On Wednesday evening Lauren Beukes and Dominique Botha were awarded the 2013/14 University of Johannesburg Prizes for South African writing in English, for The Shining Girls and False River, respectively.
Beukes was awarded the Main Prize, which comes with prize money of R75 000, and Botha the Debut Prize, accompanied by an award of R30 000.
Craig MacKenzie of the University of Johannesburg awarded Beukes her prize, calling The Shining Girls a “highly innovative novel” that “blends time travel, serial killers, mystery and the evolution of Chicago in the twentieth century, all within the framework of Beukes’s magical imaginings and rendered in beautifully constructed prose”.
In her speech, Beukes spoke about the novel’s inspiration and setting, and why she wanted to “subvert the serial killer genre”. Beukes said she intentionally made her character Harper Curtis boring, and instead told the victims’ stories. She ended by insisting that as a society we “have to hold onto our anger about femicide”.
Read MacKenzie’s thoughtful comments, followed by Beukes’ acceptance speech and photographs from the event:
UJ Prize Laudation, 22 October 2014
Craig MacKenzie and Ronit Frenkel
Lauren Beukes has won the 2013 UJ Prize for The Shining Girls (Umuzi). This highly innovative novel blends time travel, serial killers, mystery and the evolution of Chicago in the twentieth century, all within the framework of Beukes’s magical imaginings and rendered in beautifully constructed prose.
Set between 1929 and 1993, the novel focuses chiefly on serial-killing drifter Harper Curtis, who moves through time in search of his ‘shining girls’ in order to steal their light by brutally murdering them. Only one of his victims, Kirby Mazrachi, survives, and she becomes the protagonist of the story as she begins to chase Harper across killings until the final denouement towards the end of the novel.
The narrative moves back and forth across decades, something that is made possible by Harper stealing a key off a blind woman whom he strangles. The key opens a house that is really a wormhole into other times while remaining in its Chicago locale. The house is filled with mementos of the women Harper has murdered, and is portrayed as an almost conscious entity in the novel – but its secrets remain secrets to the novel’s end.
Beukes plays with the idea of time travel in innovative ways. Harper travels through different eras, and Beukes points out the ordinary but spectacular sights that strike him as a time traveller – from the “the whirling and flaying brush strips of a car wash” in the 1980s to the construction of the iconic Sears Tower in the 1970s, and to the depression-era atmosphere of Chicago, which is when Harper begins to frequent the wormhole house.
Harper meets a ghetto kid (Mal) in the 1980s, and this provides the occasion for Beukes’s skilful presentation of Harper’s perplexity at being thrust forward in time several decades (he’s never encountered TV, for instance). But one thing remains constant across time. The deadly demeanour of a serial killer: Harper threatens to kill Mal, who immediately backs off, sensing the threat of real physical harm.
Unusually for a novel about a serial killer, Beukes does not flesh out Harper’s character. It is clear that she is attempting to reconfigure our global fascination with serial killers by humanising the victims in the novel rather than their murderer. Accordingly, she describes every woman he murders in vivid detail.
Harper snuffs out each of their lights, but his motivations and background remain inconsequential – he is really assessed only through these deeds. He is not a romantic character in any way, being neither suave and good-looking nor wealthy. He doesn’t have a ‘following’ or any sort of coherent ideological agenda, which we have come to expect from literary and media representations of serial killers.
The magic in the story lies in its against-the-grain depictions, and in Beukes’s blending of old genres to create something new. While Harper picks his victims because he is attracted to their shine, it is Kirby who becomes luminous by using what he does to her to see what others cannot.
Harper leaves something on each of his victims from the woman he murdered before, creating a loop via objects out of time that mark each murder as his own. Kirby is able to connect these objects to one murderer when others cannot, in much the same way that she is able to connect the man from her childhood with the impossible idea that he remains unchanged 13 years later when he returns to kill her.
Perhaps it is Kirby’s uncanny intellect, coupled with an inexplicable experience of the impossible, that makes her shine. The same can be said of her creator. Beukes’s foray into fresh themes and settings in her third novel sparkles with light and interest.
The above is a slightly adapted version of an article that appeared the Mail & Guardian on 6 June 2014
Lauren Beukes’ UJ Prize Acceptance Speech
Stories are doors. They are the way we understand ourselves. They are our doors into other people’s heads and I think it’s one of the most powerful ways of understanding each other. It’s the most powerful tool of empathy. And novels are a hit straight to the vein, you are mainlining empathy when you read novels.
In The Shining Girls I particularly wanted to subvert the serial killer genre. This idea of serial killers as these diabolical monsters who are so fascinating, and their families were eaten by cannibals, and they’re outwitting the detectives, and they are not that. They’re not. Real serial killers are boring, empty, violent losers. There is nothing interesting about them! The only interesting thing about them is the act of violence that they commit. And it is an act of impotence. This is their only way of being able to connect to the world. And it is pathetic. And the fact that we glorify that is pathetic.
So I really wanted to turn that inside out and to look at the women, to what we lose every time there’s a headline. And The Shining Girls was just about to come out when Reeva Steenkamp was murdered. And for 24 hours she was just Oscar Pistorius’ girlfriend. She didn’t have a name! Why do we exalt the killers and lose sight of the victims. I really wanted to bring that through in the book.
I was also interested in the loops of history, and the mistakes we make again and again and again. It’s crazy – we don’t learn. Ben Williams, who’s the literary editor of the Sunday Times, told me a very interesting story about Chicago, that the apartheid government went to Chicago in the 1950s to learn how to do segregation better. And the way to do it better is to drive a highway straight through the slums. Have you been to Cape Town recently? It is a universal story. We like to believe in South Africa that we do crime, that we do segregation, that we do racism, that we do violence best. And corruption. The reason I set The Shining Girls in Chicago is because I was interested in the twentieth century, how it has shaped us, and the same mistakes we’ve made over and over again. From the Depression to the recession. From apartheid to the war on terror, and how they used exactly the same tools to try and control us. This theory of fear that justifies anything. The fact that we are still debating about women’s right to control their body today! When it should have been resolved in the 70s already. And it’s so frustrating for me to see that. And I wanted a broad canvas to play on. If I’d set the novel in South Africa in the twentieth century it would have become a story about apartheid, and Moxyland and Zoo City are both apartheid allegories. I wanted to play with broader issues. But it is written with an absolutely South African sensibility, which is an awareness of social issues because we trip over them in the street here. Especially violence against women. And there have been critiques about the novel and about the violence in the novel. But it’s supposed to be shocking. Because real violence is horrendous. I wanted to tell the stories of victims who didn’t have a voice.
There’s a scene in the novel where Kirby, who’s had a terrible attack happen to her, is talking to Dan, who asks her why she doesn’t just let it go, get over it. And Kirby pulls down her scarf, which she wears to hide the slit where he tried to cut her throat. And she says: “How am I supposed to let this shit go?” And we cannot let this shit go. We have to hold onto our anger about femicide. And of course it’s not committed by serial killers, it’s committed by the men who are supposed to love us.
There’s a belief that feminism hates men. It’s not feminists who hate men. It’s society who hates men. Because we have such a low opinion of men. We believe that they are violent, that they are out of control, that a short skirt will incite them to rape. We need to have a better opinion of men. Men are people too. And we need to hold them accountable. And we need to hold them to higher standards.
Thank you, and thank you for supporting South African literature in such an incredible way.
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- The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
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