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The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela
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There is a palpable hunger for Nelson Mandela's philosophy and values, particularly where human rights are under threat.
We felt this keenly on our tour of the US last year to launch The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela (published by IPG member WW Norton) and even more so recently in Brazil at the Mario de Andrade Book Festival.
It is not surprising that this craving for Mandela's ethos should come from countries where these principles are suddenly endangered; but it does remind us of the fragility of democratic principles and just how easily they can be undermined.
Named for the iconic Brazilian poet, writer and former city secretary of culture, Mario de Andrade, the festival was hosted by the Municipality of Sao Paolo from 4 to 6 October, some ten months after the inauguration of the nation's new president, Jair Bolsonaro. This far-right former army officer quickly embarked on a campaign of cultural censorship including banning books. He discriminates particularly against the LGBTQ community and people of colour.
His onslaught on civil liberties became a sort of midwife to the festival—a giant book street party of 150 events over three days, which sprawled into 11 districts. The idea was to mount a literary occupation of downtown spaces, long abandoned by corporations and the wealthy, and to embrace the communities left behind.
Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela, who wrote the foreword to The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, and I, were invited to close the event in tribute to South Africa's founding father, her grandfather, at an impressive outdoor gathering in the Square of Arts next to the gracious Mario de Andrade Library. The actor Felipe Soares read extracts from the book and the historian and anthropologist Dr Lilia Schwartz discussed with us the writing and editing process and how Mandela's incarceration impacted his family.
What struck us most forcefully was the audience's eagerness to hear of how other struggles for equal rights and freedom had triumphed; how Mandela did not give up hope in prison; that determination often pays off. At times they burst into chants of 'Lula livre'—Free Lula, in reference to their former President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is in jail for corruption. His supporters see his imprisonment as part of a plot to undermine the progressive leader, who they regard as their own Nelson Mandela, and which helped bring Bolsanaro to power. The Free Lula campaign claims among its international supporters Jeremy Corbyn, former French President Francois Hollande and US Senator Bernie Sanders.
The posthumous collection of letters Mandela wrote from four prisons through his 27-and-a-half years in jail is one of the most successful publications for Todavia Livros, which published the Brazilian Portuguese version.
Todavia's editor and co-founder, Flávio Moura, believes his country's political trajectory is driving publishers towards more of an activist role using literature as a 'weapon' against fascism. "It is very important to make a point about things which are very non-negotiable… rights, democracy, this kind of very basic stuff," he said of the festival. "For us, for the publishers, we see it as an opportunity to breathe a little bit because the atmosphere here is really heavy."
Moura is also a former organiser of FLIP, Brazil's international literary festival devised by English publisher Liz Calder along the lines of the Hay Festival. Every July since 2003, thousands descend on the seaside town of Paraty (pronounced Parachi), for the four-day festival and to engage with writers from around the world.
Todavia's list is half Brazilian writers and half foreign authors, including the co-winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, Olga Tokarczuk, whose latest work, Drive Your Plough over the Bones of the Dead they will publish in November.
Soon after his return from the Frankfurt Book Fair, Moura heard that the Sao Paulo Municipality had confirmed the Mario de Andrade Festival as a fixture on the city's calendar. A festival of works that have been censored by the Bolsonaro regime is also planned.
For more information about the 2020 festival, email Alê Youssef, secretary of culture of the city of Sao Paulo.
Sahm Venter is a freelance editor and writer based in Northern Ireland. Her edited works include The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela (WW Norton, 2018), Prison Letters (WW Norton, 2019), 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69 (Picador Africa, 2013) with Swati Dlamini and I Remember Nelson Mandela (Jacana, 2018) with Vimla Naidoo. Sahm also co-authored, with Ahmed Kathrada, Conversations with a Gentle Soul (PQ Blackwell & Picador Africa, 2017). She holds a BA (South African Economic History and Sociology) from the University of Cape Town and an MA (Journalism and Media Studies) from Rhodes University. To contact her, email venter.sahm@gmail.com.

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