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Niq Mhlongo

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Crazy Author Moment

June 2010, Hay Festival, Wales, United Kingdom. I’m invited to participate at the Hay festival. Bra Zakes Mda, Ben Williams, Imraan Coovadia, and Mervyn Sloman are here too. Strangely, we all do not appear on the festival’s program, and look like lost tourists. The weather is more African than English-hot as if we brought it along from the motherland. I like it. Bra Zakes lives next door. We are both lodged upstairs, and the owners are downstairs. The house is owned by a Welsh gentleman who is hardly here. His wife is American and she says they met at some college in New England. I have forgot where about exactly. What I remember is that she has studied some pottery, and that she comes from Rhode Island. She mentions all this over breakfast in the morning when bra Zakes and I are drinking coffee. She tells me her name, which she says is Carol or Carolyn. Her pronunciation of her name is too fast for my hearing and I’m afraid to ask her to repeat it. ‘It’s rude to ask someone to repeat their name especially if you are their tenant’- I’m thinking as she puts her steaming mug on the table. We are all looking at Bra Zakes who is busy perusing the program to see if he is not mistaken that our names are not there.

‘I arrived yesterday’ he says, looking worried. ‘I would not have come here if I knew I was not going to be doing anything. I’m supposed to be teaching my class at Ohio instead of being a tourist here in Wales.’

He puts the program down and takes a sip from his coffee mug. The circle of thin smoke is rising up from the mug before disintegrating into a weaving strand.

‘But it is a lovely place, and we have a lovely weather’ says Carol or Carolyn while holding her mug. ‘The river is down there and it is called Hay-On Wye. It separates Wales from Britain.’

‘Is that so?’ I ask, not meaning it.

We are just ten minutes drive from the Hay Town. All the festivities are taking place there. Seeing that I’m also not on the program, I decide to stay inside my room and write some Way Back Home chapters. Few days ago my publisher sent me a long message of concern after skipping three deadlines.

I’m busy in my room. I hear Carol or Carolyn call my name.

‘Yes’ I answer.

‘There is a guy and lady looking for you downstairs.’

The driver of the Range Rover and a lady are leaning by the car. I recognize the lady as one of the program coordinators. I forgot her name. The Hay Festival organizers want me to quickly come to the session. It is already on. I quickly get into the Range. Off we go to the session. Along the way the coordinator tells me that the author that is supposed to be on the session did not pitch.

‘Please, say yes.’

‘What is the topic?’ I ask

‘Just talk about your books and South African literature in general’ she says while looking at me from the rear mirror. ‘Don’t forget the World Cup.’

‘But I…’

‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.’

She gives me a paper and pen. Ten minutes later I’m entering the hall where the session is on. It is packed. Hundred, maybe more, I think. All eyes are on me. This is the kind of session where I need two fingers of whisky before I settle down. The moderator is a young Indian lady who speaks very fast. She pauses and introduces me as I make my way to the stage. Somebody rushes to ‘mike’ me. Within two minutes I’m busy telling the audience about my books and South Africa. During the Q &A they ask a number of questions, and I ramble on. Most of them have got an interest in the looming World Cup which will start in few days time in South Africa. I talk more about their safety while in South Africa than my books.
After the session, Ben Okri is presenting at the theatre opposite where we are. Everyone is rushing out to listen to him. I walk out with the coordinator and the moderator. They are busy assuring me that I did well during the session. There is a very long queue in front of us. It snakes for some few meters. We walk straight to the door and use our free passes to jump the queue. The theatre is already packed as we go inside with the lady moderator. The coordinator does not go in. She says we will meet at the Green Room. There are no more seats left so we join the people that are standing. Ben Okri is wearing his black trademark cap. He is facing the moderator, who is an elderly man. He sips a glass of water in front of him while the moderator asks the question. Everyone except me has a paper and a pen. They are busy taking notes. Even my moderator is writing everything Ben Okri is saying.

The session lasts for about an hour. The people are clapping hands after each sentence, even before he finishes it. The clapping is long and people are now giving a standing ovation. Ben bows about five times. The clapping does not end until he signals with his hands. Then silence. There is a long queue, and people are seeking his autograph. They are all carrying one or two of his books. My moderator and I walk towards the book stand, but Okri’s books are sold out. Luckily, she has a copy of the Famished Road. She insists she wants him to sign it. I tell her that she will find me at the Green Room as I quickly want to use the computer to send a quick e-mail to my publisher. It was a lie of course. I can tell that she might take long to reach Ben. He is very busy chatting to some few fans and signing their copies.

I get to the green room. I immediately pour a glass of free red wine. Ben Williams, Mervyn, Bra Zakes, and Imraan are sitting on maroon couch at the corner there. With a glass on my hand I walk to them. Ben is busy with his new gadget called Ipad. He is demonstrating to Imraan how great the gadget is and how to do what he calls ‘Blogging’ with it. I don’t know what it means but I don’t ask him. He will think I’m stupid, I think. I keep saying ‘okay, I see’ just to make him think I’m following him. From the corner of my eye I see a lady coming with a tray of red and white wine. The glasses are knocking each other as she walks towards us. Bra Zakes says no to the wine. Mervyn and Imraan pour some. I swallow mine at one go and then ask the lady for another one. Ben is now typing what he calls a blog on the Ipad. I act as if I’m so impressed by his gadget. The coordinator comes to tells us that some journalist from The Guardian wants to interview us. We all follow her to some room. Ben is walking slowly in front of me and he is still busy blogging. While typing, he suggests that we go to some place called Abergavenny for dinner the following evening. He says it is behind some black Welsh Mountains. Only Imraan is listening to him. Imraan who is walking slowly in front of us stops a bit to ask us what we think about Ben’s idea. It is a great idea, he says. Bra Zakes sounds reluctant. He says he might not be able to go because he has some writing which is due. Ben convinces him by saying it is a nice place. Bra Zakes grudgingly obliges.
We enter the room where The Guardian journalist is waiting for us. A smile is pasted on her face. She talks about the volcano eruption at a place called Eyjatjallajokul in Iceland that nearly disrupted the London Book Fair in April. She nods knowingly and rapidly when I tell her that my plane was also cancelled. I was supposed to be there with a number of South African authors.

The interview is over in about forty-five minutes. Bra Zakes and I catch the Range Rover back to our B&B. We leave Imraan, Mervyn and Ben behind. They don’t stay at Hay-On Wye. The driver drops us at about two in the afternoon and he will pick us up again around 6PM for dinner. A great night is waiting ahead. At 7PM a Cuban music band by the name of Buena Vista Social Club will be playing. I only know one song by them but I’m so eager to watch them. Bra Zakes says he is going and so I’m going. My moderator is coming as well and I think we are going to have fun. The opening bill on the session is by Toumani Diabate from Mali who is going to play Ali Farka Toure’s songs.

We leave the Green House dinner table and it is 6:55 PM. Bra Zakes is walking in front of me to the theatre where we are hearing the sound of music. The place is fully-packed so we decided to stand at the back. Diabate is already playing. Few minutes later Ben Okri comes and stands between me and Bra Zakes. The music is captivating. We watch in silence while nodding our heads in appreciation. We clap our hands in between the songs. Some group of intoxicated white females jump onto the stage and dance.

An hour later it is the Buena Vista Social Club’s turn to entertain us. The lead singer Eliades Ochoa comes on stage first wearing his trademark cowboy hat. He strums the guitar while singing in Spanish on the microphone. The crowd goes wild as the band starts singing a song called ‘Chan Chan’. As the fourth song ‘Amor de loca juventud’ begins to play, the intoxicated girls join Eliades on stage without his invitation. Bra Zakes and I reluctantly leave in the middle of the song called ‘Dos gardenias’ because our last ride is at about 10:30 PM.

In the morning at about 9 we are at The Green Room again for our breakfast. Bra Zakes is wearing his cowboy hat. I’m facing the door. I see Ben Okri approaching our table, his trademark cap on his head. Bra Zakes is facing me. He lifts his fork with a piece of scrambled egg to his mouth. The fork is half-way towards Bra Zakes’ mouth, and Ben Okri is standing next to our table facing him. Bra Zakes puts his fork down on the plate again without eating the scrambled egg. Okri extends his right hand and says:

‘Hi, my name is Ben’ he is smiling. ‘I just want to say thank you for the great music last night. It was a great evening, and I really enjoyed.’

Confused, my eyes are darting from Okri to Bra Zakes. Bra Zakes does not look confused at all. He is shaking Ben’s hand.

‘Thank you very much’ Bra Zakes says.

I’m watching Bra Zakes as Ben is leaving our table, but he continues eating his breakfast as if nothing happened.
‘And then what was that about?’ I’m asking him. ‘But you are not a musician.’

‘Niq, I presented with Ben Okri on several literary festivals around the world. He should know who I am by now. If he thinks I’m a musician that is fine with me.’

‘So he is mistaking you for the Buena Vista Social Club lead singer?’


‘Oh my God! One day I will write about this day,’ I promise.


Recent comments:

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    July 16th, 2014 @09:07 #

    A splendid story, Niq - thanks for posting it. What, you weren't impressed by my iPad? All of Wales was! ;)

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Niq</a>
    July 16th, 2014 @09:20 #

    I didn't know what it was then Ben...and you took my wine drinking time explaining it.


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