Alan Paton Award shortlist: Maxine Case talks about the importance of the story of Papwa: Golf’s Lost Legend
Published in the Sunday Times
Papwa: Golf’s Lost Legend
Maxine Case (Kwela)
Briefly outline Papwa Sewgolum’s life.
The reductive facts – illiterate caddie, champion of the black golfing circuit, three-time winner of the Dutch Open, Indian golfer who beat Gary Player several times, 1965 Natal Open champion forced to receive his prize in the rain – are also the facts I attempted to rise above. If Papwa is remembered at all, it is for one of these things. I wanted to show him as a nuanced character and contextualise him in his world.
His story has been told before. What new insights do you bring to it?
When writing and researching this book, I found myself constantly wanting to correct published inaccuracies around Papwa’s life. It bugged me if a reported score was a stroke out in one source, when three other sources had it as something else. More seriously, a previously published work has Papwa dying in a shebeen. While this is dramatic and makes for a good cautionary tale, I felt that the true, unplumbed details of his life were dramatic enough without need for embellishment. I like to think that I bring a woman’s perspective to a story that in some parts is seen as belonging to the domain of men – and golfers!
How did you go about the research?
I was able to interview several members of Papwa’s family and had access to more than 40 hours of video interviews and transcripts of his friends, family and fellow golfers – all of whom had their own opinions of what motivated Papwa and how he’d experienced certain pivotal events. In addition, I spent weeks going through various newspaper and magazine archives, so that much of what I wrote, or alluded to, stemmed from published interviews Papwa had given. I had a copy of Graham Wolfe’s unpublished autobiography, which detailed the intersection of his and Papwa’s lives. I also had access to an extensive library of photographs. When writing about him winning his first tournament, for example, I examined the photograph taken of an exuberant Papwa clutching his trophy and used that as a prompt.
Your debut novel, All We Have Left Unsaid, won several prizes. Were you keen to try your hand at non-fiction?
Initially, I began writing Papwa as a novel. However, the more I researched, the more convinced I became that the truth of Papwa’s life was more intriguing than any fictions manufactured around him, and so decided to write a biography instead.
Did you find the non-fiction form more difficult to write than fiction?
What was hardest was to cede my authority as a writer. In writing non-fiction, particularly in trying to re-establish the facts of a character like Papwa, who died so long ago, I had to rely on the memories, impressions and facts presented by others, as opposed to the freedom of fiction which allows me to make informed decisions regarding my character’s journey and the creative licence to make things up.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
I hope readers will see that the book is about more than one man called Papwa Sewgolum. As a descendant, I wanted to tell the story of Indian South Africans. I set out to explore the effect of apartheid on an individual’s life, using Papwa as a vehicle for this, and in particular, the plight of sportspeople of colour during those years. I was interested to learn how boycotts and protests against the apartheid government’s sporting policies served as a catalyst for the dismantling of the entire system.
Transformation in sport is a contentious topic. How does your biography fit into the conversation?
It is my wish that the biography is a reminder of the great cost at which this transformation was achieved.
How has his family responded to this biography?
As far as I can tell, Papwa’s family are pleased, but you’d have to ask them. I could have taken a more salacious approach, but that was not the story I set out to write. That being said, I didn’t skirt around Papwa’s personal issues, or censor myself either.