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When this year’s edition of Kwazulu-Natal’s most popular literary festival (originally scheduled to run 16 – 21 March) had to be cancelled due to coronavirus fears, the organisers had to think outside the box. Participants had already been paid, and readers were looking forward to interacting with their heroes. According to Marlyn Ntsele, the conversion from a physical festival to one hosted across social media platforms, turned on a dime: ‘We did not give ourselves much time, because we did not want to lose the momentum. Luckily the festival was already active on most social media channels. We needed a day to brainstorm and make choices between all the options and applications we could use.’

The program consisted of a series of Q&A’s on Twitter, live interviews on Instagram, Skype interviews, live readings on Facebook, Facebook book launches and a number of workshop videos writers recorded from their homes. Participating authors included Remy Ngamije, Lebohang Masango, Shafinaaz Hassim, Refiloe Moahloli, Fred Khumalo, Siphiwo Mahala and many more. The audience varied greatly, depending on time, medium and writer. Some of the interviews had over 800 views, some much less. 

Ntsele does not  however think the format would work if customers are charged for entry: ‘I think the advantage of using a virtual medium is that you do not only reach book lovers, but also many people in passing – who may have never bought a ticket to the event – their interest in literature may have been triggered by us. Once we make events like these ticketed, we will miss out on this advantage. It would therefore only be sustainable if there is funding.’Another good thing about virtual events is the gradual collecting of an archive of interviews, perpetually available for re-use and for upload to one’s YouTube channel. Ntsele, however, believes the online version of the festival is too exclusionary to become the norm: ‘Time of the Writer prides themselves in organising many panel discussions and “meet the writer” events at community centres and libraries. Due to lack of internet access, these communities were now left behind. We certainly feel that festivals like this may miss many opportunities by not digitising themselves more, but, at the end of the day, that personal face-to-face contact with writers is way too important to make it the only way. Also the writers are normally so happy to, for a change, leave their spaces and meet the readers in person. To conclude with the words of Zakes Mda on Twitter recently: “If virtual Time of the Writers works successfully this year, please do not make it permanent after Time of the Coronavirus. We still need to hug our writers.”’

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