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2016 Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Award shortlist announced


The shortlist for the 2016 Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award has been revealed.

From the longlist of poems selected by this year’s judging panel for publication in volume 6 of the anthology, Professor Mongane Wally Serote (chair of both the panel and the Jacana Literary Foundation) has selected the three finalists.

The shortlist includes last year’s winner, Athol Williams.

Serote, a Black Consciousness icon, poet and writer, is a renowned member of the Soweto poets – a group which advocated for black literary voices in South Africa during the tumultuous 1970s. His poems of that time speak of the realities of apartheid, and have been invaluable in provoking thought about oppression, as well as capturing the truths of the era.

Similarly, the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Award aims to reveal the political and social attitudes of our time.

“These South African poets have understood something,” Serote says. “They hold the present by the scruff of the neck and threaten it. If this nation has not revolted, it is evolving to revolt, the poets say. The present cannot hold, the poets keep saying. Like healers, they sing, beat the drums and dance to the rhythm of their tongues.”

In alphabetical order, the 2016 Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award shortlist:

  • “Cape Town” by Charles Marriott
  • “Mambhele’s Harvest” by Siphokazi Jonas
  • “Visit at Tea Time” by Athol Williams
The Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology 2011The Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology Vol IIThe Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology Vol IIIThe Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology Vol IVThe Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology


How these poems have placed and the overall winner will be announced and cash prizes awarded (R6,000 for first place, R4,000 for second place and R2,000 for third place) at an event at the Mail & Guardian Literary Festival on Sunday, 9 October at 11:30 AM.

The Litfest will take place at Sci-Bono in Newtown, Johannesburg, on 8 and 9 October. Tickets are R50 a session, with half-price discounts for students and pensioners (R25 a ticket). Tickets will be on sale at the venue on the day.

There is a significant nod to South African literary history in the Litfest, marking the 140th anniversary of the birth of Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje (1876-1932), the highly respected political and social activist after whom this award is named.

For more information, contact the Jacana Literary Foundation on

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Book Bites: 18 September 2016

Published in the Sunday Times

The Midnight WatchThe Midnight Watch
David Dyer (Atlantic Books)
This is an astoundingly good novel on the sinking of the Titanic, no doubt the most fictionalised ship of all time. Forget the romances, murders, mysteries and domestic dramas usually spun around that voyage: this book is based on real events. The SS Californian was within sight of the Titanic, close enough to see her lights. So why did she not go to her aid? Fictional journalist John Steadman interviews the crew, looking for answers. Real events, real people, meticulous research and excellent writing transform this roman à clef into a literary thriller. – Aubrey Paton

How to Find Love in A BookshopHow to Find Love in a Bookshop
Veronica Henry (Orion)
After his partner’s death, Julius Nightingale opens a bookshop in the Cotswolds. He had met the love of his life in a bookshop and believes that’s just what the town needs – love. 32 years later, his daughter Emilia finds herself stumped. The bookshop is running at a loss and there’s a property developer breathing down her neck to sell. But as more and more customers share their stories about what Julius and the bookshop means to them, Emilia realises that selling is just not an option. A feel-good novel with frills – the perfect antidote to a bad news-headlines kinda day. – SA Partridge @Sapartridge

Imagine Me GoneImagine Me Gone
Adam Haslett (Penguin Random House)
When John is hospitalised for depression, his fiancée Margaret decides to marry him anyway. The story of this couple and their three children is told over decades by alternating family members, and the intimate and elegant prose captures the individual characters and their inner lives and struggles. John’s depression returns, with tragic results. The eldest son Michael shares his father’s illness, becoming increasingly anxious and, eventually, debilitatingly drug-dependent. The book is an empathetic and candid portrayal of the effects of mental illness on the family – the poignancy of the devotion and loyalty, as well as the relentless frustration and fear. – Kate Sidley @KateSidley

The King's AssassinThe King’s Assassin
Angus Donald (Sphere)
Anyone who has missed the first six novels of The Outlaw Chronicles, and who loves medieval blood-and-thunder, had better get going with The Outlaw and work up to this one. Alan Dale (sweet singer and harder-than-nails warrior) still narrates, dictating to a monk, his story of the devilishly charming, ruthless and brilliant Robin Hood, mighty foul-mouthed Little John, and others equally interesting. Dark betrayal, torture and personal complications interlace with Donald’s usual roaring action. Never have the Robin Hood legends or the 12th century been as vivid, as bloodily real and as stirring as here. – David Pike @pikedavey

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They're peculiar but there's nothing to fear: Jennifer Platt chats to Jen Thorpe about her novel The Peculiars

Published in the Sunday Times

They’re peculiar but there’s nothing to fear: Jennifer Platt chats to Jen Thorpe about her novel The Peculiars


The PeculiarsThe Peculiars
Jen Thorpe (Penguin)

The Peculiars at a glance seems to be tapping into the zeitgeist of books about mental issues. But it’s an easy read, although Jen Thorpe doesn’t make light of any of the issues in her debut novel, which is part mystery, part romance, part family drama and part political thriller.

It’s about phobias and Thorpe has a deft touch discussing what is a debilitating problem for a lot of people as she had a fear of driving herself – the same phobia her main character Nazma has. “I understood how frustrating it could be to be limited by what type of public transport was available, and safe. This was all before Uber so I was often stuck wanting to go somewhere but limited by my own fear.”

Nazma signs up for group therapy sessions at the Centre for Improved Living. The centre brings together a quirky lot of other characters – among them Sam, whom Nazma and Ruth (the director of the centre who has to hide her own tics) have both taken a liking to. There’s also the racist Simon who has a fear of immigrants, and Nomboniso, a yoga teacher, who suffers from extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder. All of them are relatable and Thorpe gives them real phobias to work through.

“I obviously had my own personal experience and ideas about how I’d overcome it, but I wanted to make sure that a group setting like I’d envisioned could actually work for the characters. So I read up quite a bit … the book is certainly not meant to be taken as psychological theory, but I did make sure it was at least possible to try.”

And then there is Cape Town. It’s not the sunny, picturesque, postcard version. It’s the harsh winter – a windy, grey and rainy city. Thorpe makes it feel as if it is another obstacle to deal with when you have particular phobias. “I am originally from the warm, sunny North Coast, and all you see of Cape Town is sunny perfect pictures. Then I got here and my first winter felt like a lifetime of wet jeans and damp shoes. It really felt like a force to be reckoned with … when the wind blows here it still feels like a character to me.”

There are many threads that Thorpe pulls on: there’s Jericho, the homeless man who when not pissing on the wall outside the centre, spouts visions that seem to come true; Nazma’s mother who has a secret fear of her own; and the minister of wellbeing who was insulted by Ruth and now seems to be on the warpath.

Follow Jennifer Platt on Twitter @Jenniferdplatt

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Glowing all the way to the grave: Michele Magwood reviews The Radium Girls

Kate Moore gives us a cautionary tale of corporate evil, writes Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

The Radium GirlsThe Radium Girls
Kate Moore (Simon & Schuster)

It usually started with their teeth. Young female factory workers in the United States were complaining of toothache, and it being early in the last century, when cosmetic dentistry was unheard of, the problem teeth were simply removed. But their mouths didn’t heal, and more teeth were rotting. The dentist in Newark, New Jersey, was confounded, until the day he tried to remove yet another tooth from a young woman’s mouth, and her entire jawbone came away in his hand.

The patient’s name was Mollie Maggia and she worked at the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation. When she died soon afterwards, the doctors insisted the cause was syphilis.

In this gripping account of appalling corporate malfeasance and awing courage, Kate Moore presents a roll call of the bright young things who went to work in the factories producing luminous dials for clocks and watches and also for military instruments. The job was well-paid and glamorous. The paint they used contained radioactive radium, which made it glow. There was so much of it in the air that the girls’ clothes sparkled with it in the dark; and they used to paint their teeth with it to make them shine at the dances. They were told that it was completely safe, even beneficial, in small doses. As ludicrous as it seems now, radium was marketed as “liquid sunshine”, and infused into everything from face creams to chocolate, butter and lipstick. Radium-laced lingerie promised to perk up sex lives; taken orally it was claimed to act as Viagra.

To paint the dials the girls were instructed to suck the end of the paintbrush into a fine tip – “lip-pointing” – thereby ingesting the radium-laced paint, which settled into their bones.

The girls in New Jersey began to fall ill. Apart from tooth decay they grew grotesque bone sarcomas, their paper-thin skin split open, their leg bones shortened on one side. Their spines disintegrated and they had to wear steel braces. Death certificates stated random illnesses like diphtheria and heart attack as cause of death.

Then in 1925 a pioneering doctor, Harrison Martland, proved the connection between the paint and the illnesses, but the company denied responsibility. It lied to the workers, covering up evidence with its own “expert” advisers. The women didn’t have the money to pay lawyers – they could barely keep up with their medical bills.

Over in Illinois another radium painting studio opened, but the staff were unaware of the danger. There was little sharing of medical information at that time so doctors in the town didn’t make the connection, and after a few years the agonising ailments started up there, too.

This time a young lawyer took the case pro bono for a group of dial painters who had been given only months to live, accusing the company of “cold, calculating, money-making murder”. The press went big with it, dubbing the girls “the living dead” and igniting enormous sympathy. There were photos of dramatic bedside hearings, interviews with families, and a ghoulish demonstration of lip-pointing for the court by a victim who had had one of her arms removed.

The case was long and drawn-out but they finally won, after eight appeals, in 1938.

Moore started investigating the radium girls when she directed a play about them called These Shining Lives. She was shocked to find so little information about the women themselves, so she set about researching them, travelling to the US to visit the sites of the story, interviewing the girls’ relatives and raiding newspaper and court archives.

By centering her book on the girls themselves, their backgrounds, personalities, friendships and loves, she pays homage to their short lives. There is some comfort in knowing that because of them, proper safety standards were introduced to protect not only a new generation of dial painters, but also those working with plutonium in making atomic bombs. The girls’ case transformed workers’ rights in the US, leaving a crucial legacy of legislation to ensure safe working conditions. “The radium girls did not die in vain,” Moore writes.

There’s an eerie footnote to the story. Years after she was buried, Mollie Maggia’s remains were exhumed to test the syphilis diagnosis on her death certificate. When her casket was opened, they found her bones were still glowing faintly.

Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood

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Andy Martin describes the unusual process of writing Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me

Published in the Sunday Times

Reacher Said NothingReacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me
Andy Martin (Penguin Random House)

“I’ve just written this great four-word sentence,” said Lee Child. “Come and have a look.” He ushered me into his apartment in Manhattan overlooking Central Park. He works in an office in the back, adorned with framed pages of the New York Times bestseller lists featuring his own novels sitting squarely at no. 1. I perched on the couch and he hit me with his four words. They were good words. High quality, high value. Each word emerging from his keyboard was worth $100. Each of his books is at least 100 000 words long. Make Me, the book he was working on, was his 20th Jack Reacher novel. You do the math.

Child, numero uno thriller writer, a giant in airport bookstores around the world, is half-poet, half-pirate, both ruthless materialist and dreamy head-in-the-clouds fantasist. The real mystery was: what the hell was I doing there? Which is a question a lot of his friends were asking. “Lee, hold on a second. You’ve got a Cambridge academic sitting behind you watching you write? You cannot be serious, man! He’s going to put you off your stroke. He is a literary voyeur!”

It was a crazy idea, I admit. Bear witness to the moment of creation, be there while a writer is writing and write about him writing in real time. Follow the composition of an entire novel from the first word (“Moving”) all the way through to the last word (“needle”). Capture the process at close quarters, try to climb inside the writer’s head, spectate while the words are spun into a book, like watching an alchemist transform lead into gold. Complete madness, obviously.

But Child said, “Yes, cool idea. You’d better get over here. I’m starting next Monday.” He always starts a new book on September 1, it’s a religion with him. It could have been any writer, in theory. But Donna Tartt takes 10 years, so I crossed her off. And Albert Camus was dead. I saw Child as not just a bestselling phenomenon, but as a serious writer whose first book, Killing Floor, reads like a sequel to Camus’s The Outsider.

Child has this theory that anyone in the world might want to kill quite a few people, given the opportunity. Jack Reacher kills people on our behalf. He enacts the revenge we so rarely get the chance to carry out ourselves. He is a Messiah and avenging angel all rolled into one. And he is like a kid, just a very big one (1.95m and 113kg).

Those four words? Reacher is surveying the street before breaking into a house. It’s empty. “No eyes, no interest,” Child writes. A characteristic structure: “No x, no y.” No hell, no heaven. A double negation. Notice that, in those four words, Reacher is an inaction hero. And this for me is what makes Reacher work, as a protagonist. Of course he beats people to death with his elbows. But he is also a philosopher who thinks his way through his fights.

Child is the same when it comes to writing. I didn’t really have to ask him questions. He was like Lionel Messi running rings around the opposition and at the same time commentating on what he is doing and exactly how he is going to score.

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The New Yorker features a new story by Petina Gappah, 'A Short History of Zaka the Zulu'

Rotten RowThe Book of MemoryAn Elegy for Easterly


Alert! The New Yorker has published a new story by Petina Gappah, from her forthcoming collection Rotten Row.

She is the first Zimbabwean writer to be featured in the publication for fiction.

Gappah won the £10,000 Guardian First Book Award for her acclaimed debut book of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly in 2009. More recently, she was shortlisted for the United Kingdom’s Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award – the world’s richest prize for a single short story – and also became the first Zimbabwean author to be longlisted for the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, for her novel The Book of Memory.

Her new story, “A Short History of Zaka the Zulu”, is set at the College of Loyola, a Jesuit school in Zimbabwe based on a school Gappah attended. In an interview with The New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, Gappah says the idea came to her about four years ago, when she was invited to give a speech at an old school’s prizegiving.

I had not been back during term time since I left. It struck me then how incredibly young the boys were, even the oldest of them. That realisation inspired me to write a story about the closed and insular world of boarding school, and about the choices that teenagers can make in the arrogant belief that they know everything. I don’t believe in the “write what you know” school of writing; I believe in writing what I can realistically imagine. I love to write across class, across race, across sex and gender, and I wanted badly to put myself in the shoes of those boys. It would have been too easy to write it from the girls’ perspective; I wanted to push myself by imagining another.

Gappah’s new collection of short stories, Rotten Row, will be published by Faber and Faber in the UK in November. The book is named after the street in Harare where the Criminal Division of the Magistrate’s Court is based, and is made up of 20 stories about crime, from different perspectives.

“I also experiment with different approaches to storytelling,” Gappah tells The New Yorker, “I use a court judgment, an autopsy report, and an internet discussion forum, as well as other voices. I love the short story and want to master the form. I love the sentence-by-sentence, word-level attention that the short story demands, and that is its greatest pleasure.”

Read “A Short History of Zaka the Zulu”:

He was always a bit of an odd fish, Zaka the Zulu, but he was the last boy any of us expected to be accused of murder. Not a wit, a sportsman, or a clown, he was not a popular boy at our school, where he wore his school uniform every day of the week, even on Sundays. Of course, we could have admired him for his brains. In the high-achieving hothouse that was the College of Loyola, which won the Secretary’s Bell Award fifteen years in a row, we admired any boy we labelled a razor. Zaka, though, made such a song and dance about his sharpness that you’d have thought he was the only razor in the school.

He became even less popular when he was made head prefect. In a school like Loyola, where the task of keeping everyday order is entrusted to the prefects, being head can bring out the tyrant in even the nicest chap, and Zaka brought to the position an obnoxious self-importance that made him absolutely insufferable. As head prefect, he issued demerits for the slightest offenses, marking down boys who did not wear ties with their khaki shirts at Benediction, making spot checks for perishable goods in our tuck boxes and trunks, sniffing for beer on the breath of every boy who had snuck out to Donhodzo, the rural bottle store in the valley below our school, and, from the strategically placed Prefects’ Room, making forays at unexpected times to see if he could catch anyone smoking outside the library.

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Author image courtesy of The New Yorker/Composite by Books LIVE

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