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Read Penny Busetto’s UJ Prize Acceptance Speech and Craig MacKenzie’s Praise of The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself

Zakes Mda and Penny Busetto Win the 2014/2015 University of Johannesburg Prizes for South African Writing (English)

On Wednesday, 9 October, Zakes Mda and Penny Busetto were awarded the 2014/15 University of Johannesburg Prizes for South African writing in English for their respective novels, Rachel’s Blue and The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself.

Rachel’s BlueThe Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself

Mda received the main prize of R75 000 while Busetto received the debut prize of R35 000.


On the main shortlist this year were Mda, Jacob Dlamini (Askari), Damon Galgut (Arctic Summer), Lauren Beukes (Broken Monsters) and Johan Vlok Louw (Karoo Dusk).

Contending for the debut prize were Busetto, Masande Ntshanga (The Reactive), Jaco van Schalkwyk (The Alibi Club) and Nadia Davids (An Imperfect Blessing).

In his laudation of Busetto’s work, prize judge Professor Craig MacKenzie of the University of Johannesburg said, “It is rare to read a debut work so unblemished, so in command, so complete in itself.”

In her speech, Busetto spoke about the themes of trauma, memory and identity in her book, and the new questions that have caught her attention.

Read MacKenzie’s thoughtful comments, followed by Busetto’s acceptance speech and photographs from the event:

Keep an eye on Books LIVE tomorrow (Friday) for part 2 of our UJ Prize coverage – Mda’s acceptance speech and Ronit Frenkel’s comments on Rachel’s Blue

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Penny Busetto

UJ Debut Prize Laudation, 9 September, 2015

Craig MacKenzie

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all to this, the ninth presentation of the UJ Prize for South African Writing in English. A special welcome, of course, to our most deserving prize winners, whose novels were chosen by the panel as the best among the 60-odd books that were submitted for adjudication this year: Winner of the Debut prize, Penny Busetto, and winner of the Main prize, Zakes Mda. Penny and Zakes, it is our privilege to have you and your guests here and to be able to present you with these awards.

The prize this year attracted a very large number of entries. Shortlisted for the debut prize were:

The Story of Anna P, As Told by Herself by Penny Busetto; An Imperfect Blessing by Nadia Davids; The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga; The Alibi Club by Jaco van Schalkwyk.

Shortlisted for the main prize were:

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes; Askari by Jacob Dlamini; Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut; Rachel’s Blue by Zakes Mda; Karoo Dusk by Johan Vlok Louw.

So our winners had stiff competition, but emerged clear winners in the end.

Mda’s masterly and unexpected novel, set in Athens County, Ohio, and Busetto’s absorbing debut, set mostly in Italy, are prime examples of the newfound freedoms South African writing is reveling in.

Since the early 1990s, local writers have been progressively shedding the imperatives of the apartheid and early liberation eras — the first being to write against the hateful status quo and the second to celebrate freedom, but strictly according to ANC cultural desk prescripts.

Over the past decade or so, South African writers have been pursuing a far wider range of settings and thematic preoccupations. For me, this is an indication of a coming-of-age of sorts. Perhaps the fact that South Africa recently turned 21 as a liberated nation is meaningful in this regard.

Unquestionably, apartheid had a stultifying effect on South African literature in a number of ways. For one thing, it compelled writers to address local issues. Anything else was deemed escapist, or, worse, tacitly accepting of the regime. It forced “serious” writers onto the small canvas of South Africa, with its rigid social relations and predictable themes (among them, hardship and humiliation as a consequence of race-based policies and social practices, the dangers of interracial sexual relations, police and state brutality, the heroism of resistance to apartheid).

Necessary as it might have been then (although the role cultural resistance played in apartheid’s downfall is debatable), all of this has been blown away by the new wave of South African literature. Writers are now free to write what they like – and not in the Steve Biko sense (writing in defiant opposition to the state). They, quite simply, can set their works wherever they choose, tackle whatever themes they want, and choose whatever genre or style of writing takes their fancy.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the collapse of apartheid, and the advent of the digital age and globalisation have thus put a decisive end to a “national literature” in the narrow sense. This has, as I have indicated, given SA writers the freedom to use a wider canvas, something our winners tonight exemplify extremely well.

That by way of contextualising remarks about the wider setting of our authors tonight.

It’s my pleasure now to introduce the novel that won the debut prize:

Penny Busetto’s dreamlike The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself is set principally on the island of Ponza off the Italian mainland, but has a haunting South African backstory that edges into the narrative about a fifth of the way in. Anna works quietly as an English teacher on the island.

The surface serenity of her workaday life is disrupted by requests — desultory at first, insistent when she fails to respond — from the policeman Ispettore Lupo to see him at his office in Anzio, on the mainland.

What wrong-foots the reader is Busetto’s skillful presentation of Anna as harmless, and her life as unexceptional: she is modest and compassionate, a competent teacher who takes her duties seriously and whose only remarkable feature appears to be her slight eccentricity. Her time off is mostly spent roaming the island and enjoying solitary picnics.

I’d like at this point to quote from the novel’s preface, which is noteworthy in many ways, chief among them the way the author subtly provides some foreshadowing as to what will unfold. It’s very subtle, though.

I’m not sure anymore, how I ended up here on the island. I think I came to see the ruins and forgot to go back. The local school needed an English teacher and I was asked to stand in until the Ministry in Rome appointed someone.

That was twenty years ago.

I have lived all these years in uncertainty, knowing only that any day the real teacher may arrive. In the meantime a cheque has been deposited into my account each month. It is not much, but then I haven’t had many needs except for paper and ink to carry on this endless dialogue with myself.

Readers are later drawn to that key phrase, “But then, I do not make much sense to myself either”. It becomes highly significant as the novel unfolds.

The first clue that all is not what it seems is provided when we discover that Anna sees a female sex worker when in Anzio. Again, though, is this merely a quirk in her otherwise humdrum life, an occasional indulgence to leaven the loneliness of her days? Similarly, Lupo — “wolf” in Italian, which is significant, for this is how he comes across — is initially presented as a mere irritant, a pedantic plod who appears to be entirely on the wrong track in suspecting Anna of wrongdoing. Memory, or the lack of it, plays a key role in this novel.

The philosophical question that lies at its heart is: What kind of life could we construct for ourselves if we have no memory of our past? Is almost anything possible, provided that those around us suspect nothing and we are allowed to go our way undisturbed? Busetto’s skill at incrementally unfolding Anna’s story is one of her many accomplishments.

The shifts in the novel — from the dreamily surreal to the shockingly gritty and the exhilaratingly transcendent — these shifts are seamless and apparently effortless. It is rare to read a debut work so unblemished, so in command, so complete in itself.

It is my pleasure now to formally present Penny Busetto with the UJ Prize for South African Writing in English in the debut category.

The above is a slightly adapted version of an article that appeared the Mail & Guardian on 26 June 2015

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Read Penny Busetto’s acceptance speech

Good evening.

For most of my life, I suffered under the conviction that what I thought and said didn’t make much sense to other people, and so I spoke very little and wrote even less.

Even today I speak little and write sparsely, and the words have to be squeezed out unwillingly onto the page. So you will perhaps understand what I mean when I tell you that to know that you have read and understood my book and found it meaningful enough to honour it with this prize, fills me with a sense of fullness and wellbeing that goes well beyond the prize itself.

And so it’s with a particular sense of gratitude that I thank the University of Johannesburg and the judges, Zakes Mda, whose work I’ve loved and taught at UCT, my publishers at Jacana – Bridget Impey, Maggie Davey, Ester Levinrad, Janine Daniel – and my dear friends Tony and Hillary, and Anele, who’ve come to share my joy this evening. It is a great joy.

People have started coming up to me lately and asking me, what’s next? What are you going to write now? Will it be another story about memory and trauma and identity? I’ve wondered about this a lot in the last few days, while I’ve been sick in bed thinking about it.

At the time I was writing The Story of Anna P, I was feeling quite despondent about the way trauma seems to be passed on from generation to generation, often in very unconscious ways. I have begun to wonder what hope there could be for real substantive change for me, my family, for all of us in a deeply traumatised country like this.

I had a sense that we were trapped. It felt as if my book was all about the overwhelming power of the past, the impossibility of hope. I’ve come to realise that the question of memory bothers me less now, it doesn’t feel quite so urgent.

It feels to me as if there’s a new spirit in the air at the moment, new questions to be answered. Over the last few days I’ve watched on the news the tide of displaced humanity on the road across Europe – exhausted people trudging along railway tracks, men and women carrying children – always more children – perched precariously on unseaworthy vessels. And I watched with disbelief as the borders of Germany and Austria have opened and shelter has been provided.

At the same time I’ve observed the growing excitement around transformation at UCT over the last few months, have heard the word hope, which I hadn’t heard for many years, being used over and over again in different contexts. There’s a sense of purpose and energy among students and staff which feels new and unusual.

There’s a profound psychoanalytic idea about two main ways of relating to others. The first, a primitive mode called the paranoid schizoid, in which other people are seen as threats to ourselves, to our existence, our very being – so that we react by turning away and cutting ourselves off in fear.

The second, more mature way of relating is called the depressive mode, in which others are seen as human beings like ourselves and we can empathise with their plight. The openings of the borders on Sunday seem to represent such a change from paranoia to empathy. What’s been happening at UCT has something of the same feel to me. It may only be temporary, but I think it is worth acknowledging.

I think my new book will be different.

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Annetjie van Wynegaard (@Annetjievw) tweeted the awards using #livebooks:


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