Alert! The English Academy of Southern Africa has announced the winners of the 2015 Olive Schreiner Prize for Prose.
The winners are Jill Nudelman, for Inheriting the Earth (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2012) and Imran Garda, for The Thunder that Roars (Umuzi, 2014).
The adjudicators said that through Garda’s debut novel “South African literature soars above the tortuous apartheid history and redefines globalisation”, and that Nudelman’s debut “distinguishes itself as a novel of great value in the transformation of thinking about indigenous knowledge systems in South Africa”.
From the English Academy:
The prize has been split between two authors because both these debut productions demonstrate equivalent narrative skill with an ability to tell a compelling story; both demonstrate comparable narratological capability; and both capture lived life as they explore the complexities of the quest for identity. However, one is essentially poetic in mode, the other journalistic, stylistic registers that perhaps appeal to disparate audiences, and yet both provide a remarkable read worthy of the Olive Schreiner Prize.
The Olive Schreiner Prize is awarded annually, rotating between the genres of poetry, prose and drama. Recent winners include Philip Dikotla, for his play Skierlik (Junkets, 2014), Rustum Kozain – the first writer to win the award twice in the same genre, Peter Dunseith, Nicholas Spagnoletti, Finuala Dowling and Michael Cawood Green.
The prize rewards “original literary work in English written by a citizen of a Southern African country and published in Southern Africa”, and is “expressly intended as encouragement for a writer who has produced work of great promise, but cannot yet be regarded as an established novelist, short story writer, poet or playwright.”
In addition, preference is given to someone who is “at the beginning of his/her career as a writer; has produced a book of merit; and promises even better work in future”.
The Olive Schreiner Prize adjudicators this year were Professor Sope Maithufi (University of South Africa), Dr Naomi Nkealah (University of South Africa) and Professor Rosemary Gray (Emeritus Professor, Pretoria University).
The citations read as follows:
The Thunder that Roars by Imran Garda
In Imran Garda’s debut novel, The Thunder that Roars (Umuzi, 2014), South African literature soars above the tortuous apartheid history and redefines globalisation.
Through the perspective of Yusuf, the main character-focaliser and CNN journalist, the reader is taken on a tour of the decomposing effects of hegemonic institutions. The storyline is energised by a tantalising dramatic irony across different milieus. Each setting is a dot in the biography of Sam, Yusuf’s father’s former Shona “gardener” and now being traced by Yusuf on his father’s request.
Like an anti-oxidant, the dramatic irony releases its energy, slowly and effectively, accumulating and resolving tension later in the story when Yusuf makes startling discoveries while on his search enterprise in respective stations: Bulawayo, the Libya which is undergoing the Arab-Spring revolution, and the Lampedusa which is a host of the migrants who are fleeing the Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime and are being callously rejected by Europe. Yusuf’s first finding is that he was born to his father and Lena, his female black domestic worker, during an extra-marital relationship. The second is that his biological mother was married to Sam. The third is that his father’s wife, Maryam, the woman who raises him as her own son, had committed suicide apparently when he was nine years, as a result of manic depression.
Literally and figuratively, Yusuf has no “roots”, or rather, he has adventitious ones. However, on its own, this openness is an uncanny source of anguish. But this challenge is to be welcomed, as it gestures towards a search for new words, criticism and disclosures. Neither does miscegenation, previously thought of as illicit romance between a white and black person, provoke fantastic allure or shock. Nor does the North determine the trajectory of progress and civilisation. There are simply no exclusive white or black roots, or an angst-ridden endeavour to find or decode how they crossed paths or repelled each other. If anything, civilisations and institutions are stripped naked and shown to be rotten to the core. At this disclosure, the observer is hailed into a quest of how to re-imagine a better world – but only after being shocked out of being complacent about his/her identity. South African literary landscape does not appear to have witnessed this mode of Cubism.
Inheriting the Earth by Jill Nudelman
With settings vacillating between the plush suburbs of Johannesburg and the arid towns and villages of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg, Jill Nudelman’s debut novel, Inheriting the Earth (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2012), brings to the surface a plethora of ailments affecting contemporary South Africa, not least significant of which is the deepening inequality between the rich and the poor, the economically viable white population and the subsistence-dependent black peoples.
The writer pens with striking insight the concrete fissures separating South Africans, pitting different races, classes and genders against each other even as there are attempts to bridge the gaps induced by apartheid. Although a very personal story about a young woman’s journey into the village of Oberon to discover the origins of her biological parents whom she never knew, it is also a political story of what it means to negotiate a white identity in present-day South Africa where legalised racism may have ended but the politics of race continues to influence black-white relations.
Beyond the disruptiveness of its political edge, Inheriting the Earth distinguishes itself as a novel of great value in the transformation of thinking about indigenous knowledge systems in South Africa through its vivid depiction of the varied rock art renditions of the San people in the interior of the Drakensberg. The protagonist’s explorations of these indigenous art forms in search of clues of her ancestry jolt us into the grim realisation that the trajectories of history are defined by those who hold the sword to dominate and the pen to write about their domination, that the perspective of the indigene is transmitted through the thwarted eyes of the colonialist.
Nudelman’s superior craftswomanship weaves together history, politics and the quest for identity into a fine mesh of storytelling that repeatedly unsettles the reader out of their comfort zone.