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Read Dominique Botha’s UJ Prize Acceptance Speech and Karen Scherzinger’s Thoughtful Comments on False River

Lauren Beukes and Dominique Botha

Last night Dominique Botha was awarded the 2013 University of Johannesburg Debut Prize for South African writing in English, for her novel False River.

Lauren Beukes was awarded the R75 000 Main Prize, for The Shining Girls. The Debut Prize comes with an award of R30 000.

False River and the Afrikaans version Valsrivier have received a number of awards, including the Eugène Marais Prize, the Jan Rabie Rapport Prize for the best debut in Afrikaans, and the University of Johannesburg Afrikaans prize for creative writing.

The other shortlistees for this year’s UJ Debut Prize were Claire Robertson (The Spiral House), CA Davids (The Blacks of Cape Town) and Perfect Hlongwane (Jozi).

False RiverThe Blacks of Cape TownJoziThe Spiral House

Professor Karen Scherzinger of the University of Johannesburg, who sat on the judging panel, called False River “an extended, insightful and often painfully frank inscription” of the narrator and novelist’s brother, Paul Botha.

Read Scherzinger’s panegyric, or encomium, if you will, on False River, followed by Botha’s gracious and thoughtful acceptance speech (and scroll further for photographs from the event):

Keep an eye on Books LIVE tomorrow (Friday) for Beukes’ acceptance speech and Craig MacKenzie’s comments on The Shining Girls.

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False River opens with an epitaph that is in itself a contemplation on the nature of epitaphs: ‘As trees are the remembered bones of departed flesh, so the spirit imparts its own epitaph’. The source of this enigmatic description is, in a further doubling back of memory and commemoration, the equally enigmatic subject of this novel, the narrator’s (and novelist’s) brother, Paul Botha, for and about whom this book is an extended, insightful and often painfully frank inscription.

The structuring principle of this pastoral novel is based upon a young girl’s perception of her brother’s chaotic, passionate and frequently destructive life journey, closely paralleled by the development of her own dawning self-awareness, the halting progression of their parent’s marriage, the dramatic pulsing life cycles of a farm and its caretakers, the uneven, incongruous and often contradictory existence of liberal farmers in the Free State in the seventies and eighties, and the broader context of South Africa’s own perilously teetering history, in the twenty-odd years leading up to 1994.

This point of view – that of a child, mediated with the lightest of touches, by her adult self – is used to rich and varied effect in the novel. In the first place, it transports us into a long-lost but immediately familiar perceptive field in which the world is saturated with treacherous possibilities. For example, in the Botha’s farmstead, ‘Unsmiling portraits of dead people from the graveyard hung along the walls of the passage. Some of them climbed out of the picture frames and knocked on my bedroom door at night’ (15). And: ‘I got out of bed and opened the curtain to let moonlight into the hall. At night our passage turned to water and barbels swam below the wood grain’ (28) It is also a perspective that understands the world with leisurely, auditory and visual vividness: ‘I knew the sound that everyone’s car made over the cattle grid. Pa charged his bakkie in two by two, like the rigid march in my European folk music book with soldiers in pointy hats and golden lapels. Abel and Mary drove a tentative barcolle over the cattle grid in six-eight time. With Ma it depended on her mood, a quick waltz charging out, or a last one driving back, eating koeksisters in the car to finish before Pa saw’ (60).

This point of view is also the vehicle for much of the novel’s piercing irony. The young Dominique tells her story with a blithe innocence; an innocence that sets the adult world, with its post-lapserian prejudices, half-truths, and concealed savagery, into sharp contradistinction, and places the reader in a position in which she is continually compelled to read imaginatively and sometimes painfully against the smooth grain of Dominique’s naïve account. This extraordinarily skillful manipulation of irony is incisively deployed in a passage in which Dominique and her family visit the local agricultural fair:

For many years the church prevented the show dance on the Friday evening because they were worried about moral decay. Pa gave us pocket money to buy tickets for the fairground swings. We were flung in circles above the black children crowding outside the fence and they waved and smiled. I felt sick from too much spookasem and I closed my eyes. Pa said the irony is those contraptions were death traps and no-one should be allowed on them. Paul said he bet I did not know what irony meant, but I did. It meant something made of iron, like those death traps.

In this passage, the irony shifts and settles in different places. Initially, it throws into relief the moral relativism of the community, in which the correctness of a dance is worrisome, but the unthinking exclusion of black children from the fair is unexamined. This exclusion seems to go untested by Dominique, which therefore demands its examination by the reader; and her nausea, as a consequence, is patently as much an instinctive ethical response to the incongruity of the children’s apparent ‘smiling and waving’ from the margins of the fairground and Dominique’s vision, as it is from too much spookasem and the motion of the swings. Botha’s crafting of the event and the passage into an ironic contemplation of irony is a coup de grace, and is a marvellous instance of how the novel persistently, but never heavy-handedly, sets up the conditions for self-reflection on the part of both the narrator/author, and the reader.

In the early chapters of the novel in particular, the young Dominique’s innocent perspective is used not only in the interests of irony, but also in service of characterisation. There is the narrator’s father, Andries Botha, known simply as ‘Pa’: driven by liberal politics but constrained by traditional, conservative ideas about children and discipline; a benevolent if paternalistic farmer and employer who is in turns impatient and intolerant and loving towards his immediate family. His bewildering contradictoriness is succinctly captured in an early passage from the novel. Pa beats Dominique and Paul with his belt for a childish misdemeanor:

‘it is my duty to teach you the difference between right and wrong,’ he said, pushing his hand through his short, brown hair. Paul looked at the wall and said nothing. Then he wiped his face with his arm. Pa did not hit his workers like other farmers did. Or make the boss boy do it. Only once did he hit Goldberg with his fist because he lost his temper during planting season because of all the stress. Goldberg was one of Pa’s boss boys, but we did not use words like that in our family. Pa said Goldberg was his workshop foreman. (16-17)

Botha makes superb use of indirect reporting in her representation of all of the main characters in this novel, and never so revealingly as when she is dealing with Pa. His pithy proclamations about nearly everything one might care to shake a stick at are channeled through his young daughter, who repeats this received so-called wisdom with disarming naievety: ‘Pa always called the English perfidious Albians’ (10), ‘Pa said we had delusions of grandeur calling our vantage point a hill’ (11), ‘Pa said Rietpan lay at the end of the Voortrekker trail like a sigh of relief’ (12), ‘Pa said Ma’s cakes were triumphs of imagination’ (13), ‘In the summer our lawn rolls down to the water’s edge, softly sprung like a ballroom floor, Pa said.’ (13), ‘Pa said one must turn the tap carefully otherwise the thread strips and then it’s buggered’ (14). ‘Ouma carried her dogs past the birdbath into the entrance hall. Pa called them ridiculous, coddled pompoms (21). ‘Pa called Johannesburg Sodom and Gomorrah’ (40.) This trend of reported speech is turned deliciously on its head when Dominique observes that ‘Pa’s workers called him Oorlog, but not to his face’ (42).

Positioned fatally against Pa is his son, Paul: witty, troubled, doomed, rebellious, emotional, iconoclastic, imaginative, cruel and kind. Botha’s rendition of her brother is both wistful and frank, loving and critical. Her ability to maintain these contradictory impulses is enviable, especially given the fact that Paul is not simply a fictional character whose motivations and behaviour can be manipulated with all the freedom that imaginative creation allows, but the author’s brother in, as they say, ‘real life’. Her representation of Paul is bravely free of the pitfalls of nostalgia – idealisation, hyper-presence, and myth-making, for example – without forswearing the essential imaginative engagement that makes reading this novel such a rewarding experience. By way of giving you just a taste of who Paul is, and how he is crafted by Botha’s extraordinary prose, the following:

Paul hated practicing scales. He drew note names on to the ivory keys of our piano with a ballpoint pen. CDEFGAB. Ma was furious. The ivories looked like dirty fingernails. ‘Net gekke and dwase skryf op mure en glase!’ she shouted. She let him give up though. Then he became a Voortrekker. They learnt skills that were useful during the Boer War. On Fridays they hoisted the National Flag at the parade ground and stood to attention in the sun in brown polyester shorts, long-sleeved t-shirts and an orange tie pinned down with medals. After one term he refused. He told me that Voortrekker means wanker in English (33)

The portrait of Sandra Botha – Ma – is softer-toned, gently conveying the sense that that her world-view is far more consistent and coherent than her husband’s or son’s and arises from a deep well within. ‘Ma always used to speak out when she could have just walked away’, reports Dominique. ‘Ma always made us use the entrance reserved for blacks’ (18). Ma’s portrait is significantly coloured by her association with nature, especially the trees that provide the dominant trope of the novel, expressed in the epitaph that I referred to earlier: ‘trees are the remembered bones of departed flesh’. The novel is lushly canopied with trees, which, like the characters, are both indigenous and alien, thriving and waning, consoling and hostile. Botha constructs a veritable arboretum in which the drama of the Botha family tree is performed. For example, the continual contestation between Ma and Pa is instanced by the ‘only mulberry tree’ on the farm ‘whose ‘roots were lifting the graveyard walls near the ruins of the old house … Pa was threatening to cut the bloody thing down. Ma said he should fix the wall instead’ (7). Trees are entwined into Ma’s idealism and poetic vision, as we might tell from this extract:

We waited for Abram in the shade of a honey locust. Ma brought the saplings for fifteen cents each from the government nursery in Aliwal North and Abram planted them along the length of the road. They had to be watered daily and many died. In years to come, Ma promised, the trees on either side of the road would meet and fill with nesting doves. In summertime the trees were going to roll out a carpet of ruffled seed pods filled with sweet, sticky gum.

And later:

Christiaan and I lay under the seringa tree outside Ma’s office. Berries bunched against the navy sky and weavers stacked nests potluck on the naked branches. Ma said when seringas come into flower they smell like wisteria with pepper added’ (44)


A big peach tree flourished at the entrance gate. We never saw its fruit because children from the stat plucked the ripe peaches at night. When the tree blossomed Ma … drove … slowly and we lolled out the windows, dazed by the silky shoots adorning the pitted branches’ (60).

And at the end of the novel, Dominique offers Paul a poem, in which she describes herself as ‘waiting under the pepper tree’ and as ‘want[ing] so much/to bind you with words/to our place of origin/to begin again’. The bittersweet longing of this image is undeniable, but there can also be no denying the fact that both she and the reader are in a good place, under the reaching shade of that pepper tree, and that Paul has, as much as words can be binding, been brought, through memoir, nature, and imagination, to our vision and therefore, fleetingly, back to life. Paul might not have thought much about academics – we know from the novel that he called them ‘macademics’ who ran ‘univershitties’; nonetheless I am sure he would have been wildly proud to know that Sliminique/Dominique Botha is the deserving recipient of the 2014 University of Johannesburg Debut Award for South African Writing in English.

Karen Scherzinger
University of Johannesburg
October 2014

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Dominique Botha’s UJ Debut Prize Acceptance Speech

No writer ever needs to fear dark water or a clean page. All you need is a childhood. That original Atlantis where remembrance has been silted over by time. A wreck of loose thoughts and entangled pasts, sinking into oblivion, rewritten in coral, memories darting like skittish and vivid schools of fish.

And therein lies the ethical rub. From the outset I felt uncertain about my right to dredge up the past. And agonised how to garnish and serve up the offering, as memoir and thus the truth, or as a novel and therefore not the truth. A genre is after all an agreement, a pact of sorts between the writer and reader.

However, like truth and imagination, fact and fiction offer a slippery handrail onto an often spurious divide. Someone like John Coetzee leaves it up to his readers to assess the opaque overlap of genre in his writing. To flirt with literary categories is to hopscotch around the ethical challenges that a writer faces. A genre choice is often just a way of throwing a blanket over the intimate embrace of imagination and memory. For the writing to work the reader needs to hoodwinked anyway – the text must generate a suspension of disbelief.

I wrote False River with the intention of remembering my brother Paul. To bind him with words to our place of origin. Michael Holroyd says that recreating the past is a universal human impulse. We call on the same magic that our forebears did with stories of ancestors around fires under the night skies. The need to keep death in its place lies deep in human nature, and biography arises from that need. That is its justification.

From the outset I allowed myself to write freely in the manner of a novel. My intention was not to recreate history, but rather to pay a personal tribute of love. As you reconstruct past events you soon learn that history is the brick and story the mortar, and fiction the water. False River is a family portrait, but the lens, the frame, the background and the lighting is all artificial. And the photographer myopic. Like memory the eye is not innocent. I realise that the fading snapshot can only ever be a signifier of what was once flesh and blood and touch.

Grief needs a bandage. Like scar tissue prose and poetry grow over festering memories. One could stretch the metaphor of injury to the notion that our national consciousness remains wounded in the firing line of clashing histories, and continues to serve as a muse for the production of clashing histories, at times mumbling and at times tormented. And yet there is more than just consolation in the tracing up of absence. Because in time, or en route, I realised that fiction is what makes an approach to the truth possible. Perhaps because reality is always a creation playing off in the present, and that we need to make ourselves in order to know who we are.

Breytenbach tells us that it is inherent in the art of telling to reconfigure that which is told – as a result of the techniques we use to fix consciousness: structure, namely selection and rejection, and texture (the sounds, metaphors, and rhythms used to convey feelings and thoughts) and these get a life of their own. Observations are put away for later use because we do not write immediately. In this way experience gives shape to memory, just as memory gives shape to experience. We remember how we want to, often in service of the ego more than in service of the truth.

In real life there is too much minutiae to embody in a narrative. A degree of conflation is inevitable, leading to a melding of characters and places and events. Like a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, so the truth is often just the narrative that crossed the finishing line first.

In my book the spirit of place is centred on the family farm called Thornvale but rechristened in the novel with the more evocative name Wolwefontein. Wolwefontein was the original trekker farm that is spoken of in family lore as lost, but was in fact sold by a great uncle to recoup gambling debts. As child I breathed in the word Wolwefontein as if it were a magic phrase; forbidden ground lost beyond the river; beyond the present; inaccessible; there were wolves. Wolf is of course a naming error, an artifact from another continent. Vocabulary is the nomadic footprint that remains behind in language, long after a new destination of amnesia has been reached. Like a mnemonic device the choice of the place name Wolwefontein reminded me of the fragility of truth, and that all our stories are going to calve away into simplification and then cave into the void.

I wanted to honour my brother’s memory, but I also wanted to enter into conversation with a larger group of people, and succeeded in doing that by writing up his life. Paul Auster says that every book is an image of solitude. At the same time the end result of all this time spent alone in a room is a document that allows you to enter into a more meaningful form of connection with others than is possible in normal social interaction.

I agonised about the ethics of my undertaking but eventually the act of writing superseded the impetus to memorialise. To retrieve a memory is to commit a first act of fiction. To remember – to re-member – is to give hands and feet to crippled emotions and allow them to dance into metaphor.

What is writing is not an exercise in recuperating memory? It is stopping to listen – of consciously being alive and attentive. Memory is the mentor of imagination, as stars are its vectors. The discipline of writing is also a great gift of freedom – by writing one is gradually relieved of the sense of uniqueness of self. It is in many ways a liberating shuffle in the direction of humility. Yet other people may interpret ‘facts’ pruriently at face value because they are still living with the weight of ‘self’. If a writer is to write at all, the personal cannot be diverted from the communal sluice of shared experience. A writer mops up impressions and wrings out a narrative from spillage.

I realise now that everything was more complex than it seemed then, when we still lived in black and white. I wrote in English about experiences that were laid down and salted in Afrikaans. I am grateful to have regained my mother tongue. It is the source of origin and therefore originality. A language truly is more than a sum of its parts. Language is cultural memory, and carries the conjugations of history like a stain and a garland.

I also learned that although your cloak of words exposes you, the single naked voice is that of our common human condition and its search for meaning.

For this reason I feel enormously honoured that False River is being lauded by the University of Johannesburg in this hallowed space and in this company of writers and thinkers. Literature is a history of the imagination. Through your workings a last place of refuge is being offered for the single voice within that larger history. Thank you.

Dominique Botha

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Jennifer Malec (@projectjennifer) and Books LIVE (@BooksLIVESA) tweeted from the launch using #livebooks:


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