, it is never going to be the same experience. It’s not only about having new authors, it’s not only about having different events, it’s also around bringing new elements into the festival which is how the poetry element of the festival came about [and] it’s how the comic book element of the festival came about. We are constantly looking for different things that we can bring to our audience and also new people to work with because obviously that is a really nice way to bring new content. It’s loads of fun.

And this festival is expected to be the biggest one yet… 

Yes. In May I was busy doing our events schedule, we have a whole lot of different spreadsheets in play at the same time, [and] I was looking at the one where I was basically just counting how many events we’ve got and I suddenly just thought, “Yoh. This is more events than last year.” It’s a lot of events. We’ve got 150 on the programme. A lot of those [events] are off programme as well. We’ve got things that happen at schools, for instance, that aren’t open to the public so you are not going to see them on our website and you aren’t going to see them in our printed program. It’s going to be good. We have a great team working this year. I think it’s going to be smooth and people are just going to be able to enjoy the events.

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Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

What is your favourite part of each festival?

I really enjoy meeting the writers. By the time the festival happens, I’ve had a lot of email communication with them so I’ve gotten to know them in a particular way. It’s really nice to actually just be able to interact with them face to face. One of the highlights each year is watching people coming out of the events. You can see that they have really experienced something that is going to stay with them for a while. I love watching writers talking to the audience. It’s just a beautiful thing to watch these writers spending time speaking to each person and then coming back over and over again even when they don’t have events to come and support either the new friends that they have made in the writing community or just support us as the festival organisers. You see a lot of the writers sort of making The Fugard Theatre their home over those five days. [The fact] that so many of the writers who are involved chose to spend the bulk of their time in events, even if they aren’t up onstage, says something about the generosity of spirit that they come with but it also says something about the kinds of people they are. That this is where their interests lie and this is where they are wanting to engage with people. It’s a huge highlight for me. A lot of my excitement around the actual program happens when I am working on the curation of the program. That is a beautiful process to be part of. We’ve got this list of amazing names and you’ve got all of these different novels that have come out, for instance, and you are trying to crystallize the themes in those so that you can imagine a fantastic conversation taking place.

When does the planning for each festival begin? Do you start planning for the next one immediately after the current one ends?

We’ve already sent out invitations for 2018. Particularly with the big authors, their schedules fill up so quickly and often they are full for years in advance. Directly after the festival we are busy during report backs and stuff like that to our partners but it’s like then you are balancing tying up 2017 while looking forward to 2018. It’s a year long employment. You can’t just step in in January and start planning. It’s certainly something that will begin in a more focused moment the second this festival is over.

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Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

And in addition to this you work with a lot of other organisations. 

We are always really excited to find people to work with. If everything is coming just from our side, you are not including enough voices. It is vital to find people to work with. This year we’ve got ACC, which has been a really fantastic collaboration. We are doing four events together. The group from PLAAS has also been a really interesting collaboration. We’ve also got four events. But we also have people who we work with not necessarily on a particular event but we work with them on who to invite. There are a lot of different ways to work with partners. A lot of it is around how well you know the partner. That changes how you are able to work with them. It’s that balance of working with your existing partners and a relationship that becomes incredibly deep versus the excitement of a new partner and a completely new set of voices coming into it. No one who is involved in organizing events is able to just do it by themselves. Collaboration is so important.

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Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

There are also quite a few events this year that are geared around women’s issues. How did that come about and why?

We’ve got a strong history of including issue driven events at the festival. That comes very much from us thinking that if we are going to be relevant to the city, then we can’t duck away from conversations like that. We don’t want to duck away from conversations like that. They are incredibly important conversations and we need to contribute. If you have a look at what is going on in the city and in this country, well globally really, you can’t not talk about gender relationships and identities and how those are being understood, renegotiated, [and] challenges that people are facing. It’s a non-negotiable. You can’t do a festival in this city or in any city, I think, and not have those conversations. I think, for us, it is really important to just understand, for ourselves, that we don’t need to finish the conversation during the festival. This is part of something that is on going. There are a lot of conversations that are taking place in a lot of different spaces all the time and this is how we are able to contribute to that [and] how we are able to be part of it because we are a part of this city.

I wanted to ask you about being awarded the French Order of Arts and Letters. 

It was quite surreal experience and completely unexpected. A few years back there was a lot of backwards and forwards between South Africa and France across all sorts of arts events, individuals, organisations, [and] lots of traveling between the two countries. It was such a huge learning curve to see how things get done [and the] different ways of doing things. I went to a children’s book festival in Paris and it was like floors of these amazing books. That is the prequel to how this happened. Out of that process, the French team were asked to nominate people and I ended up getting nominated. It was an amazing experience and obviously it was something that made me feel quite proud but it was also that thing where I felt [that] ideally my medal [that] I got should be shared by so many people because it is not one person who can make something like that happen. It’s certainly the teams in place including the French teams. I wish that we could give everyone who made that happen some kind of recognition.

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Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

Who are some South Africa women in the arts that inspire you?

That’s a long list. Let’s start with the poets, maybe? Toni Stuart continues to just blow my mind. Malika Ndlovu is an icon. I can’t say enough good things about either of them. Siphokazi Jonas also. I’ve had such great experiences working with her. She is doing some really interesting things in the world of academics with poetry and spoken word. That’s been really great to see. Koleka Putuma, who I think over the past year has just blown the lid off of what people expect from a poet and what is possible with poetry. I think that in terms of female voices in poetry and spoken word, this is a very exciting time. On the writing side, Pumla Gqola. She is the author of Rape: A South African Nightmare and in the last couple of weeks her new book, Reflecting Rouge, has just hit the shelves. I have all the respect in the world for her. She has such a way with putting things down in an accessible way. She is great. Someone who I haven’t met face to face but I am really looking forward to meeting is Malebo Sephodi. She has just brought out a book called Miss Behave which, in terms of tracking a journey of empowerment, I think it is an incredibly accessible read and I think it’s going to be one of those books that you find yourself giving to people over and over again. In terms of supportive people who I just find myself turning to again and again, Helen Moffett has been great. Karina M. Szczurek published her memoir earlier this year called The Fifth Mrs Brink. It is such a beautiful read. It is so gracefully told. It’s such a courageous book. The moment you are publishing something that is from your life, I think that takes a huge amount of courage to be that open with a reader and she has done it so well. I am leaving out almost everyone I know but let’s go with those people for the time being.

The Open Book Festival will take place from 6th to the 10th of September at The Fugard Theatre, District Six  Homecoming Centre, A4 Arts Foundation, PH Centre, Central Library Cape Town, Elsie’s River Library, Kuyasa Library and The Book Lounge from 10:00 to 21:00 each day. For further information visit www.openbookfestival.co.za.

Special thanks to Christine Skinner, Hannah Baker and Candice van Litsenborgh.

All photos taken by Candice van Litsenborgh at The Book Lounge on August 28th 2017.

Sarafina Magazine and Candice van Litsenborgh maintain copyrights over all images. For usage and inquiries, please contact us.


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