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‘We are each the narrators of our own truth’ – Read Craig Higginson’s 2015/16 University of Johannesburg Prize acceptance speech

Craig Higginson, Eliza Kentridge and Nkosinathi Sithole win the 2015/16 University of Johannesburg Prizes
The Dream HouseSigns for an ExhibitionHunger Eats a Man

 
Craig Higginson, Eliza Kentridge and Nkosinathi Sithole were recently awarded their University of Johannesburg Prizes at a ceremony at the university’s Bunting Road Campus in Auckland Park, Johannesburg.

The R75 000 UJ Prize is awarded to the writer of the best South African work in English published in the previous calendar year, while the R30 000 Debut Prize is awarded to the best debut South African English work in the same time period.

Higginson won the Main Prize for his third novel, The Dream House, while Kentridge and Sithole shared the Debut Prize for her poetry collection Signs for an Exhibition and his novel Hunger Eats a Man.

 

Higginson has kindly shared his eloquent acceptance speech with Books LIVE:
 

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I was recently struck by this quote from Tennessee Williams:

We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.

Talk of love often feels sentimental and ineffectual – especially in the context of a burning house. What we should probably save first from a burning house is our spouse, our children, our pets (with the possible exception of the hamsters), and (in the days we wrote letters and printed photographs) our letters and our photographs. In other words, our computers.

But where does love reside if not in our family and our repositories of memory? These are some of the things that make us human. When we live in a perpetually burning building, what we need to save from it, time and time again, is our humanity.

Our humanity is not a constant. It is something we earn. When someone drives a truck into a crowd of children and their parents who are looking at fireworks by the sea – that is a moment when someone of the human race has set aside what we might call their humanity – and decided on a different path, where everything that every generation since the beginning of time has worked towards – wherever they might have lived in the world – is set aside and we become not as bad as animals but worse than animals – for no animal behaves as we do when we are at our worst.

And the problem is that we are never at our best – or never for long. We humans are incapable of sustaining anything. Perhaps we are best defined by our laziness, our complacency. Perpetually, we have to refresh ourselves. Love has to be looked for and regained – if neglected or taken for granted, it soon fades away again. We have to work in order to retain our humanity. Iris Murdoch said we are the only animals that create a picture of what we want to be and then try to become it.

What picture do we want to move towards? Because in choosing a picture for ourselves, we are also choosing a picture for the world – we are giving life to a vision that does not yet exist, and will probably never exist – but in that work towards some form of redemption or home, we discover ourselves – what we are capable of – what a miracle a single life can become.

And that is what Tennessee Williams means by love, I think.

This is also why I continue to write. Not because I have an abundance of love to offer the world. Often, it feels like the opposite. I feel dejected, disillusioned, disappointed with myself, my country, the direction of our humanity.

I have to work hard to regain that path towards hope, and one way I do it is through the fictions I write – the imagined lands that do not yet exist, and will never exist, but that might – at their best – help us to see ourselves and our potential more clearly and urgently.

At the moment our world feels particularly frightening – whether it is in this campus or in the campus next door, where thousands of young people are feeling impotent, incoherent, full of rage – at their worst – and full of hope, courage and righteousness – at their best. Because both are true – both impulses are competing at present. If we look a bit further into the heart of our country, there are further reasons to fear, to recoil from what we have become. And of course we are also in the middle of a third world war – a war that nurtures the idea of terror, a war that seems to dance only to the sound of hate.

For me good writing has always been an activity that goes in the opposite direction of hate. And that is why literature is difficult to achieve. Our worst impulses want to drag us well away from it. We like to hate, we like to fear – because then (being the lazy, complacent creatures we are), we can respond with unambiguous action. The world suddenly appears simpler, more manageable. We can draw lines in this direction and that – and, as Susan Sontag said somewhere, drawing lines can be an act of violence.

But in the end writers are no different from anyone else. We are each the narrators of our own truth – or our own failure. Right now each of us – and each of our stories about ourselves and each other – is being tested. What kinds of storytellers would we like to become? What stories would we like to leave in our wake?

Literature remains to show us how language – and the pictures it creates – can be used as an instrument for restoring hope, for finding grace in the least likely of places.

We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must rescue from it, time and again, is love. And yes – that definitely includes the hamsters.

I am honoured to be receiving this award. I’d like to congratulate Nkosinathi and Eliza – and feel proud to be standing with them today.

I would like to thank my wife Leila for tracking me down in each of my burning buildings – whether they be real or imaginary.

And thanks also to my PhD supervisor Michael Titlestad, my editor Alison Lowry, my publishers Terry Morris and Andrea Nattrass – and to everyone at Pan Macmillan for continuing to carve out places for hope.

Finally, I would also like to extend my gratitude to the University of Johannesburg and the judges of this award.

University is where I first came up with the unlikely idea of myself as a writer and started to write. At the age of 19, I decided I would be an artist for the rest of my life.

Universities are dream houses – places for dreaming. Let’s hope we can imagine a country where each of us has the opportunity to arrive at themselves, as I did, and know the place for the first time.

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