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Right! That's a wrap of our #ManBooker2014 coverage. Congratulations to Richard Flanagan

Empty seats packed with meaning

ONE of the overriding images of the pool stages of 2014 Currie Cup — now reaching its climax with semifinals this weekend — is of empty stadiums. Often the rugby played is exciting and SuperSport does its bit with ever-enthusiastic commentary, but there are few takers. These are local teams playing at local stadiums, yet local fans cannot be bothered to get themselves there to watch.

It must be dispiriting for the players on the field witnessed only by the blank gaze of row upon row of empty seats. The most spectacular tries are rewarded only by a smattering of applause, all that can be mustered by the few fans present. The fantasy of legions of fanatically loyal local fans, ostensibly the bedrock of provincial rugby and a major justification for its existence, is exposed as just that. Nor are many watching the Currie Cup on TV — viewing figures are substantially down.

It is hugely expensive to stage these games. Stadiums must be maintained, a phalanx of staff must be paid for on game days including referees, medical teams, ticket collectors, ushers and security guards. Teams must be flown around the country and put up in hotels.

It raises the question: can rugby afford it? And, even if it can, would the millions spent not be better spent elsewhere? The fact that the Premiership Division of the Currie Cup has been extended to buy off small unions so that they would agree to the inclusion of the Southern Kings in Super Rugby (more Currie Cup and more Super Rugby) has not helped matters.

The Currie Cup has historically occupied a special place in the collective heart of the rugby community: during the isolation years, it was the competition that kept local white rugby alive. Provincial unions had to work hard to keep their fan base on board because it was turnstile traffic that kept them financially afloat.

But the professional era — now almost 20 years old — changed all that. The provincial unions now rely on their share of the SuperSport income to keep the game going. There is little incentive to spread the game locally because the money will keep on rolling in, no matter how ineffectual they are.

Crowds at the First Division games — those played in Welkom, Wellington, Potchefstroom, George, Kimberley and East London — are particularly sparse.

One of the arguments used to justify the continued funding of the smaller unions is that they unearth talent that would otherwise go unnoticed. But this happens so seldom — and at such a cost to the rugby fiscus — that it hardly seems worth the outlay. And what this argument ignores is that it is the rugby schools that unearth and nurture rugby talent. The unions just piggyback on it.

The top Currie Cup layer — the Premiership — plays a more viable role because it provides a platform for the blooding of younger players before promotion to Super Rugby.

Serious questions should be asked about the First Division’s viability as a professional league. Although the bottom line is that no matter how irrational and wasteful the current system is, it will not change because the 14 unions have entrenched their rights in a constitution only they can change.

But reform may yet be forced upon them from within their own ranks. The Super Rugby franchises are growing increasingly frustrated with the current division of spoils. It is the Springbok games that command by far the highest TV audiences. The Springboks’ main base are the Super Rugby franchises they are contracted to and who pay the bulk of their salaries. And this is not insubstantial: top Boks command R4m at some franchises.

The current distribution of the joint South African Rugby Union pot of about R700m does not give the Super Rugby franchises anywhere near enough to meet their financial obligations. Yet their Boks are only available to the franchises for the first half of the year.

This year, for the first time, 20 key Springboks are not available for the Currie Cup play-offs because they are being rested and conditioned for the upcoming November Tests. But if they are injured during the Tests, it is their franchises who will lose out when Super Rugby starts.

Surely those empty seats should constitute some sort of a wake-up call?

*This column first appeared in Business Day

Nominees for the 2014 South African Literary Awards Revealed

Alert! Books LIVE can exclusively reveal the nominees list for the 2014 South African Literary Awards.

The SA Literary Awards were founded by the wRite associates and the Department of Arts and Culture in 2005, with the twin aims of paying tribute to writers who have “distinguished themselves as ground-breaking producers and creators of literature” and celebrating literary excellence “in the depiction and sharing of South Africa’s histories, value systems and philosophies”, in all the languages of South Africa.

Ride the TortoiseRunning Almost Sleeping My Way to TimbuktuThe Spiral House The Blacks of Cape TownThe Turtle Dove Told MeLove InterruptedCall It DogRiskThe Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the GodsFractured LivesDystopia

Nominees this year include Makhosazana Xaba, who was also today announced as a Mbokodo Awards nominee, Books LIVE correspondent Liesl Jobson, Sihle Khumalo, Claire Robertson, who won this year’s Sunday Times Fiction Prize, and Carol-Ann Davids.

Nuruddin Farah and Njabulo Ndebele are up for Lifetime Achievement Awards.

The winners will be announced on Friday, 7 November.


Poetry Award

Themba Patrick Magaisa, Mihloti ya Tingana (Xitsonga, published by TP Magaisa)
Khulile Nxumalo, Fhedzi (English, Dye Hard Press)
Kobus Moolman, Left Over (English, Dye Hard Press)
Thandi Sliepen, The Turtle Dove Told Me (English, Modjaji Books)

Nadine Gordimer Short Story Award

Gary Cummiskey, Off-ramp (English, Dye Hard Press)
Makhosazana Xaba, Running and Other Stories (English, Modjaji books)
Reneilwe Malatji, Love Interrupted (English, Modjaji Books)
Liesl Jobson, Ride the Tortoise (English, Jacana Media)

K Sello Duiker Memorial Literary Award (For Young Writers)

Marli Roode, Call it Dog (English, Penguin Books)
Jason Staggie, Risk (English, Umuzi Publishers)
Jamala Safari, The Great Agony and Pure laughter of the Gods (English, Umuzi Publishing)

Creative Non-Fiction Award

Sihle Khumalo, Almost Sleeping My Way to Timbuktu (English, Umuzi Publishers)
Toni Strasburg, Fractured Lives (English, Modjaji Books)

First-time Published Author Award

Claire Robertson, The Spiral House (English, Umuzi Publishers)
Carol-Ann Davids, The Blacks of Cape Town (English, Modjaji Books)
James Siddall, Dystopia (English, Jacana Media)

Lifetime Achievement Literary Award

Nuruddin Farah
Njabulo Ndebele

Literary Translators Award

Nhlanhla Maake, Malefane (Sesotho/English, Ekaam Books)

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South Africa Represented at the Africa39 Events at the Port Harcourt Book Festival in Nigeria this Weekend

Shafinaaz Hassim and Zukiswa Wanner will represent South Africa at Africa39 events at the Port Harcourt Book Festival, Nigeria, this weekend.

Africa39 anthologyThe Africa39 list, which was unveiled in April at the London Book Fair, names the most promising 39 authors under the age of 40 from Sub-Saharan Africa and the diaspora. Nthikeng Mohlele, Sifiso Mzobe, Mary Watson and Hassim made the final cut, as did Liberia-born Hawa Jande Golakai, Zambia-born Wanner and Zimbabwe-born Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, who have all published in South Africa.

Other notable names on the Africa39 list include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Tope Folarin, Dinaw Mengestu, Taiye Selasi and this year’s Caine Prize winner Okwiri Oduor.

The resultant anthology, Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara, was launched last weekend, with Clifton Gachagua (Kenya), Stanley Onjezani Kenani (Malawi) and Nadifa Mohamed (Somalia).

Event information:

International events celebrating Africa39
Port Harcourt Book Festival, Nigeria
21–25 October 2014

Royal Banquet Hall (Hotel Presidential), University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State University of Science and Technology and Ignatius Ajuru University of Education

Readings and conversations with Tope Folarin, Clifton Gachagua, Mehul Gohil, Shadreck Chikoti, Edwige Renee DRO, Ukamaka Olisakwe, Lola Shoneyin, Nana Brew-Hammond, Ondjaki, Okwiri Oduor, Glaydah Namukasa, Kioko Ndinda, Onjezani, Stanley Kenani, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Eileen Barbosa, Rotimi Babatunde, Imachibundu Onuzo, Linda Musita, Recaredo Boturu, Nii Parkes, Stanley Gazemba, Richard Alia Mutu, Shafinaaz Hassim, Chika Unigwe, Zukiswa Wanner, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, Ondjaki, Adrian Igoni Barrett and Hawa Jande Golakai. Chaired by Ella Allfrey.

The Gonjon Pin and Other StoriesAmericanahAll Our NamesGhana Must GoSmall ThingsYoung Blood
The Cutting RoomThe Lazarus EffectThe Orchard of Lost SoulsSoPhiaLondon - Cape Town - JoburgShadows

The Africa39 project, which is run by Bloomsbury Publishing, the Hay Festival and the Rainbow Book Club, aims to “celebrate the most vibrant voices in literature” and “bring worldwide attention to some of the best new fiction from Africa south of the Sahara”. Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina compiled the longlist late last year, and the final 39 writers were chosen by judges Margaret Busby, Elechi Amadi and Osonye Tess Onwueme.

Busby wrote a short blog about the launch of Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara:

Its cover art vibrant with yellow and green and red and blue, the anthology looks gorgeous, even before you open it to savour 350-plus pages of creativity by the talented 39, represented at the launch by Clifton Gachagua (Kenya), Stanley Onjezani Kenani (Malawi) and Nadifa Mohamed (Somalia). They read from their contributions – poignant and playful, thought-provoking and unexpected, and buzzing – and responded with insight to über interlocutor Ellah Allfrey’s questions. Fascinating to hear Stanley Kenani talk of how his writing recently converged with his “day job” as a chartered accountant when he faced the improbable challenge of writing a poem on accountancy.

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2014 Man Booker Prize Winner Richard Flanagan: "I am Ashamed to be Australian"

The Narrow Road to the Deep North2014 Man Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan says he is “ashamed to be an Australian” because of that country’s environmental policies.

The Tasmanian author was awarded the esteemed prize in London last night for his book The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which tells the story of the Australians who worked on the Thai-Burma “Death Railway” during World War II.

Flanagan took the title of his novel from one of the most celebrated books in Japanese Literature, written by the haiku poet Basho in the 17th century. After the award ceremony, while speaking to the Kirsty Wark of the BBC’s Newsnight, he said: “If that’s one of the high points of Japanese culture, my father’s experience and that of his mates on the Death Railway, where more people died than there are words in my book, more people died than at Hiroshima, that’s one of it’s low points. And I wanted to use the forms of Japanese literature to try and understand this terrible thing.”

Flanagan, who is a committed environmentalist, was asked to comment on Australian prime minister Tony Abbott’s recent comments at the opening of a coalmine in Queensland that “coal is good for humanity”:

“I’m very saddened because Australia has the most extraordinary environment and I don’t understand why our government seems committed to destroying what we have that’s unique in the world,” Flanagan said. “It doesn’t have to be this way. We can grow our economy but we can do so much for our extraordinary environment.

“There are so many things and, to be frank, I’m ashamed to be Australian when you bring this up.”

Watch the video:

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A Vivid Voice: Ivan Vladislavic Remembers Chris van Wyk

Chris van Wyk

First published in the Sunday Times

Ivan Vladislavić remembers his friend, poet and novelist Chris van Wyk, who loved and lived through stories.

Chris knew books could change your life. Could save your life. If you want to hear his booming laugh, open any page of his memoirs.

The Year of the TapewormEggs to Lay, Chickens to HatchShirley, Goodness & MercyLong Walk to FreedomTwenty in 20

Chris van Wyk was a rare kind of writer. He brought people and places so vividly to life in his books that reading them makes you feel more fully alive yourself. His company had the same effect: he was so full of life that it spilled over to the people around him.

We met when I joined Ravan Press as a social studies editor in 1984. The press was in an old house in O’Reilly Road, Berea, loomed over by hotels and blocks of flats. On my first day there, it was Chris who steered me towards the crucial stuff — author files, stationery cupboard, kettle. He had been editing Staffrider for a while and was keen to show me the back issues of the magazine. We went into the garden, where a dilapidated coach house faced the service alley, and I followed him up a wooden ladder into the attic. In the hot, dim space under the corrugated-iron roof, surrounded by towers of books and magazines, he told me about his work, and I began to think that editing might be a proper job after all.

I had seen him once before, in the late ’70s or early ’80s, at a poetry reading on the Wits campus. There were a lot of angry young men on the programme, the young black poets who would fill the pages of Staffrider, and Chris read “About graffiti”. It is an extraordinary poem, this tough, wryly amusing collage of hard-boiled street imagery.

When one black child tells another / “Ek sal jou klap / dan cross ek die border” / it’s graffiti.

He read the piece so vehemently that the wit passed me by, almost shouting the last lines: Soon graffiti will wade into Jo’burg / unhampered by the tourniquet of influx control.

When I came across Chris again at Ravan, the angry young man had mellowed. Politically he’d shifted from the Black Consciousness camp into the non-racial world of the newly established United Democratic Front. He was then involved in the Transvaal Anti-President’s Council campaign against the Tricameral Parliament.

I remember one of his stories from this time. He and some other activists were picked up while they were going door to door and taken to John Vorster Square, where he was left in the hands of a sergeant. He started out boldly determined to speak English only and ignore the policeman’s rank. But then he noticed the size of the man’s freckled fists, he said, and found he was quite able to say “Sersant” in his best Afrikaans. This sort of self-ironising comedy about painful things is at the heart of Chris’s storytelling. He often evokes the laughter that isn’t far from tears.

When I met him, Chris had already published his first poetry collection, It Is Time to Go Home (1979), which won the Olive Schreiner Award; and his children’s classic, A Message in the Wind (1982), with a warm introduction by Richard Rive. He and his friend Fhazel Johennesse had also founded and disbanded Wietie, a literary magazine no less extraordinary for having run to just two issues.

I bought a copy of his collection and soon realised that his skill as a poet went far beyond the jagged polemic of “About graffiti”. There was the conceptually brilliant “In detention”, which has entered South Africa’s collective cultural memory, something that does not happen often. This intricate verse, no longer than a sonnet, remains one of the most chilling critiques of the apartheid lie.

Many of the other poems are equally memorable. The book is studded with exquisite love poems dedicated to Kathy, his high-school sweetheart and later his wife. “Winter without you”, “Portrait”, “You must never know I’m writing you a love poem” carry a huge emotional load on their slender frames. My favourite is the perfectly simple, heart-burstingly beautiful “Confession”:

i would
have brought
they threatened
to explode
their mauve
all over
best shirt
i ate them

As an aspirant writer myself, I was both admiring and envious. How had he learnt to write like this? There are answers to this impossible question in his memoir, but that lay 20 years in the future.

There were a dozen of us working at Ravan Press. The editors — the other two were Mike Kirkwood and Kevin French — sat together in a single room, two desks on either side, facing one another across a narrow channel. We talked and joked, overheard one another’s telephone conversations, edited and argued. Frequently we rearranged the schedule. We worked hard too, as the publishing record shows. We were harassed by impatient authors and the security police. When the CCB threw a petrol bomb through the back door, it was a stroke of luck that a house full of paper did not burn to the ground.

Chris and I sat side by side for four years. We discovered a world of common interests, in books of course, but also in things like crosswords, which we did at lunchtime, somewhat competitively. He told me his favourite crossword clue was gegs (9,4). It’s up there with the best: the answer is “scrambled eggs”. He liked it so much, he mentioned it in his memoir. He was an incredible punster. Given half a chance, he could keep a riff of puns going for 10 minutes.

Chris poured his energies into his work with the Staffrider writers, who arrived at the house like pilgrims from all over the Rand. He spent half his time on a bench in the garden, going through handwritten poems in school exercise books with the authors, or unrolling drawings on the counter where the orders were packaged. Because of his poor eyesight he had to hold the pages up at an angle, which made his attention seem incredibly fierce.

Ravan was something of a refuge. Despite the personal and political tensions that played themselves out in the press, it felt a lot saner than the surrounding madness. Some of us made enduring friendships. We drank where we could, at the Market bar, or Dawson’s, or a gloomy kroeg in Langlaagte. We ate in the Coffee Bean in Hillbrow, where the proprietor Penny turned a blind eye. Mainly we got together in one another’s homes, in Troyeville, Noordgesig, Crown Mines. I was welcomed into Chris and Kathy’s place in Riverlea. Long after Ravan came to a sticky end, I would drop in at Arno Street for a chat and stay until lunchtime, or even suppertime. Sometimes Willie Smith would come past with a couple of quarts. Kathy, who was always the rock in Chris’s life, tolerated our carousing with good humour.

Once, in the early days of our friendship, we were reminiscing about the book exchanges we had gone to as kids in search of Alistair MacLean or Louis L’Amour, and I remarked that we were cut from the same cloth. Years later, when he took me past the matchbox house he’d grown up in, I realised what a thoughtless statement that had been.

In the early-2000s, Chris wrote the series of biographies for young readers that earned him enough to focus on his writing. The two books that followed about his childhood in Riverlea, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy and Eggs to Lay, Chickens to Hatch, will loom large in his legacy. Here he found his true voice on the page and it turned out to be a resonant echo of the one he used in the world. You can hear him speaking in every funny, sad, large-hearted line.

The books put Riverlea on the map and brought him a wide readership. It was the local response that mattered most to him, the reactions of old schoolteachers or neighbourhood shopkeepers. He loved to tell stories about the many people who contacted him to correct or confirm things, to challenge how they’d been portrayed or ask why they’d been left out.

The interest in his memoirs helped him to discover a talent for public speaking. The wonderful storytelling that had always entertained his friends grew into a kind of comedy. He was utterly fearless in these performances. If a little boy cried in one of his stories, he would bawl like a baby. If his mom shouted at him, he would shout at the top of his voice. In Shirley, Goodness and Mercy, he tells us that his first teacher, Miss Abrahams, told stories with this kind of conviction.

To the end, Chris made me laugh. We were talking about his chemotherapy and I said, “I’m glad the tumour’s responding well.”

He said, “No, no, Vlad, you don’t understand. We want it to respond badly.”

He told stories about the cancer survivors he met during his treatment. I remember thinking: “He’ll get through this. He’ll beat the odds, and then he’ll write an amazing book about it, full of the human detail that only he would notice.”

I will miss the long, hilarious phone calls, usually sparked by a pun in a headline or a clever newsbill (on the impending transfer of the footballer of the year to Real Madrid: “Hier kom Kaka”) or some Louis Jordan or Cole Porter rhyme he’d heard on Eleanor Moore’s radio show The Bandstand. He made me laugh so much the neighbours would come to see what was going on. It’s a truism that writers live on in their books, but with Chris the comment holds. If you want to hear his voice, his booming laugh, open any page of his memoirs.

Chris knew books could change your life. Could save your life. It’s why the failings of our education system infuriated him and why he spoke so often at schools. It’s remarkable, even in the life story of a writer, how much his memoirs circle around books: getting them, having them taken from you, using them to change your mind and the minds of others, revealing their true uses and values.

One of his most touching childhood stories tells how his Ouma took him to town to buy books out of her pension, carefully considering each one before pronouncing on its merits. And how he discovered a few months later that she had never learnt to read and write.

In the late ’70s, when the country was a darker place than it is now, he dedicated the poem Candle to his friend Caplan, another Riverlea raconteur who died too young. It ends like this:

Read brother read.

Only the wick shines red now.

But it is not yet dark.

Remember brother,

it is not yet dark.

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Binyavanga Wainaina's Twitter Outburst: "Dear Caine Prize, U Made Nothing, Produced Nothing, Distributed Nothing"


Binyavanga Wainaina took to Twitter this weekend, and this morning, to bash the Caine Prize, again, saying African writers should be asking more questions about the sponsorship of awards.

“Do you all remember that the literary magazines like Transition that pubished Ngugi, bessie head, Soyinka were sponsored by CIA?” he tweeted (sic).

One Day I Will Write About This PlaceThe Gonjon Pin and Other StoriesAmericanahAfrican Violet

The Kenyan author hit the headlines in early September, when he criticised the Caine Prize in an interview with This Is Africa, saying: “I am going to take this first to another road because I think all you Nigerian literati are way too addicted to the Caine Prize. I give the Caine Prize its due credit, but it just isn’t our institution.”

It was not the first time the “African Booker” has come under fire from writers who consider it too big for its boots. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who was shortlisted for the Caine Prize the year Wainaina won it, 2002, caused an uproar in July last year, when she told Slate that she considers it “over-privileged”:

[...] what’s all this over-privileging of the Caine Prize, anyway? I don’t want to talk about the Caine Prize, really. I suppose it’s a good thing, but for me it’s not the arbiter of the best fiction in Africa. It’s never been. I know that Chinelo is on the short list, too. But I haven’t even read the stories—I’m just not very interested. I don’t go the Caine Prize to look for the best in African fiction.

AB: Where do you go?

CA: I go to my mailbox, where my workshop people send me their stories. I could give you a list of ten—mostly in Nigeria—writers who I think are very good. They’re not on the Caine Prize short list.

Wainaina revisited the topic on Friday in grand style, sending a flurry of tweets saying that the Caine Prize award money should not prevent winners from “asking questions” and calling out fellow writers Elnathan John, who was shortlisted for the prize in 2013, and Mehul Gohil, who took part in the Caine Prize workshop in 2012, as well as Caine Prize administer Lizzy Attree.

“It is a season of mad beautiful ideas, not safe career bum lickings,” Wainaina tweeted. “Our continent is ripe, dangerous and renegotiating everything, do not sell your literature for small scholarships.”

This morning Wainaina said his argument was not with the prize itself, but with the attention it gets from Africa, while local institutions with the same aims are given “no credit” by their literary community: “I have very little to say about the Caine prize. I have lots to say about what we have chosen to make of ourselves in it. It speaks loud.”

John responded to Wainaina’s goading by insinuating he had been “drinking”, and criticised “African professionals”:

Wainaina is no stranger to controversy this year. In the midst of a wave of anti-homosexual legislation across the continent, he decided to come out on his 43rd birthday in January, in a “lost chapter” from his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, entitled “I am a homosexual, Mum”. He was subsequently named one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.

Read Wainaina’s tweets:

Monday, 13 October:

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Image courtesy of Truth and Fiction