Three African writers are among the nominees for the 2015 Folio Prize: Damon Galgut, Kenyan Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and Ethiopian-American Dinaw Mengestu.
The £40,000 prize was initiated last year, unofficially as a more literary alternative to the Man Booker Prize.
Galgut has been nominated for Arctic Summer, Adhiambo Owuor for Dust and Mengestu for All Our Names.
In contrast, the longlist for the 2014 Booker Prize, although much shorter at 13 books, featured a complete absence of African authors.
The Folio Prize longlist comprises 80 books, and is open to any work of fiction published in the UK. The books are selected by the Folio Prize Academy’s 235 members, which include JM Coetzee, Teju Cole, NoViolet Bulawayo and Helon Habila. Bulawayo and Galgut are also Academy members, but are recused from this year’s prize.
American short story writer George Saunders won the debut edition of the prize, for his collection Tenth of December.
Longlisted books this year include Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Ali Smith’s How to be Both, as well as Neel Mukherjee, Dave Eggers, Peter Carey, Tim Winton, Will Self, Margaret Atwood and this year’s Man Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan.
This years judges are William Fiennes (chair), Rachel Cooke, Mohsin Hamid, AM Homes and Deborah Levy.
“The list of nominations for this year’s Folio Prize is both daunting and exhilarating,” Fiennes says. “It’s not just that the list has such range and richness. Reading the books, it’s as if we’re eavesdropping on a marvellous conversation about what a novel might be.”
The judges will now select a shortlist of eight titles, which will be announced on February 9, 2015. The winner will be announced in London on March 23.
The 80-book Folio Prize longlist in full:
10:04, Ben Lerner (Granta)
A God in Every Stone, Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Publishing)
Academy Street, Mary Costello (Canongate)
After Me Comes the Flood, Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail)
All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews (Faber & Faber)
All Our Names, Dinaw Mengitsu (Sceptre)
All the Days And Nights, Niven Goviden (The Friday Project)
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (4th Estate)
All the Rage, Al Kennedy (Jonathan Cape)
Amnesia, Peter Carey (Faber & Faber)
Annihilation, Jeff Vandemeer (4th Estate)
Arctic Summer, Damon Galgut (Atlantic Books)
Bald New World, Peter Tieryas Liu (John Hunt Publishing)
Bark, Lorrie Moore (Faber & Faber)
Be Safe I Love You, Cara Hoffman (Virago)
Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi (Picador)
Can’t & Won’t, Lydia Davis (Hamish Hamilton)
Dear Thief, Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape)
Dept. Of Speculation, Jenny Offill (Granta)
Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem (Jonathan Cape)
Dust, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Granta)
Em And The Big Hoom, Jerry Pinto (Viking)
England and Other Stories, Graham Swift (Simon & Schuster)
Euphoria, Lily King (Picador)
Everland, Rebecca Hunt (Fig Tree)
Eyrie, Tim Winton (Picador)
Family Life, Akhil Sharma (Faber & Faber)
Fourth Of July Creek, Smith Henderson (William Heinemann)
How To Be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
In Search Of Silence, Emily Mackie (Sceptre)
In the Approaches, Nicola Barker (4th Estate)
In the Light of What We Know, Zia Haider Rahman (Picador)
J, Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
Kinder Than Solitude, Yiyun Li (4th Estate)
Lila, Marilynne Robinson (Virago)
Life Drawing, Robin Black (Picador)
Lost For Words, Edward St Aubyn (Picador)
Love and Treasure, Ayelet Waldman (Two Roads)
Nora Webster, Colm Toibin (Viking)
On Such A Full Sea, Chang-Rae Lee (Little, Brown)
Orfeo, Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
Outline, Rachel Cusk (Faber & Faber)
Perfidia, James Ellroy (William Heinemann)
Road Ends, Mary Lawson (Chatto & Windus)
Shark, Will Self (Viking)
Some Luck, Jane Smiley (Mantle)
Stay Up With Me, Tom Barbash (Simon & Schuster)
Stone Mattress, Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury Publishing)
The Ballad Of a Small Player, Lawrence Osborne (The Hogarth Press)
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Sceptre)
The Book of Gold Leaves, Mirza Waheed (Penguin)
The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber (Canongate)
The Country Of Icecream Star, Sandra Newman (Chatto & Windus)
The Dog, Joseph O’neill (4th Estate)
The Fever, Megan Abbott (Picador)
The Heroes’ Welcome, Louisa Young (Harper Collins)
The Incarnations, Susan Barker (Doubleday)
The Lie, Helen Dunmore (Hutchinson)
The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
The Night Guest, Fiona Mcfarlane (Sceptre)
The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters (Virago)
The Tell-Tale Heart, Jill Dawson (Sceptre)
The Temporary Gentleman, Sebastain Barry (Faber & Faber)
The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
The Zone Of Interest, Martin Amis (Jonathan Cape)
Their Lips Talk Of Mischief, Alan Warner (Faber & Faber)
Thunderstruck, Elizabeth Mccracken (Jonthan Cape)
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)
Travelling Sprinkler, Nicholson Baker (Serpent’s Tail)
Upstairs At The Party, Linda Grant (Virago)
Viper Wine, Hermione Eyre (Jonathan Cape)
Virginia Woolf In Manhattan, Maggie Gee (Telegram Books)
We Are Not Ourselves, Thomas Matthew (4th Estate)
What You Want, Constantine Phipps (Quercus)
Wittgenstein Jr, Lars Iyer (Melville House)
Young Skins, Colin Barrett (Jonathan Cape)
Your Fathers, Where Are They?…, Dave Eggers (Hamish Hamilton)
SJ Naudé and Ivan Vladislavić recently exchanged letters in a piece for Granta, discussing translation, writing, and the looming presence of setting in South African writing.
Naudé published his debut collection of short stories, Alfabet van die voëls, in 2011, winning the University of Johannesburg Debut Prize and the Jan Rabie Rapport Prize. The English version, The Alphabet of Birds, which Naudé translated himself, was recently launched at the The Book Lounge, with Michiel Heyns calling it “wonderful”.
The latest issue of Granta includes work by Naudé for the first time – an excerpt from the title story of The Alphabet of Birds – and in her introduction to the issue, Granta owner Sigrid Rausing compares Naudé to JM Coetzee, “in his language, and in the vision of the fate of South Africa, hanging in the balance”.
In his opening letter to Naudé, Vladislavić ponders on how The Alphabet of Birds was tailored for the UK and South African markets, a concept he calls “quite new”: “When I began to work as an editor thirty years ago, we sometimes debated whether a book needed a glossary or not, but the idea of rewriting a text to make it more accessible to a foreign readership never arose.”
Vladislavić mentions a piece written by Leon de Kock a few months ago, “The SA Lit issue won’t go away”, which was in turn inspired by an article written by Fiona Snyckers entitled “Should local writers always set their books in South Africa?”
De Kock mentions the glut of South African authors who have “gone global” and wonders “what might be lost in this veritable rush for the emergency exit”. He also surmises that the question of “where to set one’s stories” must come across for Afrikaans writers as “strange”.
For many scholars, the explosion of the category now rather quaintly remembered as SA Lit is a genuinely liberating development, a deliverance from Ashraf Jamal’s sense (borrowed from Samuel Beckett) of local English letters being like a “dog chained to its own vomit”.
For Jamal, the transnational success of writers such as Sarah Lotz and Lauren Beukes, not to mention Deon Meyer, is cause for celebration. And indeed it is, isn’t it? We’re out of the province, at last! Boykie Sidley can set his stories in Ohio or California and sell his books in Jo’burg, Durban and Cape Town. Who would begrudge any “local” writer this kind of range?
At the time of Snyckers’ article, Books LIVE spoke to Lauren Beukes, Steven Boykey Sidley and Penny Busetto, who have all set work overseas. The consensus seemed to be that a South African setting was too constrictive.
In his conversation with Naudé, Vladislavić wonders whether “the question of locality is more interesting to my generation than yours”.
A few months ago, Leon de Kock published a piece in the Mail & Guardian about the tension between the local and the global in South African fiction. More and more writers are ‘going global’, he says, and setting their books in other places. They are also using a more generic English, I think, which doesn’t smack too strongly of one culture and won’t offend a sensitive palate. According to De Kock, these decisions threaten to dissolve the category of ‘SA Lit’ entirely. Interestingly, he views Afrikaans writers as a special case: ‘Consider, for a moment, how strange the question of where to set one’s stories comes across to most Afrikaans writers.’ The implication is that most Afrikaans writers, whose readership is largely confined to South Africa, don’t even think about setting their stories elsewhere.
Someone reading your Granta extract might assume you are one of those writers. The setting and language are pungently local. In fact, your book presents a strikingly wide range of settings, moving with ease from Berlin to Tokyo to Milan to Cape Town.
In his reply, Naudé clarifies that the changes made for each edition of his book were “quite superficial”, and introduced purely to avoid confusion.
He also disagrees with De Kock on the subject of setting quite strongly:
Leon de Kock, in the article you mention, sets up a dichotomy between serious South African literature and genre-literature – the former having a local focus, while the latter is now often set in exotic locales in the pursuit of ‘royalties’ and ‘big glam fame’. I would argue for a different kind of serious South African writing, which is neither necessarily predominantly concerned with South Africa, nor primarily set (t)here, but still driven by the urgency and deep necessity that fuel good writing. And which is not ‘everywhere and nowhere’ either. The notion that Afrikaans authors are somehow uniquely and inseparably tied to South African locales is a relic from a different era. I certainly don’t find the question of where to set my stories strange. For me, the strangest setting, the one that requires the greatest imaginative effort, is in fact South Africa.
The judging panel for the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction has been announced.
This year’s prize will be judged by an all-new panel of Michael Wood (Chair), Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at Princeton; Ellah Allfrey, journalist and Deputy Chair of the Council of the Caine Prize; John Burnside, award-winning poet; Sam Leith, author and literary editor at The Spectator and Frances Osborne, author and biographer.
Zimbabwe-born Allfrey edited the recently published Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara. She is the former deputy editor of Granta magazine, and sits on the boards of English PEN and the Writers’ Centre Norwich, and as well as serving on the Council of the Caine Prize she is a patron of the Etisalat Prize for Literature.
Chair of judges Wood says: “Talking about novels is almost as much fun as reading them and we’re all greatly looking forward to this double pleasure.
“It’s a privilege to be a member of this very distinguished panel and to be part of the deliberations for the award of the Man Booker Prize, surely the most exciting and the most closely followed literary event in the English-speaking world. I believe some of the books are already waiting for us.”
Following last year’s alteration to the rules, the prize is now open to writers of any nationality, published in the UK and originally written in English.
The “Man Booker Dozen” of 12 or 13 books will be announced in August next year, the shortlist of six books in early September and the winner on 13 October.
Richard Flanagan won the 2014 Man Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which then, according to the Booker, went on to record sales that “eclipse[d] the sum total of all Flanagan’s other book sales in the past decade”.
Image credit: Andy Paradise
Published in the Sunday Times
The Sunday Times books team asked an array of notable South Africans which books they will be taking with them on holiday.
THE COLUMNIST – Darrel Bristow-Bovey
I’ll be reading Luke Alfred’s When the Lions Came to Town (Zebra Press), about the 1974 British Lions’ tour of South Africa, because Luke is a sportswriter with heart and flair and tells a good story. I also have Paradise by Greg Lazarus (Kwela Books), a smart, funny and cosmopolitan local pair of novelists. Each year for the past two years has seen the release of a new volume of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway (Volume 2, 1923-1925 – Cambridge University Press). Last year’s volume 2 took us to 1925, and I’m desperately hoping volume 3 is about to be released. I’ll also be obsessively re-reading my own book, One Midlife Crisis and a Speedo (Zebra Press), to check for spelling errors and typos.
THE PUBLIC PROTECTOR – Thuli Madonsela
I intend reading these books during the holidays: The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Pax Librorum, R80), Love is Letting Go of Fear by Gerald Jampolsky (Celestial Arts), Jesus CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership by Laurie Beth Jones(Hyperion) and The Richest Man Who Ever Lived by Steven K Scott (Broadway Books).
THE TRAVEL WRITER – Bridget Hilton-Barber
First up is Stoep Zen: A Zen Life in South Africa by Antony Osler (Jacana), whose blurb says it’s Lao Tzu meets Oom Schalk Lourens. The question Osler poses is how do we reach down through swirling emotions into a quieter space where we can see a little further and love a little deeper? The other little gem that awaits on my bedside table is an illustrated book called Yoga for Chickens by Lynn Brunelle (Chronicle Books). “Feeling fried? Feathers ruffled? The birdbrained wisdom in this little book will have you clucking like a spring chicken in no time.” And finally, I am going to get stuck into Lost and Found in Johannesburg by Mark Gevisser (Jonathan Ball Publishers).
THE INTELLECTUAL – Eusebius McKaiser
I have already started on my holiday reading because, well, why wait?! I’m halfway through Jacob Dlamini’s Askari: A Story of Collaboration and Betrayal in the Anti-Apartheid Struggle (Jacana). It is narrative writing at its lyrical best, and the moral philosophy student in me is intrigued by the complexity of black people who betrayed black communities during apartheid. I will also read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (Vintage Books), a classic on race relations in America. In the wake of Ferguson, revisiting this masterpiece is compulsory.
THE FESTIVAL DIRECTOR – Ann Donald
My summer reading will be a continuation of my reading all year: the books of authors who’ll be attending the Franschhoek Literary Festival in May, including The Facts of Life and Death by Belinda Bauer (Bantam Press), Esther’s House by Carol Campbell (Umuzi), Tales of the Metric System by Imraan Coovadia (Umuzi), Askari by Jacob Dlamini, Unimportance by Thando Mgqolozana (Jacana), and The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (Little, Brown).
THE HISTORIAN – Tim Couzens
For me Christmas starts very early, so I have just read Ray Hartley’s Ragged Glory (Jonathan Ball Publishers), an overview of the last 20 years of South Africa political history, which is characteristically sane and balanced. I am now reading – recommended to me by Corina van der Spoel who ran the Boekehuis before it was closed in act of barbarity not seen since the ransacking of the churches during the Reformation – WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (Vintage Books) which, from the depths of his erudition and his appreciation of the complexities of history, moves seamlessly from the very local to the exciting diversity of the human and natural world.
THE CELEBRITY – Gareth Cliff
Surprisingly, despite starting CliffCentral.com this year, I have found some time to read. From Barry Bateman and Mandy Wiener to Pamela Stephenson to Jerm the cartoonist, there is so much great stuff being published that it’s hard to narrow things down to just one book. But to be really self-indulgent, I have to admit that my current obsession is a book by Sir Hugh Roberts, Director of the Royal Collection, about the furnishing and decoration of King George IV’s private apartments at Windsor Castle. It’s called For The King’s Pleasure (Royal Collection Enterprises Ltd).
THE GONZO ESSAYIST – Bongani Madondo
I will be reading a lot! Ok, maybe I will be lucky to finish at least three of the following: Mandla Langa’s latest novel The Texture of Shadows (Picador Africa); The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown); You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town by Zoë Wicomb (Umuzi); I Would Die 4U: Why Prince Became An Icon by Touré (Free Press), and Stokely: A Life by Peniel E. Joseph (Basic Civitas Books), which is the latest biography of the revolutionary Stokely Carmichael (Miriam Makeba’s one time husband … one of the five exes). I don’t think I will get halfway through the list though. There’s just so much to do, especially with family demanding its pound of flesh of your time.
THE INDIE BOOKSELLER – Kate Rogan (Owner of Love Books)
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Jonathan Cape). I cannot wait to get my teeth into this. It’s just won the Samuel Johnson prize, which is the biggest thing in non-fiction awards – and it’s the first ever memoir to do so. In a nutshell, Helen Macdonald loses her father, and in her grief, she becomes obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk. My ears pricked when someone said it was the next The Hare with Amber Eyes (Chatto & Windus,). Whatever it turns out to be, it’s the kind of book that needs the time I can only give it while on holiday.
THE EXCLUSIVE BOOKS CEO – Benjamin Trisk
Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher Browning (HarperCollins). For students of the Holocaust there is a fascinating debate between Browning and Daniel Goldhagen about the culpability of ordinary Germans caught up in the implementation of the Holocaust. Also in a historical vein is Max Hastings’ Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War (Alfred A Knopf). Hastings concentrates on the accidents of timing and long-held simmering nationalisms that coalesced in that fateful year. I am an adequate amateur cook, love cookbooks, and the best local cookbook that I have seen for a long time is Kobus van der Merwe’s Strandveldfood (Jonathan Ball Publishers). I think it is sensational.
THE TREND-SPOTTER – Dion Chang
I have earmarked the following for my festive break: The latest Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage (Harvill Secker). I am a huge fan and will read anything that he writes. The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. I’m fascinated by Japanese culture (hence Murakami being on my list) and this biography also explores the exquisite art of “Netsuke” – tiny but intricate wood or ivory carvings. Ai Weiwei Speaks (Penguin Special) – a collection of interviews by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist that follows Weiwei’s incredible installation “S.A.C.R.E.D” at the Venice biennial, depicting scenes from his 81-day incarceration by the Chinese government. Finally, for much needed escapism, I’ll also be tackling The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling, Little Brown).
THE NOVELIST – Imraan Coovadia
I’m reading The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (Tor Books), a great Chinese science fiction writer, the Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson (Copper Canyon Press), translated by WS Merwin, Microcosms by Claudio Magris (Gallimard Education), Plenty More by Ottolenghi (Ebury Press) and Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi (Canongate, R180). Five books which promise to be miraculous. I just finished Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Boyhood Island (Alfred A Knopf). Great.
THE MAVERICK – Marianne Thamm
I have quite a neglected stack next to my bed, including Martin Meredith’s The Fortunes of Africa: A 5 000-year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour (Jonathan Ball Publishers). This “vast and vivid panorama of history” offers a renewed opportunity to engage with the backdrop to contemporary political developments. I’m halfway through Jonny Steinberg’s extraordinary A Man Of Good Hope (Jonathan Ball Publishers), which charts the journey of refugee Asad Abdullah from Somalia to Cape Town. And in a further attempt at understanding the physical, political and intellectual geography of South Africa, there is Imraan Coovadia’s novel, Tales of the Metric System, Mandla Langa’s The Texture of Shadows and Jacob Dlamini’s Askari.
THE LIT MAG EDITORS
Alex Matthews, editor of Aerodrome
I’m a huge fan of both lighthouses and Marguerite Poland, so The Keeper (Penguin) is therefore an irresistible prospect. I also can’t wait to finish Mark Gevisser’s Lost and Found in Johannesburg, which is an eloquent, vivid merging of maps and memories.
Helen Sullivan, editor of Prufrock
One of the best things about summer for me is magazines. Thick Christmas issues full of beautiful things, and stories and articles that seem to be more moving when it’s the end of a year. I’ll also be looking out for South African literary mags like Prufrock – uHlanga (an anthology of poetry from KZN – R50 on uhlangapress.co.za), Aerodrome (R140 from aerodrome.co.za) and New Contrast (R90 on newcontrast.net).
Anton Taylor is known to Books LIVE readers as the author of The Wisdom of Jozi Shore, a book of quotes from the web parody which sees “Jo’burg ‘boets’ meeting Cape Town ‘hipsters’.” He sporadically writes incredible Facebook rants in a serious tone peppered with humour and sharp wit. Helené Prinsloo caught up with him in Cape Town.
* * * * * * * *
I first thought we should probably take note of where Anton Taylor is heading on a literary level when I heard that he is part of the illustrious UCT Creative Writing MA class of 2014. (Former graduates of this degree include Henrietta Rose-Innes, Lauren Beukes, Diane Awerbuck, Ben Williams, Tom Eaton, Ellen Aaku and Toast Coetzer.) Then Ron Irwin tweeted saying he no longer thinks of him as a student, but a protégé. This confirmed my thoughts and I decided to meet up with him to find out more about Anton Taylor, the writer.
Drinking tea from a chipped mug, using a side plate as a saucer, we made some small talk, settling in for an interview with little to no idea of where it would go. After introductory chit-chat it was Dominique Botha’s award-winning False River that kicked off the real conversation.
Anton Taylor: I was really impressed by that book, hey. Someone had mentioned it, and I couldn’t remember what they had said, and then I saw it laying on the table in the library and I thought, hey, I should give it a go. And gee wizz, was I taken aback by it!
Helené Prinsloo: Now False River is not really the book I would expect Anton Taylor to pick up … author of The Wisdom of Jozi Shore digs False River is a statement in itself. So tell me about writing side of Anton Taylor, former international man of Movember?
[Holding his book] You know, I love this book. But I don’t think it showcased my fictional prose abilities. I am the first to admit that it’s no War and Peace, but it was a great experience.
I’ve always loved writing, and I’ve always wanted to do creative writing, and there has always been a part of me that needed, or wanted, an outlet for my creativity. In South Africa there aren’t really as many outlets for short stories as there used to be. When I read the biographies of older writers I see all these platforms and spaces which we don’t find today. Also, I don’t think my writing is up to scratch for the existing platforms … so a lot of my creativity comes out in YouTube videos and MCing and acting and things like that but, truth be told, all I’ve ever wanted to do was creative writing.
I finished my English undergrad, but I had been mucking about so I decided to go and repeat an English course in postmodernism to up my mark. But a lot of academic drama led to me not being accepted for Honours degree in English. So I took another English elective, did well and eventually got into the Honours course and did pretty well. I applied for the Masters in Creative Writing, but got rejected. So I applied again the next year and finally got in. In the meantime I was doing all this stuff [pointing to his book] and it was really great and, you know what, it was helpful. Because when I applied for the Masters I could say look, I know it’s no Damon Galgut, but in South African terms it sold pretty decently and it has my name on it. I think it showed some level of determination because eventually I got in.
I had been tinkering with the idea of writing humour, because I seem to have a capacity for wit, but I think my work tends to be of a more serious nature.
Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?
[Pauses] Fiction. I think there will definitely be a time for non-fiction … during this year I did a non-fiction course where we had Ron Irwin and Greg Fried (one half of Greg Lazarus) and Justin Fox, the travel writer. I got really good feedback from them, but I think I will wait a bit to write about my own life as it’s quite personal so I don’t think I am ready for that. So for now, fiction is the direction I will be going in.
Who were your other lecturers this year?
So there was Ron Irwin for non-fiction. Then for fiction in the first semester we had Imraan Coovadia and then in the second semester we had Etienne van Heerden.
What was your experience like with Coovadia?
He’s a great writer. Quite interesting. He was great as an introduction to the course. He was very different to Etienne – very laid back, relaxed. Its very scary to start writing fiction and he was a good guide in that time.
At the launch of his latest book, Tales of the Metric System, it was mentioned that it might be the great South African novel we have been waiting for. As an emerging writer, do you feel the pressure or desire to write that elusive great novel?
Sho. For me … I think that a lot of starter writers feel a lot of pressure to push their techniques on a literary front or to write the so-called South African novel or even just to be revolutionary in their approach to writing a novel. I feel there is a lot of pressure from especially academic institutions to write literary novels, or just not bother. You know, the kind of book which will win awards but won’t necessarily make the average man on street pick up the book. This [picking up his book] is obviously right at the other end of the scale. It’s fun, people are going to buy it mainly as a joke … but I think as a novelist who is starting out you should focus on the basics. Unless you happen to have a remarkable talent, and you know what you want to attempt will definitely work, stick to the recipe. There is a reasons why it is there in the first place. Look at Dominique Botha – she didn’t use pioneering techniques. She just relied on her voice and it’s a great book. But, to answer your question, I am not saying I am going to be focusing on writing airport novels, but I don’t think I feel that pressure. I am just going to write and see what happens.
The interesting thing about airport novels and other paperbacks, which will never win literary awards, like Jodi Picoult – there is an unimaginable amount of research that goes into those books. But because of the box they are put in, which is labelled unworthy in academic eyes, nobody will list them on their greatest book lists.
Exactly! Once you get put in a box, it will be hard to get out of it. People just look at you and go [holding his book up] you know, just look at this [rolls his eyes]. Now, if you look at the English market it is quite risky to release a novel. I wouldn’t too early in my career want to release a novel and then forever be remembered as that oke who did that …
But, Jozi Shore (and all the other things you have done) has given you a name. You are Anton Taylor, author of Wisdom of Jozi Shore and you have a very specific following. The books that you want to write, will they work with that following?
I think so. I like to believe that I have ideas that people like, and it seems that I can appeal to people. Also, I want to write well. The novel I will write will hopefully make more literary people go, ‘Whoa, I did not expect this’ because after seeing my first book they will have thought that I could probably not write more than a paragraph. So I know my novel will probably surprise them. And I would like to think that people who liked this book and wouldn’t normally be appealed by novels would pick it up based on what they know from my creative projects and also be surprised when they find different variations on ideas they know come from me. I hope to keep that same element of interesting subjects.
For me, the task is to see to it that my actual writing and my prose comes up to scratch to see to it that my ideas and themes are delivered in an appropriate way.
There is a lot to be said about the responsibility of the writer, be it to educate or whatever. Would there be any sense of responsibility to your writing, in getting the crowds who read this [picks up Taylor’s book] into reading more “serious” books, or is that a stupid statement?
No, not at all. Look, I don’t like ever saying that the writer has a responsibility, just because I don’t like ideas of imposing things on people, saying what they should or shouldn’t be doing. But … I think there is one responsibility for the writer: to take it seriously. There are a lot of people who say they are writers but they don’t really put much work into it. For me, I would like to write books that make people feel good. And that is quite a challenge! It’s almost easier to write stories with sombre endings, or are quite bleak. And it’s difficult to write happy endings without them becoming mulchy or contrite. But I would like to make people feel good.
For me, it’s writing about South Africa that counts. South African identity. South Africa’s sense of common shared identity and culture. This is important to me. What I would love is for the guys and girls who loved Jozi Shore could read some of my stuff and be like, “Oh, this guy makes some good points”. And if that could in any way make them understand something more about South Africa that would be a great success for me. My work will probably always be locally based about things that go on here.
Humour is a sly way to get people to think about things you would not expect them to be thinking about.
Exactly. With humour, people let their guards down so they can allow new information and thoughts in without them even noticing it. People have walls keeping and barriers against certain ideas but when you present something to them and decorate it with humour they welcome it.
The thing is, we as people like to judge people based on what they are into. For example, if they enjoyed Jozi Shore I would not be able to have a meaningful conversation with them.
You know, it sometimes does bother me when people think that people with certain tastes in music or literature or film are unintelligent. But often that is simply what they like! It’s what entertains them. It doesn’t mean they can’t have depth. I am not for a moment suggesting that this [his book] is a sort of, you know, serious social commentary …
Hey, I have won and lost fights defending my theory that Jozi Shore was an extensive social experiment, so I need to believe that there is more to it than pumping iron and scoring chicks. This brings me to my next question: People will read things into your work. I don’t care if you, the creator, tell me personally that Jozi Shore was not a deep and meaningful comment on society because that is how I read it. And you can’t tell me how to read it.
Exactly. Or interpret it.
But why then do we ask writers what they mean with their work?
Something that does bother me with this book is when people take it on a very superficial level and think that I am encouraging certain stereotypes and that there is no examination that went into it. But I am always very hesitant to say that, “Oh well this is what we meant.” People can be snobs. So I just leave it up to whoever sees it to make up their own interpretation. But what I do notice, especially from academia, is that there is always a desire to analyse work and apply theories. What I really don’t want is to pretend that there are all these underlying layers and things, whether we are speaking of films or novels or short stories or whatever, when there simply was none involved in the first place and then the actual piece itself suffers. Also, when you want to change someone’s way of thinking through writing you need to actually produce something which is enjoyable. Fun. Which will keep them to the end.
Enjoyment is a very big part of reading, after all.
So which do you prefer, writing or being a YouTuber and public persona?
Look, I enjoy writing more. But the thing with YouTube is I have over a million views. The problem with the written word is that it is far harder to reach that many people. So YouTube is very effective, and I enjoy it – a lot. However, with a written story you can go into so much more detail, and get so much more across … I think, in terms of what fulfills me more I would have to say fiction, and writing. But I guess we would have to see where my writing goes!
On the writing, have you tried your hand at poetry?
I tried, at school. Every time I do attempt it I worry that I am being pompous and self-indulgent … but sometimes for my friend’s birthdays I will write them little poems with vile humour and jokes. But not traditional poetry, no.
In your prose writing, are there any particular themes or genres you are drawn to?
Ja, no defs. I like the theme of people overcoming obstacles, although it is quite an old one in literature. I am quite drawn to people triumphing over adversity but I am also very much aware of the danger of being mulchy. You know, back to the issue of the role of the writer. In South Africa we have a lot going on. There’s a lot of conflict and a lot of people who are upset and great inequality. For me, I don’t think I have the luxury of just writing a lekker story. I would like to contribute in some shape or form. For a long time I just wanted to write a nice story, an easy novel. But now I know I want to be part of making South Africa a better place. So themes of forgiveness, co-existing, reconciliation and getting on are important to me. Also, the role and presence of violence in our society and how it affects people. But in the end I like stories with impossible odds and a happy ending. Have you watched True Detective?
Ah! You would love it! It’s unbelievable. It was written by a novelist and feels like a book you just can’t put down.
On that note, which books, films and series inspire you to write?
Whenever I see something that is well-written or well-filmed, that inspires me. Books that inspire me are a lot of the American writers, their writing itself. Cormac McCarthy is an absolute pro. I read it and I’m like “Oh my God”. His themes are horrific, and very depressing, but he is not afraid of big language. See, I quite like bombastic, dramatic language. Then there is John Steinbeck. Grapes of Wrath affected me so much. I have been trying to read as voraciously as possible because I don’t think you can be a novelist without reading. Then there is True Detective. If you look at the dialogue, it’s great. But what also makes it great is the fact that it is loved and watched by millions. People like to say that culture is being dumbed down, etc. Then I look at a show like that and I get excited because it is really, really intelligent and it challenges that idea that if something is mainstream it precludes the fact that it is well-structured and thought out. Oh and of course the James Bond movies, and novels! I have read almost all of them. I quite like the cult character I am presented with by Ian Fleming.
Is writing fulltime a dream?
In the most distant sense of the word, yes. I mean I can’t think of many, if any, South Africans making a living solely by writing and if so it took them years and years to get there.
So, when can we expect your debut novel?
Well I am writing it as part of my dissertation for the Creative Writing course and I have all of next year to produce it.
Who is your supervisor?
I have been very lucky to get Etienne van Heerden.
[Laughing at the prospect of the Ancestral Voices author mentoring the king of Jozi Shore] That is a beautiful but very random combination.
I can’t speak highly enough of him. The reason I wanted him as my supervisor and had my heart set on him is that he is such a rich, considered person and the feedback he gives is always so constructive. And because I know I will probably always write books and do things that are appealing to an opposite market it is really special to have someone so incredibly deep and intelligent go over my stuff and keep it in check is invaluable.
Does he guide your story in terms of plot, or what does he …
Oh everything. The plot in general, but also the writing itself.
You know, if you think of the persona people think I am – you know, they think I am like the character I play on Jozi Shore – then I am lucky to have Etienne as my mentor.
* * * * * * * *
By this point time had caught up with us. After exchanging reading lists and pleasantries I walked away feeling chuffed with our meeting and the fact that Anton Taylor, the writer, was every bit as astute and bookish as I hoped he would be.
NOW that the Springboks’ disappointing performance last month has been thoroughly picked over, perhaps it is time to look at the contribution of rugby’s off-field team to this demoralising episode and, hopefully, learn some lessons from it.
Last year, the Springboks played 12 games. This year, an extra two were loaded on to what was already a heavy schedule. In the last, disastrous Wales game on November 29, the Boks looked worn out, which was hardly surprising. Most of them had been playing one high-intensity, all-or-nothing game after another since Super Rugby began in February, 10 months earlier. The effect of this on their bodies was brought home by the devastating injury suffered by Jean de Villiers, whom Heyneke Meyer had days earlier identified as the one man critical to SA’s chances of winning the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
To add to the problems, the large squad felt messy: there were too many players brought along for the ride, never even getting a shot at warming the bench. There were too many black faces in this contingent not to suspect some window-dressing. But for all the passengers in the squad, both black and white, it must have been a disheartening experience.
There were questions as to why Meyer didn’t include more newcomers in his match-day squads, particularly against Italy. I think the answer lies with the off-field team.
The performance indicators in Meyer’s contract are all about winning every game. Development — racial or otherwise — will not win him a second term.
So, why did the South African Rugby Union (Saru) insist on the Boks adding on the Wales game to their schedule after the international Test window was over? The risks of this additional burden outweighed any advantage to the team.
Next year is the most important year in world rugby. Surely preparation for that should have been uppermost in everyone’s minds?
The Boks had already played Wales twice this year, so they were not gaining experience against a little-known opponent. Meyer had already had three games in which to test players’ ability to adapt to wet weather. The inevitable downside — the damage done to the Springbok brand and to team morale by a humiliating loss that will haunt them for another six months until they get a chance to redeem themselves — is huge.
The answer is money. Saru was reportedly paid £750,000 for the Wales game. When Jurie Roux, the CEO of Saru, announced that the two additional games — against the World XV in June and Wales in November — he said the extra income earned would go towards funding preparations for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Have the Springboks not already earned their keep, then? A look at Saru 2013 annual report shows its turnover for 2013 as just under R800m.
Almost of all Saru’s income is from two sources: sponsors — chief among them Absa — and the sale of broadcasting rights.
A mere R194m is allocated to “high performance”, the category that includes the Springboks, the Springbok Sevens and the Springbok Women’s team, and that sum is split among all three teams. So less than an eighth of Saru’s income goes to the team which attracts the bulk of it.
Springboks? Cash cows might be a more appropriate name. They are being flogged to the limit in order to keep afloat a bloated organisation.
My (very modest) New Year’s wishes for South African rugby are that:
• Saru transforms itself into a rational, streamlined, visionary organisation in which all its constituent parts forget self-interest and work together for the greater good of rugby;
• Saru sets the professionals free to get on with the business of producing world-beating teams that make all South Africans proud;
• The smaller unions and the clubs attached to the Super Rugby franchises stop living off the earnings of the professionals and dedicate themselves instead to semiprofessional and amateur rugby. They could have a huge role to play in restoring club rugby to its former glory — with all the concomitant benefits to the community — but for that to happen, they have to give up their pretensions of professionalism; and
• Saru and all its stakeholders think through what it means to be a flagship South African brand in 2015 and then formulate an effective policy to make it happen, starting from the top down. The Springbok coach needs to be contractually incentivised to select and develop a more racially diverse team, as do the Super Rugby coaches.
Saru should acknowledge that channelling development, particularly of black players, through its constituent unions does not work and it needs to come up with a better plan for nurturing and promoting black rugby talent.
It is pointless waiting for the government to sort out education and school sport. Saru should take the lead.
*This column first appeared in Business Day