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War, hate and sex: Bron Sibree interviews Anne Sebba on her book Les Parisiennes: How the Woman of Paris Loved, Lived and Died

Anne Sebba gives us new insight into the ordeals of women in wartime, writes Bron Sibree for the Sunday Times

Les ParisiennesLes Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Loved, Lived and Died in the 1940s
Anne Sebba (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

British historian and biographer Anne Sebba has been fascinated by the World War II defeat of France and the German occupation of Paris for as long as she can remember. But for as long as she can recall, too, she has also been troubled by one of the most abiding images of that war’s aftermath: Parisian women being publicly shaven, and often painted with the swastika, for the crime of collaboration horizontale.

“That is the abiding image, and it is so one dimensional. But what has happened historically is that that has become very cheap shorthand for what happened in France,” says Sebba, who has analysed the role of collaborators and resisters, and so much more, in her mesmerising (and richly detailed) social history of the period, Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Loved, Lived and Died in the 1940s.

From the outset, Sebba knew she wanted to write a different kind of history. She ignored a renowned male historian’s advice to use the most oft-quoted male diarists of the period, and set out in search of lesser-known women’s voices. The author of eight celebrated works of non-fiction, including That Woman: The Duchess of Windsor and the Scandal That Brought Down a King (2012) and Jennie Churchill (2007), Sebba knows her way around an archive.

Yet even so, she says, “I needed to do a lot of digging.” She spent five years combing the archives for letters and diaries, and painstakingly tracking down women now in their 90s who had lived through the occupation.

“I wanted a multiplicity of points of view. That was key to what I was trying to do so that women couldn’t any longer be given this one-dimensional tag.”

In giving voice to the countless Parisian women who suffered, died or were imprisoned in places like Ravensbrück, or endured the occupation through various degrees of compromise or resistance – mostly a combination of both – Sebba drives home the fact that it was women who were left to contend with the almost all-male Nazi occupiers.

“Wartime Paris was a feminised city. That’s a sine qua non to my book. I hadn’t even realised that until I started writing it, because two million men were taken prisoner of war. Others were with De Gaulle in the Free French and yet others, if they were Jews, were in hiding, or were elderly, so there were very, very few men in Paris. So here you’ve got a city where the women didn’t have the vote, they didn’t have the right to work without their husband’s permission, they couldn’t have a bank account. And without any fuel they couldn’t drive cars so had to ride bicycles, but they weren’t allowed to wear trousers.”

For Sebba, writing Les Parisiennes was a quest to understand the difficult choices forced upon these women – so obviously disempowered yet not cowed – and not to pass judgement. She even finds the word “collaborator” distasteful. “Although it was [Philippe] Pétain who introduced this word collaborate, I think it’s ugly and judgemental. I prefer some degree of complicity. You could argue that everyone who went about their daily business was in some way complicit. I don’t want to pretend there wasn’t collaboration, there were by some estimates more than 100000 Franco-German babies born. Some of it was of necessity – to feed your children you might sleep with a German – some of it was romantic. But did the women deserve to be punished after the war in this very gendered way, without a trial, publicly humiliated?

“It was aimed at the women,” she emphasises, “and has deep roots in the fact that the men felt so humiliated and ashamed that they had lost the military defeat, the way they reacted was to take it out on the women.”

Even the role women played in the resistance remained largely unrecognised until many years later, says Sebba, whose efforts in recording stories of feminine heroism in Les Parisiennes go a long way to redressing historical omissions.

Yet in writing such an intricately detailed history about les années noires, the dark years that divided French citizens, says Sebba, “I found huge resonance in what’s going on in the world now with all this fear that we have of refugees and people who are different from us. It’s so important that we understand that this has happened once before, and that we’re all human beings.”

Follow Bron Sibree on Twitter @BronSibree

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Bob Dylan wins the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature

TarantulaChronicles Volume One

The times they are a-changin’! Bob Dylan has been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature.

The announcement was made today by the Swedish Academy.

Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy Sara Danius said Dylan was awarded the Nobel for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

In an interview straight after the announcement, Danius was asked by an incredulous journalist: “Does Bob Dylan really deserve the Nobel Prize? Why?”

“Why?” she responded. “Well of course he does, he just got it.”

She continued: “He is a great poet in the English-speaking tradition. He is a wonderful sampler, a very original sampler. He embodies the tradition, and for 54 years now he’s been at it, reinventing himself constantly, creating a new identity.

“If you want to start listening or reading you may start with Blonde on Blonde, the album from 1966. You’ve got many classics, and it’s an extraordinary example of his brilliant way of rhyming and putting together refrains, and his pictorial thinking.”

When asked whether the Academy had widened the horizon of the prize, Danius said she didn’t believe so.

“It may look that way but really we haven’t. If you look back, far back, 2 500 years or so, you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to, that were meant to be performed, often together with instruments. It’s the same way with Bob Dylan. But we still read Homer and Sappho, and we enjoy it, and the same thing with Bob Dylan. He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the grand English poetic tradition.”

Danius was asked whether she thought there would be criticism in the wake of the announcement, and replied: “I hope not.”

Finally, she was asked whether she had listened to a lot of Dylan personally growing up.

“Not really, but he was always around so I know the music and I’ve started to appreciate him much more now than I did,” she said. “I was a David Bowie fan. Perhaps it’s a question of generation, I don’t know. Today I’m a lover of Bob Dylan.”

It appears the Academy had Dylan’s lyrics in mind when deciding the prize, but he has also written two books: Tarantula, a collection of prose and poetry published in 1971, and Chronicles: Volume One, the first part of a planned three-volume memoir, published in 2004.

Watch the announcement here:

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Book Bites: 9 October 2016

Published in the Sunday Times

Three Moments of ExplosionThree Moments of An Explosion: Stories
China Miéville (Picador)
Book fiend
The short-story collection starts with a bang and maintains that level of excitement and terror throughout. Die-hard Miéville fans might struggle with the new format at first (can’t he just write more Bas-Lag books, already?) but after the titular story you’ll be hooked and thirsting for more. Stand-out stories are “Säcken” – a research trip to the German countryside unleashes untold horrors – and “After the Festival” – a macabre depiction of mass fandom and addiction. Miéville not only experiments with the short story form, he reinvents it. It’s disturbing and brilliant. – Annetjie van Wynegaard @Annetjievw

Hot MilkHot Milk
Deborah Levy (Penguin Random House)
Book buff
Sofia has abandoned her anthropology doctorate to tend to her mother, who suffers from mysterious pain and paralysis. The two women enact a filial dance of control and co-dependence, love and resentment. When her mother limps, so does Sofia. “Her legs are my legs.” In desperation, they travel to Spain to consult a doctor. While her mother undergoes the doctor’s (possibly quack) ministrations, Sofia begins to overcome her own existential malaise – she steals a fish, frees a dog, and takes lovers (male and female). Hot Milk is meticulously crafted and vivid with myth and landscape. Levy moves gracefully between pathos, poetry, humour and intriguing internal imaginings. – Kate Sidley @KateSidley

Lily and the OctopusLily & The Octopus
Steven Rowley (Simon & Schuster)
Book hug
Ted’s unbreakable bond with his dachshund Lily is what keeps him going, giving his existence shape and meaning. Together, they’re an unbeatable team, a mutual adoration society. It’s the relationship that Ted can count on every day without fail, his one true friend. But when an evil “octopus” suddenly affixes itself to his beloved Lily’s head, threatening everything, he’s thrown into terrible turmoil. Hilarious, sardonic, imaginative and also incredibly sad, this is a must-read for anybody who has ever loved a pet. – Nikki Temkin @NikkiTemkin

The Couple Next DoorThe Couple Next Door
Shari Lapena (Bantam Press)
Book thrill
Remember the McCanns who left their daughter Madeleine alone while they had supper nearby? Anne and Marco Conti do the same thing: when the babysitter cancels at the last minute, they leave six-month-old Cora alone and dine with the neighbours. Like Madeleine, Cora is stolen; the police suspect the parents and more and more revelations point to them. A ransom is demanded and paid, but the baby is not returned and police fear the worst. The Couple Next Door is excellent, especially for a debut, with good, tight writing and a thrilling twister of a plot. – Aubrey Paton

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Open letter to Adam Habib: Ishtiyaq Shukri calls on Wits to terminate its contract with 'unaccountable' private security firms

The Silent MinaretI See You

Ishtiyaq Shukri has written an open letter to Wits University Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib and the members of the Senior Executive Team.

Shukri is the author of the EU Literary Award-winning The Silent Minaret, and his most recent novel, I See You, has as a central concern the implications of the rise of the private security industry.

The book features a scene set in the Wits Great Hall in which the main character makes an impassioned speech about freedom and private force that, read now, seems prescient.

In his letter, which was prompted by the shooting of Father Graham Pugin just off campus, Shukri calls on university management to “demonstrate conciliatory leadership”, to “consider the lives of the students entrusted to your care” and to “terminate its contract with these unaccountable private security firms”.

Read the letter in full:

Dear Professor Adam Habib and Members of the Senior Executive Team of the University of the Witwatersrand

I have in recent months been increasingly alarmed by the growing levels of militarised violence deployed against students from the #FeesMustFall movement at the University of the Witwatersrand by private security firms paid for by the University. I despair at the failure of imagination demonstrated on the part of the University in its inability to find and employ amicable forms of management and conflict resolution, and its readiness to resort to the old South African recipe of force to settle disputes instead. I am deeply concerned by the model the University has presented to the country: that in South Africa violence and force are commodities for sale to be purchased, at undisclosed amounts, even by a university. Purchased by senior executives – not of a corporation, but of a university – executives against whom such force is unlikely ever to be deployed. Private force, purchased by a wealthy institution to be aimed at its poorest students. And I am especially disturbed by the recent shooting of Father Graham Pugin of the Holy Trinity Catholic Church next to the University. While I have wrestled with writing to you before, following his shooting I can no longer remain silent now.

I’ll just state it plainly. South Africa is under occupation by private military and security firms now in possession of a combined arsenal of privatised force which already outnumbers that of the state by five to one. And while they have the capacity to deploy levels of violence and force that surpass those of the state, they are not accountable to its citizens or to the state. In a democracy such as ours, state forces are rightly accountable to the citizens, and in the case of the shooting of Fr Graham, the Deputy National Police Commissioner Gary Kruser has apologised unconditionally and set up an official investigation to be headed by the Gauteng provincial commissioner. Commissioner Kruser is not doing us a favour. In a democracy, he is holding himself accountable, just as he should. By contrast, unregulated private military and security firms are only accountable to their shareholders, shareholders for whom the use of force translates into the escalation of profit; profit to which you have contributed untold amounts. The threats posed by private military and security firms have been a long-standing concern of mine and are a central to my novel from 2014, I See You. One of the novel’s main characters, Leila Mashal, outlines the threats in a key scene. I mention this to you only because that scene takes place in the Great Hall at Wits.

Having imagined the threat of privatised force in my fiction, I have found it very difficult to watch the violence unfold at Wits in reality, of which the shooting of Fr Graham is a startling escalation. Is nothing sacred anymore? When I set that fictional scene at Wits, the last place I imagined would one day become the setting for the greatest public manifestation to date of the occupation of South Africa by privatised forces was a university, was indeed Wits University itself. This vexes me, because it is not easy to see the boundaries between fiction and reality implode at Wits, and because to me their collapse signals that the occupation has penetrated even our most respected centres of higher learning. You have stated that you have on a previous occasion reviewed footage of claims by students regarding brutality and abuse by private security agencies at Wits. You claimed to have found nothing to support those allegations. Maybe. But today I ask you to review the footage of images of brutalised priests and students now emanating from Wits. Are they evidence enough? Do you see what we see? What the rest of the world can see – even the Pope in Rome? Whatever these private security forces may have protected, it wasn’t the reputation of the University and it certainly wasn’t Fr Graham.

In January 2016, concerned Wits faculty and staff wrote to you requesting the University to terminate its contract with these private security firms. Writing on behalf of the Senior Executive Team, you rejected their request.

Following the shooting of Fr Graham, I call on the Senior Executive Team of the University of the Witwatersrand to demonstrate conciliatory leadership. I call on you to consider the lives of the students entrusted to your care, if not on a contractual basis, then at the very least on an ethical one. I call on you to reconsider your decision, and for the University to terminate its contract with these unaccountable private security firms. In the face of their insidious occupation, which is now at least no longer invisible, is it not also the responsibility of a university of good repute to be discerning about the threats they pose, to demonstrate dissent by also shedding light on how they undermine our democratic procedures, and to take the lead in standing up to defend those procedures rather than participate in their erosion through silent financial transactions with secret unaccountable forces? And if these are not also the responsibilities of a university, then to whom do we entrust them when we are under occupation?

Ishtiyaq Shukri

11 October 2016

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Image: YouTube

2016 South African Literary Awards nominees revealed

Dit kom van ver afKarnaval en lentShirley, Goodness & MercyEggs to Lay, Chickens to HatchVry-Bumper CarsBeyond TouchPruimtwak en skaduboksersUnSettled and Other StoriesFlame in the SnowHalfpad een ding’n Huis vir EsterEsther's HouseVlakwaterIt Might Get LoudBuys – ’n GrensromanThe Violent Gestures of LifeSweet MedicineKamphoerWhat If There Were No Whites In South Africa?Donker stroomAskari

Alert! The shortlists for the 2016 South African Literary Awards have been announced.

18 authors from a total of 132 submissions have been shortlisted and the winners will be announced on Monday, 7 November, at a prestigious function at Unisa.

On the same day, wRite Associates will host the fifth Africa Century International African Writers Conference, before the ceremony. This year, the SALAs have partnered with the Unisa Department of English Studies in delivering both the awards ceremony and the Conference.

The SALAs were founded in 2005 by wRite Associates and the Department of Arts and Culture.

This year, the awards will honour the memory of TT Cloete and Chris van Wyk with Posthumous Literary Awards, while Ingrid Winterbach and Professor Johan Lenake are nominated for Lifetime Achievement Literary Awards.

The SALA Adjudication Panel said:

We are excited that South African literature continues to flourish, with many young writers coming into the scene, sharing platforms with their more established and experienced counterparts, however, we are saddened and concerned that we still see less and less of works written in African languages.

Going forward, the SALA Adjudication Panel recommends literary workshops and symposia with stakeholders, especially writers, publishers and editors, to address concerns regarding the standard and quality of some of the work, especially in African languages, that SALA has been receiving over time. This would be in line with one of the objectives of SALA, ‘to promote and preserve all our languages’.

We congratulate the 2016 nominees for their sterling work and keeping South Africa’s literary heritage alive.

The SALAs aim to “pay tribute to South African writers who have distinguished themselves as groundbreaking producers and creators of literature”, as well as to “celebrate literary excellence in the depiction and sharing of South Africa’s histories, value systems and philosophies and art as inscribed and preserved in all the languages of South Africa, particularly the official languages”.

The 2016 South African Literary Awards nominees:

Posthumous Literary Award

TT Cloete – Body of work
Chris van Wyk – Body of work

Poetry Award

Gilbert Gibson, Vry-
Athol Williams, Bumper Cars
Arja Salafranca, Beyond Touch

Nadine Gordimer Short Story Award

Danie Marais, Pruimtwak en skaduboksers
Sandra Hill, UnSettled and Other Stories

Literary Translators Award

Leon de Kock and Karin Schimke, Flame in the Snow: The Love Letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker
Zirk van den Berg, Halfpad een ding
Kirby van der Merwe, ’n Huis vir Ester

Lifetime Achievement Literary Award

Ingrid Winterbach – Body of work
Prof Johan Lenake – Body of work

K Sello Duiker Memorial Literary Award

Willem Anker, Buys – ’n Grensroman
Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho, The Violent Gestures of Life
Panashe Chigumadzi, Sweet Medicine

First-time Published Author Award

Francois Smith, Kamphoer
Ferial Haffajee, What If There Were No Whites In South Africa?

Creative Non-Fiction Award

Carel van der Merwe, Donker stroom
Jacob Dlamini, Askari

Chairperson’s Award

Recipient to be announced at the Award Ceremony – Body of work


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2016 Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award announced - a second win for Athol Williams


Athol Williams has won the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award this year, for the second time, for his poem “Visit at Tea Time”.

Athol WilliamsWilliams is a poet and social philosopher from Cape Town. He is the chairman of Read to Rise, a youth literacy NGO that he co-founded after many years as a business strategy advisor. His poems have been published in anthologies and literary journals in the UK, USA and South Africa and he has published three poetry collections. He is also the author of the Oaky series of inspirational children’s books, and Pushing Boulders, his memoir, was published this month.

Williams grew up in Mitchells Plain, Cape Town and has been educated at Oxford, Harvard, MIT, LSE, London Business School and Wits University.

As the winner he receives a cash prize and, for the first time this year, a three-week residency at the NIROX Foundation in the Cradle of Humankind, which includes fully serviced accommodation in a beautiful studio, free full board, and a serene environment in which Athol can focus solely on his craft. We are delighted to be able to add this rare privilege to the award.

The NIROX Foundation was established to foster the arts in their widest sense. Poetry was from inception within our diverse focus, but it is a quiet craft that can often be overshadowed by its popular siblings – the visual and musical arts, for which NIROX is best known. And so it is a great pleasure for the Foundation to make a residency available to the winner of this year’s Sol Plaatje Award. We hope that this is the start of a long association. Athol Williams is a worthy winner. We look forward to the opportunity of working with him amongst our other artists in residence in the coming year.

- The NIROX Foundation

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


The runners-up, who also received cash prizes, are Siphokazi Jonas, in second place for her poem “MamBhele’s Harvest” and Charles Marriott, in third place for his poem “Cape Town”.

The award ceremony took place on Sunday, 9 October, at the Mail & Guardian Literary Festival in Newtown. Senior judge and chairperson of the Jacana Literary Foundation (which administers the competition and publishes the related anthology in partnership with Jacana Media), Professor Mongane Wally Serote, as well as the European Union Ambassador Designate, His Excellency Marcus Cornaro, presented the prizes to the winners during the event. A wonderful poetry performance by longlisted poets Zewande Bhengu, Siphokazi Jonas, B-Lyrical, Thabiso Mohare, Pieter Odendaal and Kori Strange, as part of the 6th Word N Sound International Youth Poetry Festival, kicked off the proceedings.

The Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award aims to reveal the political and social attitudes of our time. The annual Award, supported by the European Union, is now in its sixth year. Named after Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje (1876-1932), it recognises the life and vision of this highly respected political and social activist. As in previous years, Volume 6 of the series anthologises the three winning poems (selected by the iconic poet Serote) along with some 90 other longlisted poems in Afrikaans, English, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, isiXhosa and isiZulu and accompanied by English translations where relevant (selected by a jury of three notable South African poets: Goodenough Mashego, Thabiso “Afurakan” Mohare and Pieter Odendaal). The submissions are judged blind.

The anthology was launched at the same event.

Related stories:

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