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Robin Malan Awarded The English Academy of Southern Africa’s Highest Honour

Robin MalanRobin Malan was recently awarded a gold medal by the English Academy of Southern Africa.

Malan was honoured by the academy for his service in education, theatre and publishing. A gold medal is the highest honour the academy bestows, and it is one that Malan richly deserves.

Read the announcement from the academy about the award:

“Robin has published widely – close to 60 titles – both as author and editor, using predominantly southern African publishers to do so. He has written nine novels, an award-winning play, and edited more than 20 poetry anthologies, short stories and plays for adults and children.

“Despite his own literary achievements, Robin’s most significant contribution to English is his lifelong, unwavering encouragement of young people to appreciate and to produce English literature in southern Africa.”


New InscapesLeaves to a TreeWorldscapesSA Gay Plays 1The Young Gay Guys Guide to Safer Gay SexBurning a Hole in the PageYes, I Am!

In his acceptance speech, Malan speaks about his long and varied career and some of the young wordsmiths who have inspired him along the way.

Read Malan’s acceptance speech:

* * * * *

What I really like about this award of the Academy’s Gold Medal is that I see it as an acknowledgement by the Academy of work done for young people.

I’m not an academic, in the usual sense in which the English Academy uses the word. I spent five years at university, equipping myself to be a good English and History teacher and to make theatre with and for young people. And, after that BA (Honours) degree and the BEd degree and the Class Medal for Drama, I knew I didn’t want any further degrees because I couldn’t wait to get into the classroom and teach, and also get into the school hall to direct plays with the students! Of course, I did both of those. Often. And for over 50 years.

Over my long teaching and theatre career, I held a teaching post at only two schools: Cape Town High School and Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa in Swaziland. In between, I was the Artistic Director of two theatre-in-education companies, in Cape Town and in what was then the Transvaal. With Janice Honeyman as my Associate Director, we did great work with young actors interacting with students in the many schools we visited each year. In addition, at different times, I taught Shakespeare, English, and Drama-in-Education in the Drama Department at the University of Stellenbosch, and tutored in a bridging programme in the English Department at the University of Cape Town. Both excellent encounters with slightly older students.

In the school context, I loved teaching very talented senior students (Charles Rom comes to mind immediately, as do Dan Pillay and Naphtali Mlipha, Andy Foose, Khulile Nxumalo, Robert van der Valk). Every bit as much, I enjoyed taking the ‘non-academic stream’ of Standard 6s (Grade 8s): I got them to write masses of poems, the most interesting of which (never called ‘the best’) were then typed and pinned on the classroom notice-boards for all the other teachers to read. Here’s one of those poems, from Michael:

My home that would never exist

This place is a quiet place,
With gardens and valleys,
And woods of pine trees,
But it’s far from home.

There’s no killing or fighting,
But just peace and quiet,
And the people are happy,
But it’s far from home.

But when I think of this place at night,
How I wish it could exist,
So that there would be peace and quiet,
But this place would be far from home.

In my first few years of teaching, I was one of the founding editors of English Alive in 1967, and that brought me into contact with such extraordinarily talented young writers as David Lan and Nigel Fogg and Peter Terry; and I’m still in contact with all three of them, 49 years later. The association with English Alive has continued until tonight (and will, beyond tonight).

My work as a volunteer for Triangle Project, the health and human rights organisation for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex people has been very important to me. For instance, it brought me into touch with young people in my capacity as facilitator of the young men’s support group. That also produced a poem, discovered on the white board after a session. I don’t know who wrote it: the author signed himself only as ‘An inspired youngsta’:


I was a boy, I was a girl
I was someone in this world,
Yet nobody knew …

I laughed, I choked, I screamed …
I died. And still I was unheard.
‘An abandoned one, I suppose,’ someone said …

I was not one … I was a majority
But now I’m gone.

Over my 15 years as a Counsellor on the Gay & Lesbian Helpline I came to write many case reports, none more difficult and intense than my report on the many calls I fielded while on duty in the week of the dreadful Sizzlers massacre, in which nine young male sex workers were bound, gagged, shot execution-style in the back of the head and then their throats slit. It was a harrowing experience. In happier situations, I have had wonderful interaction with young gay men through my work with Triangle Project, culminating perhaps in my being invited, earlier this year, to André-and-Fabian’s wedding, having known Fabian since he was a schoolboy 14 years ago and having published a piece he wrote in one of my collections.

A different kind of writing resulted from my having looked after the Young Gay Guys column in the gay newspaper Exit for 11 years. In 2011 in response to an appeal from a reader I ended up producing a small book called The Young Gay Guys Guide to Safer Gay Sex. Because of their belief in the value of the book, the Aids Foundation of South Africa and Triangle Project saw to it that 14 000 free copies of the book were spread around in outreach programmes in the Western Cape and in KwaZulu-Natal. As it had to be, in order to be of any use, that writing was explicit, and so I won’t read you anything from the text, but I will tell you about the last page of the book, which took the form of a pledge: a pledge always to be safe when having sex. Readers could either sign-and-send that page to me, or they could SMS me their name and the words ‘I pledge’. Even now, four, five years later, every now and then my phone beeps and I see someone’s name and the words ‘I pledge’. I like it when that happens.

Back to the mainstream. Over the years I have compiled a large number of anthologies, starting with Inscapes, which went on to New Inscapes and then Worldscapes and then Poemscapes, all of those for Oxford University Press. I have met any number of middle-aged people who tell me that Inscapes or Worldscapes was the only book they chose to steal from school because they wanted to keep it.

Over the years of my happy association with the publishers David Philip and Marie Philip, more anthologies emerged, as did Rawbone Malong’s 1972 Guard to Sow Theffricun Innglish, titled Ah Big Yaws? In its heyday, I got used to coming across that book in people’s loos. It was also, perhaps more edifyingly, kept as a handbook in the library of the BBC’s Drama Department to help non-South African actors who had to do a South African accent; and, even more edifyingly still, there’s an article on it in David Crystal’s Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (page 357!).

In 2007 Jacana Media re-issued the book, with some updates that I culled from the Internet, in one of which the writer recalled that: ‘There was once a magic little book called Ah Big Yaws? written by the late Robin Malan …’

I have had many happy encounters with children and young people in the work I have done – and still do – for IBBY SA, the South African national section of the International Board on Books for Young People. I was Chairperson of the organisation from 2007 to 2012. Tomorrow evening, to mark World Book Day, I am facilitating an IBBY SA panel discussion about teen fiction with some young writers.

I have written four teen novels and a book for children. As the Series Editor of the Siyagruva Series of novels for South African teens, I wrote some of the books myself. But, more importantly, I interacted with new young writers.

And, from 2007 onwards, I have been publishing new South African plays as Junkets Publisher. These plays are generally written by new emerging young writers, and I love all the interaction I have with them, right the way through to the young writers of the plays in this year’s Zabalaza Theatre Festival just a week or so ago. I hope to publish some of those plays.

I sit on the Boards or Councils of the Arts & Culture Trust, the Cape 300 Foundation and the Caine Prize for African Writing. Their beneficiaries and grant recipients are generally young writers and young theatremakers. And so I am pleased to be doing that work, too.

That was a whizz-through of a life’s work!

I’m sure you will have noticed how often I have used the word ‘interaction’. That’s been deliberate, because that’s what has, I think, brought me to this Award, to this Gold Medal: it’s been interaction with young writers and young readers that has made me do the work I’ve done over the years. And it’s been my experience that, nine times out of ten, young people are good people; and … I don’t know, maybe seven times out of ten, young people are sensible people, even wise people. For all of that interaction over the years, I am deeply grateful to all those young people; as I am grateful, also, now, for this recognition of that work by the English Academy of Southern Africa.

My thanks.

Book details

Image courtesy of Victor Dlamini


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