The Dinaane Debut Literary Award judges were full of praise for this year’s finalists at the award ceremony last night, with Fred Khumalo saying the submitted manuscripts disproved a recent article by Leon de Kock on the state of South African literature.
The other three finalists were Mia Ardene, for Last Gangster of the Old School, Mark de Wet, for The Forgotten, and Tiisetso Makube, who sadly passed away recently, for Doctor Don’t Weep.
This year’s judges of the prize, formerly the European Union Literary Award, were Pamela Nichols (head judge), Maureen Isaacson and Khumalo, who won it in 2005.
Nichols opened proceedings by thanking the Jacana Media Foundation for taking over the award.
“It’s a very important award, it’s launched some wonderful careers and some really wonderful writers, Fred [Khumalo] being one of them, Ishtiyaq Shukri, Kopano Matlwa, Ashraf Kagee and from last year Penny Busetto,” Nichols said.
“These are books that are taught in universities now, they are translated, they’ve been an amazing resource and contribution to what we can imagine. It was a great privilege to read those 31 books, to have such a cross section. And we read those 31 books and we got it down to about 12, and those 12 were fairly fabulous, and then we argued a bit and we got it down to four. So to make the four is a huge achievement.
“We read totally blindly, we had no idea who wrote what, and it’s fascinating to find out – and very surprising! So congratulations to the writers.”
Referring to a recent article by Leon de Kock for the Mail & Guardian, “Post-liberation writing plays hide-and-seek with plot“, Khumalo said the finalists for the Dinaane Award proved the former Stellenbosch University academic wrong.
“The other day I read an article in the Mail & Guardian in which the author said South African writers had lost the plot. That they didn’t know what to write about, and they didn’t know, either, how to write about it. This took be by surprise, because I had just emerged from the experience of reading these wonderful submissions to this great award.
“Here we have a collection of great, great stories by authors although unknown to the reading public, because obviously this is a debut competition, but it is clear that they know what they are doing with their art. And it is very heartening that we have a forum such as this through Jacana, which gives these people an outlet to show the nation what they are capable of. So the writer of the article in the Mail & Guardian was highly misguided. Here is proof that writers know what to write about or what they are doing.
“Reading these entries showed me how the authors are breaking boundaries. In the past, and I’ll go back to another story that I read back in 1995 or ’96, wherein a very renowned man of letters wondered aloud as to what South African writers would be writing about now that apartheid was dead. As if writers were inspired by apartheid only. It is true, obviously, that people wrote in response or in challenge to apartheid but when apartheid died it liberated us as artists to explore our humanity. And these people are proof of that.
“The kind of stories that have been told through the novels that were submitted bear testimony that the one big monster, the one ogre, that overshadowed everything is gone, now they can explore a variety of issues and themes.”
Khumalo called Miller’s Dub Steps “a dystopian novel that gave me hope”, saying it showed the possibilities that there are within the form of the novel, and praised the author for showing us a very different picture of Johannesburg in the future.
Khumalo also said Mia Ardene’s Last Gangster of the Old School was a great addition to the canon of South African crime fiction, competing with the likes of Mike Nicol, Margie Orford, and that Mark de Wet’s The Forgotten‘s contained “incandescent prose”. Lastly, he said Tiisetso Makube’s Doctor Don’t Weep “dealt with old themes of love and family but in a very refreshing manner”.
“So to the academic that wrote in the Mail & Guardian the other day, I’m sorry, I beg to differ,” Khumalo concluded.
Maureen Isaacson concurred, saying that she learnt a lot about the condition of South African writing from the award entries.
“I read from the manuscripts we read that yes, as Fred says, we’re happy that the beast is gone, but there’s a lot of incest, a lot of pain, a lot of desire, within a great deal of human relationships,” Isaacson said.
“I also learnt that there are indeed new ways of saying old things and telling stories, and that in the end the digital revolution has not really destroyed creativity but spawned a new and exciting, freer genre.
“I found people writing about empathy glands, and people unafraid to describe the language of the self-righteous, who go on about human rights, as bleak. I was fascinated by the way the human landscape is finally reconfigured in this time, as whites find themselves relegated to the spatial borders of conversations, and how they still seek relevance and meaning anyway.
“The need for expression and communication is so deep and wide, and we’re privileged to be given this first glimpse. Thank you, writers.”
Previous winners of the award
The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself by Penny Busetto (2013)
Khalil’s Journey by Ashraf Kagee (2011/12)
Deeper than Colour by James Clelland (2010)
Saracen at the Gates by Zinaid Meeran (2009)
Till We Can Keep an Animal by Megan Voysey-Braig (2008)
Coconut by Kopano Matlwa (2007)
Bitches’ Brew by Fred Khumalo and Ice in the Lungs by Gerald Kraak (2005)
The Silent Minaret by Ishtiyaq Shukri (2004)