Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Famine, war and love: Bron Sibree talks to Sebastian Barry about his new novel Days Without End

In his new novel Sebastian Barry writes as if galloping with the wind in his hair. By Bron Sibree for the Sunday Times

 
Days Without EndDays Without End
Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber)
****

Sebastian Barry once said that “language is almost not about language, it’s possibly more about music”. And nowhere is this more evident than in this acclaimed Irish novelist’s new and ninth novel, Days Without End.

Narrated by Sligo-born Thomas McNulty, who journeys from Ireland to the New World on a “coffin ship” after the great famine of 1847 leaves him orphaned and starving at 15, it reads as if Barry has ridden those wild “unbroken horses of language” that he has so often spoken about on a surefooted, rhythmic gallop all the way from Ireland to the American Mid-West.

Days Without End is a mesmerising, melodic account of McNulty’s life as he recalls his years fighting in the Indian wars and in the American Civil War alongside the love of his life, John Cole. It is also a deeply affecting, redemptive love story and an unblinkered portrait of what Barry calls “the murderous birth of the young American nation”.

Barry is, of course, as famous for his melodic prose as he is for transforming half-buried family memories and the scraps of long forgotten lives into novels of heart-stopping beauty. Novels that chronicle a forgotten history of Ireland and have won him two Booker nominations, the Costa Book of the Year award, the Irish Book Awards Best Novel and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, to name some.

But it is as if the 61-year-old poet, playwright and novelist has hit a soaring grace note in the writing of Days Without End, which, too, owes its genesis to a scrap of family lore. A scrap divulged to him as a child by his grandfather whose own story Barry told in The Temporary Gentleman.

“He said that his great uncle had gone off to America somewhere in the previous century and had fought in the Indian wars. I don’t think he knew anything more.”

For Barry, that was “an absolute gift. With The Temporary Gentleman I was struggling in a way with knowing too much. With a book like this you can leave yourself completely open to the voice when you’re fortunate enough to start hearing it.”

Barry says “writing is a fatal activity for a writer; seeing and hearing is the thing”. He read extensively about the history of the era for a year (he does this for all his novels), including obscure first-hand accounts of ordinary people who had been alive in the US in the middle decades of the 1800s, “to get a hold of the whistletune of the day”.

He then spent another year waiting on the voice of McNulty and the opening lines of the novel. He describes this as “literally a process of sitting stiller and stiller at my work table in the old rectory in Whitlow, so that he could enter in and prove Einstein’s theory of continuous time to be correct; that we may regard these things as past and ‘the past’, but in a way everything is happening all the time, still. I’ve been a happy person since that day, because it was as if you have received a handshake up through the decades.”

It’s no accident either, that the book is dedicated to his son Toby who three years ago came out as gay at the age of 16, and who “gave me this whole new terrain to think about. And I do feel that this book is kind of my magic spell for Toby and for all people who in their glory have had suggested to them that they’re inglorious, which I think is one of the most disgusting things in our lifetime.”

It’s a novel that, like almost all his novels, reaches into the past, yet somehow posits a way forward. “You’re writing out of the past, but it’s a kind of spell or a secular prayer to play something in a future.”

He is acutely aware too, that books have their own purpose independent of the writer. “Books have their secret undertaking and it intrigued me greatly that this book had its own arguments to make with history and politics and the present.”

Indeed, Days Without End has taken on a contemporary resonance with Donald Trump’s strident US election campaign, in which the note of “exultant hatred” toward immigrants and people of colour — which was so rife in the 1800s world of the novel — resurfaced.

“That’s why I don’t think there’s any such thing as an historical novel as such, there’s only a book that is talking into the present, which of course,” adds Barry, “is shortly to be a history itself.”

Follow @BronSibree

Book details

Imagining ourselves into existence: First ever Abantu Book Festival in Soweto a roaring success

Words and images by Thato Rossouw

My Own LiberatorUnimportanceSweet MedicineAffluenzaNwelezelangaThe Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things and Other StoriesRapeFlying Above the SkyNight DancerBlack Widow SocietyThe Everyday WifeOur Story Magic

 
“A conquered people often lose the inclination to tell their stories.”

These were the words of former Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke at the inaugural Abantu Book Festival, in discussion with readers about the importance of black people telling their own stories and having spaces where they can share them with one another. “We have stories to tell, they are important, and they are liberating in nature,” he said.

 
Moseneke’s words came as a preamble to compliment the authors Thando Mgqolozana and Panashe Chigumadzi, and the rest of their team members, for organising a festival that not only celebrated black writers, readers, pan-African book stores, and online platforms that celebrate African literature and narratives, but also gave them a safe space to speak freely about the issues they face in their struggle to liberate themselves.

The festival, which was themed “Imagining ourselves into existence”, came as a result of Mgqolozana’s decision early last year to renounce white colonial literary festivals. In an interview with The Daily Vox in May last year, Mgqolozana told Theresa Mallinson that his decision to reject these festivals came from a discomfort with literary festivals where the audience was 80 percent white. “It’s in a white suburb in a white city. I feel that I’m there to perform for an audience that does not treat me as a literary talent, but as an anthropological subject,” he said.

 
The three-day festival took place at two venues: the Eyethu Lifestyle Centre, which hosted free events during the day, and the Soweto Theatre, which hosted events in the evening. These evening festivities cost R20 per person and featured over 50 poets, novelists, essayists, playwrights, literary scholars, screenwriters, performing artists and children’s writers from across Africa and the diaspora. Some of the writers and artists who were present at the festival include Niq Mhlongo, Unathi Magubeni, Lidudumalingani Mqombothi, Thandiswa Mazwai, Pumla Dineo Gqola, Lebogang Mashile and Chika Unigwe, among many others.

 
The first day of the festival began with a discussion featuring four black female Fallist writers, Dikeledi Sibanda, Mbali Matandela, Sandy Ndelu and Simamkele Dlakavu, titled “Writing and Rioting Black Womxn in the time of Fallism”. The discussion covered topics ranging from the role of the body, particularly the naked body, in challenging old narratives, to writing and rioting as acts of activism. It was then followed by a highly attended talk with Justice Moseneke entitled “Land and Liberation”, a concert by the group Zuko Collective at the Soweto Theatre, as well as speeches and performances at the opening night show.

Some of the riveting discussions at the festival were titled: “Land and Liberation”, “Women of Letters”, “Writing Today”, “Cut! Our Stories on Stage and Screen”, “Ghetto is Our First Love”, “Creating Platforms for Our Stories” and “Writing Stories Across and Within Genres”. The festival also included seven documentary screenings, poetry performances, a writing masterclass with Angela Makholwa and Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, and performances every night at the Soweto Theatre by Zuko Collective.

 
Dr Gcina Mhlophe gave the keynote address at the festival’s opening night, which was preceded by the singing of the decolonised national anthem and a rendition of the poem “Water” by poet Koleka Putuma. Mhlophe reminded the audience that, while it is important for us to celebrate young and upcoming artists, it is also important to remember and celebrate those that came before them. She sang and told stories about people like Mariam Tladi and Nokutela Dube and spoke about their role in the development of the arts. Dube was the first wife of Reverend John Langalibalele Dube who was the first President General of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) which was later renamed the African National Congress (ANC).

 
The festival ended with a sold-out event at the Soweto Theatre that featured a discussion on “Native Life in 2016” between Chigumadzi and I’solezwe LesiXhosa editor Unathi Kondile, facilitated by Mashile; a performance by Zuko Collective; and a Literary Crossroads session with Unigwe, facilitated by Ndumiso Ngcobo.
 

* * * * *

The hashtag #AbantuBookFest was on fire for the duration of the festival and long afterwards:


 
Facebook gallery

Book details

2017 Caine Prize for African Writing judging panel announced

2016 Caine Prize for African Writing judging panel announced

 

The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things and Other StoriesLusaka Punk and Other StoriesThe Gonjon Pin and Other Stories10 Years of the Caine Prize for African WritingA Memory This Size and Other StoriesThe Caine Prize Anthology 2009: Work in Progress and Other Stories

 
Alert! The five judges for the 2017 Caine Prize for African Writing were announced in London recently.

The Caine Prize is awarded for a short story by an African writer published in English. Previous winners include Zambian author Namwali Serpell, Sudan’s Leila Aboulela, Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina, South African Henrietta Rose-Innes and Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo. This year’s winner was South African author Lidudumalingani for his story, “Memories We Lost”.

Dr Delia Jarrett-Macauley, Chair of the 2016 judging panel, said the following about Lidudumalingani’s winning story: “This is a troubling piece, depicting the great love between two young siblings in a beautifully drawn Eastern Cape. Multi-layered, and gracefully narrated, this short story leaves the reader full of sympathy and wonder at the plight of its protagonists.”

The 2017 judging panel will be chaired by award-winning author, poet and editor Nii Ayikwei Parkes. The panel will consist of the 2007 Caine Prize winner Monica Arac de Nyeko, Professor Ricardo Ortiz, author and human rights activist Ghazi Gheblawi and Dr Ranka Primorac.

Parkes said he is “ecstatic” to have been asked to chair the panel and to work with “this incredible assembly of judges”. “I have been a consumer of fiction from Africa for close to four decades, revelling in its range, its humour, its insights and dynamic linguistic palette,” he said.

Parkes added: “There is, of course, the selfish pleasure, as an editor, of getting a first look at some of the finest writing coming from the continent and its foreign branches.”

Press release:

The Caine Prize for African Writing has announced the five judges for the 2017 Prize. The panel will be chaired by Nii Ayikwei Parkes, award-winning author, poet and editor. He will be joined by the 2007 Caine Prize winner, Monica Arac de Nyeko; accomplished author and Chair of the English Department at Georgetown University, Professor Ricardo Ortiz; Libyan author and human rights campaigner, Ghazi Gheblawi; and distinguished African literary scholar, Dr Ranka Primorac.

The 2017 Chair of Judges, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, said: “I have been a consumer of fiction from Africa for close to four decades, revelling in its range, its humour, its insights and dynamic linguistic palette. So, I am ecstatic to be asked to chair the panel for this year’s Caine Prize and look forward to working with this incredible assembly of judges. There is, of course, the selfish pleasure, as an editor, of getting a first look at some of the finest writing coming from the continent and its foreign branches.”

The deadline for submissions to the 2017 Caine Prize is 31 January, 2017. Publishers are encouraged to submit qualifying stories in good time. Submissions are welcome year round and late submissions will be entered into the competition for the following year.

The judging panel will meet in May to determine which entries will make the shortlist. An announcement confirming the shortlist will be made in mid-May.

For the first time in the 18-year history of the Caine Prize, the award will be announced on Monday, 3 July, at Senate House, London, in collaboration with the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), which is celebrating its centenary.

“Memories We Lost” by South African author Lidudumalingani won the 2016 Prize and is included in the Caine Prize 2016 anthology, The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things, published by New Internationalist in the UK and supplied as a print-ready PDF to several African co-publishers.

Commenting on “Memories We Lost”, Chair of the 2016 judging panel, Dr Delia Jarrett-Macauley, said: “This is a troubling piece, depicting the great love between two young siblings in a beautifully drawn Eastern Cape. Multi-layered, and gracefully narrated, this short story leaves the reader full of sympathy and wonder at the plight of its protagonists.”

Ends

 
Related stories:

Book details

  • The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2016 by Caine Prize
    EAN: 9781566560160
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

Men's rage and regret in a cold season of snow: Michele Magwood chats to Fiona Melrose about her debut novel Midwinter

By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

MidwinterMidwinter
Fiona Melrose (Little Brown, R295)
*****

It is rare for a debut novel to land with such assurance, with such a distinctive voice and sapient wisdom. South African author Fiona Melrose, pictured, wrote the book while living on a farm in Suffolk. She’d thrown in her job as an emerging markets analyst in London, finding the environment “too aggressive, too hyper-masculine”, and had retreated to her brother’s farm where she lived on her own for some time.

“It was incredibly lonely and isolating. The locals were suspicious of me and the physical work involved was astonishing. I was reading books on stock fencing for beginners and then banging poles into the frozen earth with blistered hands. It was unbelievably difficult physically and emotionally. There was nothing else to do except write a book about it, really.”

Midwinter is the result, the story of a father and son, Landyn and Vale Midwinter. They are Suffolk farmers, simple and plain-living whose moroseness hides a simmering rage. Ten years before, their beloved wife and mother, Cecelia, had died in an ill-advised sojourn in Zambia. Neither has come to terms with it, and when Vale is involved in a shocking accident at the beginning of the story, the dam of their anguish rips. Over the course of a bitter winter they clash, but because Melrose writes from their first person viewpoint we feel immense sympathy for them, for their interior wretchedness. Vale seems taciturn, for example, yet he repeatedly tells us “I had nothing I knew how to say.”

“They’re confronted with all kinds of trauma that they hadn’t addressed at the time,” Melrose says. “It suddenly comes into very sharp focus and they try to navigate a way through without completely falling apart.”

Midwinter is as much an examination of masculinity as it is of blame and grief. Melrose presents us with different versions in various characters: some are mute and violent, or gentle and steady, there are heroic soldiers and sage old men and any number of drink-fuelled young bucks. “I met a few of these boys in Suffolk and I thought they seemed so fundamentally unparented, not held in any kind of way. There was no safety net for that kind of chaotic energy.”

There are female characters, too, of course, but for Melrose it is nature itself, the land and animals that provide what she feels is “the feminine aspect, to balance the hyper-masculine energy of the characters”. Of particular importance is a wild fox, which Landyn believes is the familiar of Cecelia, watching over them.

Melrose’s writing is distinguished by striking descriptions: a cold gust “like a witch’s slap”; the air in a funeral service “as black as leprosy”; Landyn carries his regret “like those old harnessed ploughs, taking every last muscle and gritted tooth to get the blades through the clay’.

What distinguishes it too is the rich vernacular of the characters. Landyn calls himself “a duzzy old whoop”, Vale maunders around, lurking “in a constant mubble-tubble”. Cecelia’s hands had the “farn-tickle of the sun’.

Melrose has an acute ear for dialogue, something she attributes to her severe dyslexia and dyscalculia. “I think your brain makes routes around. Strangely enough I have perfect pitch musically, and what I do is write what I hear. The grammar’s probably incorrect and I spell phonetically, so a lot of it is quite intuitive. I rely a lot on rhythm and how a character breathes. So for Landyn I wrote in long breaths, but Vale is constantly on the edge of some kind of outburst so I wrote him in a staccato, short-breathed way.”

Eventually — and only just — will father and son reach some equilibrium.

Teeming with nature, pulsating with rue, Midwinter is evisceratingly emotional. Its sorrow will scrape you to the bone, but ultimately it warms you to the bone, too. It is an astounding debut.

Follow Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

Listen to Fiona Melrose’s interview on the Magwood on Books podcast.

Book details

Murder in a world governed by astrology: Sam Wilson chats about his new book Zodiac - recommended by Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz

Published in the Sunday Times

Murder in a world governed by astrology: Sam Wilson chats about his new book Zodiac – recommended by Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz

 

ZodiacZodiac
Sam Wilson (Penguin Random House)
****

Sam Wilson’s debut novel Zodiac deserves to be a smash hit: set in an alternate universe in San Celeste, a generic US city, the book features a society governed by an absolute belief in astrology, where an individual’s future is predetermined by the date of his birth.

Like most cops in San Celeste detective Jerome Burton is Taurus, and when he starts investigating a series of particularly nasty murders he looks for the killer among the Aries underclass who are responsible for most of the city’s brutal crimes.

Wilson (a dodgy Aries himself) is not a believer. “I read a study that found that your zodiac sign really does match your personality, but only if you already believe in astrology and know what it says you should be, otherwise it’s no better than chance.”

With the help of profiler Lindi Childs (a Leo), Burton discovers – certainly in his own case – that the sign system is flawed, but reason cannot beat belief.

“I made a world in which it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. If enough people believe, then it becomes an unavoidable part of life,” says Wilson.

The victims are born under various signs and are killed in different ways – a chief of police (Taurus) is disembowelled then buried in the ground (the Taurus element), the host of a popular TV show (Leo) is shot and burnt (Leo is one of the fire signs).

Wilson says “beliefs and society shape who we are”, but says he had fun turning Burton into someone who firsts doubts the status quo and then has personal reasons for rejecting it.

The “signism” in Zodiac can be seen as a form of racism or anti-Semitism. However, Wilson says he had no overt political agenda.

“I thought that the zodiac world would be interesting and fun to write, and I came up with a story that wouldn’t work anywhere else.”

In this world a school called the True Signs Academy teaches problem children to embrace their true element; people live in designated areas according to their star sign; and a police “ram squad” (get it?) is tasked with dealing with the notoriously criminal group born in Aries.

Wilson makes it clear that signism is a bad thing. But despite the parallels a reader might be tempted to draw between the zodiac world and other oppressive regimes, the Cape Town author does not consider himself a political writer.

In fact, his influences are readable, accessible and popular.

“I was inspired by Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz for their high-concept thrillers, although I can’t compare my work to theirs,” he says.

“And I loved … some of the great writing on TV shows like Black Mirror and The Wire.”

Wilson is researching another thriller set in the same universe, but with a different situation and characters.

However, his message to those who loved Zodiac is that Burton and Childs may get a cameo. Fingers crossed! — Aubrey Paton

Book details

Jacket Notes: Christa Kuljian talks about her latest book Darwin's Hunch: Science, Race and the Search for Human Origins

Published in the Sunday Times

Darwin's Hunch•Darwin’s Hunch: Science, Race, and the Search for Human Origins
Christa Kuljian (Jacana)

When I studied the history of science at university in the ’80s, I learned that science is often shaped by the context of the time. So when I began research for Darwin’s Hunch, I was curious to find out how the changing times had shaped the search for human origins. For over a century, scientists rejected Darwin’s theory that humans evolved in Africa, but today it is widely accepted.

One of the fascinating things I found was that anthropologist Raymond Dart has a lot in his papers that he did not share with the world. Many of his scientific practices were shaped by colonial thinking. Dart collected human skeletons in an effort to understand what he called “race typology”, which he believed held clues to evolution.

Paging through his documents, I learned the disturbing story of how one of those skeletons came into his collection, a story that remained hidden in the archives for 75 years, and which showed how scientific methods at the time treated human beings as specimens.

Phillip Tobias was Dart’s successor as the head of the department of anatomy at Wits Medical School so it was interesting to learn more about his relationship with Dart. I delved into some of Tobias’s papers as well, and it was surprising to see how his thinking on race and human evolution shifted from his youth in the 1940s through to his death in 2012. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, it was one of Tobias’s colleagues, Hertha de Villiers, who helped to shift scientific thinking away from Dart’s race typology. It was fascinating to learn about this accomplished scientist and her work.

Another of Dart’s theories was that humans are naturally violent. He based this idea on the fact that ancient human ancestors were carnivores and he believed that they used certain bones as weapons to kill their prey. This idea was so popular in the 1960s that it spread to millions of people via Robert Ardrey’s book African Genesis and the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Dart’s research inspired another young scientist, Bob Brain, based at the Transvaal Museum. Brain concluded that human ancestors did not choose certain bones as weapons, but that those bones remained in the fossil record because they could not be easily chewed.

By the late ’80s and ’90s, genetics had begun to play a big role in understanding human origins. Research with mitochondrial DNA led to the finding that all living humans had shared a common ancestor in Africa as recently as 200,000 years ago. While the changing science is engrossing, it is often the scientists themselves, and the times in which they live, that are most revealing.

Book details