By Terry Shakinovsky for the Sunday Times
The Girl From Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family
Roger Cohen (Bloomsbury)
The “girl” in the title of this book is the author’s gifted and vibrant mother, who twice tried to commit suicide. Roger Cohen says he “had to write” about her – “there was a knot inside me related to the mental illness of my mother” – and the result is a fascinating attempt to map the boundaries between mental illness, family pain and the trauma of loss.
Cohen’s final impetus was finding “a box in the attic with my mother’s suicide notes and my father’s very precise annotations about those terrible years between the two suicide attempts”. Included in those notes was a family tree his father had drawn, with a black dot next to every member who had suffered from depressive illness. “My forbears broke with the past, fanning out across the world, and all the while they carried within them a gene that formed an unbroken chain.” The author traces other patterns stretching backwards: the yearning to belong and the anguish of exile. He is convinced,”‘that the truth of the story of my mother was tied to our odyssey, a Jewish odyssey of the twentieth century, and the tremendous pressure of wandering, adapting, pretending, silencing and forgetting.”
Cohen’s his family’s story resisted a direct narrative, but he turns it into a haunting, profound interrogation of history itself. The story circles brilliantly across place and circumstance, asking wider questions through the prism of individual and family experience. What makes some resist when most comply? What fosters cruelty or indifference to suffering? “South Africa is instructive in this regard” Cohen writes.
We sense this from the rich descriptions of the South Africa of his youth: the Kruger Park quickening with life; the Jo’burg braais in lush gardens; his grandfather Laurie clapping his hands over his head as a signal to his black servant to bring a second drink. “The human traits that buttress violent systems of racist oppression … are universal and enduring.” So too is the amnesia of immigration: “Jews learn selectively from the past. Just like everyone else.”
Did writing this magnificent book offer the healing that Roger Cohen hoped for? “I don’t think I had some grand epiphany. But I feel I got to the bottom of what I set out to get to the bottom of and with that has come acceptance. I think that acceptance could be a prelude to peace.” – Terry Shakinovsky @terry_shak
Image credit: Rebecca Ring
By Sophy Kohler for the Sunday Times
Less than a year after being pushed to resign from her professorship at the University of Essex, Dame Marina Warner has been awarded one of the world’s most prestigious scholarly prizes, the Holberg Prize. Warner recently stirred up debate for her condemnation of the for-profit model of universities, where academics must earn their keep, often by accepting untenable workloads, and where “young scholars waste their best energies writing grant proposals”. Her criticisms are built not only on her extensive teaching experience and intellectual acuity – she was made a dame for her services to higher education – but they are triggered by a comparison with the world of “communist corporatism” depicted in the many Chinese novels she has been reading in her role as chair of judges for this year’s Man Booker International Prize.
The International Booker, now in its sixth year, is held bi-annually and recognises the body of work of an author rather than a single book. The last prize went to American writer Lydia Davis in 2013, which, though not necessarily undeserved, is representative of the strange trajectory the prize has taken. Its aim is to acknowledge international fiction, but four out of five times it has been awarded to authors writing in English. Warner hopes that this year will mark a move away from what she terms a kind of “American domestic realism”, a definite possibility given the composition of the judging panel. Warner is joined by Wen-chin Ouyang, Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at SOAS; Pakistan-born author Nadeem Aslam; Edwin Frank, editorial director of the New York Review Books Classics series; and South African-born Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature at Oxford University.
“I think it’s a fantastic panel,” Warner tells me over Skype from her home in north London, where spring is “struggling through”. “There’s a terrific range of reading, range of knowledge and love of different literatures represented. And so far it’s been terrific fun and very harmonious.” Together the judges have a good sweep of the continents, with their individual cultural and linguistic backgrounds bringing a range of texts in translation in focus, including some in Italian, French, Urdu, Arabic, Chinese, English, Dutch and Afrikaans. This is significant, as translation is not only an important aspect of the prize, but also, says Warner, of contemporary literature. “The issue of migration and diaspora and adoptive languages is a terrific feature of contemporary literature. It’s a theme in contemporary literature, but it’s also a process of the writers themselves in contemporary literature.”
Translation is a theme that shows up in her own writing, too. Both 2011’s Stranger Magic and the more recent Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale consider the universal quality of the fairy tale, with Stranger Magic dedicated specifically to the Arabian Nights. The book was commissioned by Oxford University Press for their Very Short Introduction series. “The idea of the series is that someone whose work has generally been in that field writes a short book about it,” Warner tells me. “So a lot of people who are, as it were, at the end of their careers write these books where they sort of distill the knowledge of a lifetime into it.”
It took her eight years to write and, despite being physically slim, is a very substantial work. “It’s actually fantastically hard to write a short book about something you know a lot about,” she says.
Warner describes fairy tale as “a language by which we communicate across borders”. “We understand one another’s fairy tales, regardless of how particular they are rooted in that culture,” she says. For example, the Arabian Nights is “a work that kind of transcends its language, because it’s become naturalised in so many other languages.”
The Man Booker International shortlist announcement always takes place outside of the UK, and this year Cape Town was the host. The event will be flanked by a public seminar on the Arabian Nights and a panel discussion with the prize judges. “I think we’re arriving at an interesting list,” Warner says, “but I hope a surprising list, and a list that’s also emblematic, to some extent, of the strengths of current fiction.” Conscious of the immense difficulty of arriving at an ultimate winner – to be announced on 19 May – she jokes, “I was sort of thinking that maybe I’d make the judges all run a race and the one who wins has to choose.” – @sophycola
The Man Booker International Prize 2015 list of finalists were announced at the University of Cape Town today. For more information on the associated events, visit www.uct.ac.za
Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale
Marina Warner (Oxford University Press)
Image credit: Dan Welldon
Lucy Wood (Bloomsbury)
Whether you like ghost stories, explorations of relationships – particularly those between mothers and daughters – or simply enjoy beautiful descriptive writing, this novel ticks all the boxes. Ada and her daughter Pepper return to her mother’s dilapidated, damp, remote house to scatter Pearl’s ashes in the river that borders the property. Slowly the crumbling house and the few locals suck them in, as Pearl’s grumpy and not entirely ghostly presence gets stronger. A beautiful, life-affirming novel, brilliantly executed.
- Margaret von Klemperer
Jos Scharrer (CreateSpace)
This fictionalised memoir of the author’s great aunt, Flora Shaw, is rather complex. You applaud and admire Shaw for being one of the first female editors of a newspaper. In the 1890s she served as “Colonial Editor” of The Times of London and saw it all: The Jameson Raid, the Klondike gold rush, the Anglo Boer War and the founding of the state of Nigeria. But one struggles to like her: Scharrer doesn’t hold back the fact that the formidable Shaw was a supporter of the British Empire and fervently believed in its imperialist expansion.
- Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt
John Sandford (Simon & Schuster)
Sandford is that rare crime-series writer who makes each instalment new and fresh, a remarkable achievement when the settings are small rural towns where nothing much seems to happen. Trippton, on the Mississippi River, is present-day America’s equivalent of Miss Marple’s St Mary Mead – until Virgil Flowers from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension arrives to help an old friend investigate a series of dognappings – which leads to a chain of murders. Sandford’s stories are searing, yet humorous and always affectionate.
- Ayesha Kajee @ayeshakajee
Wolf in White Van
John Darnielle (Granta)
This is the perfect book to read if you are feeling sad. It will make you realise you’re not so bad off after all. Sean is an odd boy who survives a shotgun blast to the face and grows into an odd man who runs an adventure game called Trace Italian through the mail. The game leaks into the real world with fatal consequences for a couple of silly teenagers. Author John Darnielle is the frontman for California indie folk-rock band The Mountain Goats, but never fear, this is not at all apparent in the book, which reaches heart-rending depths.
– Jennifer Malec @projectjennifer
Alert! The Man Booker International Prize 2015 nominees were announced in Cape Town at the University of Cape Town today.
In the past the finalists have been announced in Toronto, New York and Sydney and this is the first time the announcement was made on the African continent – the home continent of two-time Booker Prize winner and Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee, who is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of English at UCT.
The Man Booker International Prize differs from the Man Booker Prize as it honours a writer’s body of work and their contribution to international fiction, as opposed to focusing on a single publication.
The £60 000 is awarded every second year and was won in 2013 by American author Lydia Davis, American novelist Philip Roth in 2011, Nobel laureate Alice Munro in 2009 and by the late Nigerian author Chinua Achebe in 2007. Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare won the inaugural prize in 2005.
The 2015 judging panel, who selected the finalists at their own discretion, includes South African born, UK-based novelist and critic Elleke Boehmer. British novelist Marina Warner chaired the panel made up of Boehmer, British Pakistani novelist Nadeem Aslam, American editorial director Edwin Frank and literature professor Wen-chin Ouyang, who was born in Taiwan, raised in Libya and is now based in the UK.
Without further ado, the finalists for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize are:
César Aira, Hoda Barakat, Maryse Condé, Mia Couto, Amitav Ghosh, Fanny Howe, Ibrahim al-Koni, László Krasznahorkai, Alain Mabanckou and Marlene van Niekerk.
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Helené Prinsloo (@helenayp) tweeted live from the announcement, using the hasthtag #MBI15:
Ten writers are on the judges’ list of finalists under serious consideration for the sixth Man Booker International Prize, the £60,000 award which recognises one writer for his or her achievement in fiction.
The authors come from ten countries with six new nationalities included on the list for the first time. They are from Libya, Mozambique, Guadeloupe, Hungary, South Africa and Congo
None of the writers has appeared on a previous Man Booker International Prize list of finalists
The proportion of writers translated into English is greater than ever before at 80%
The finalists’ list is announced by the chair of judges, Professor Marina Warner, at a press conference hosted at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, today, Tuesday 24 March 2015.
The ten authors on the list are:
César Aira (Argentina)
Hoda Barakat (Lebanon)
Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe)
Mia Couto (Mozambique)
Amitav Ghosh (India)
Fanny Howe (United States of America)
Ibrahim al-Koni (Libya)
László Krasznahorkai (Hungary)
Alain Mabanckou (Republic of Congo)
Marlene van Niekerk (South Africa)
The judging panel for the Man Booker International Prize 2015 consists of writer and academic, Professor Marina Warner (Chair); novelist Nadeem Aslam; novelist, critic and Professor of World Literature in English at Oxford University, Elleke Boehmer; Editorial Director of the New York Review Classics series, Edwin Frank, and Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at SOAS, University of London, Wen-chin Ouyang.
Announcing the list, Professor Warner comments:
‘The judges have had an exhilarating experience reading for this prize; we have ranged across the world and entered the vision of writers who offer an extraordinary variety of experiences. Fiction can enlarge the world for us all and stretch our understanding and our sympathy. The novel today is in fine form: as a field of inquiry, a tribunal of history, a map of the heart, a probe of the psyche, a stimulus to thought, a well of pleasure and a laboratory of language. Truly, we feel closer to the tree of knowledge.’
Manny Roman, CEO of Man Group, comments:
‘We are very proud to sponsor the Man Booker International Prize, recognising the hard work and creativity of these talented authors and translators. The prize underscores Man Group’s charitable focus on literacy and education, as well as our commitment to excellence and entrepreneurship. Together with the wider charitable activities of the Booker Prize Foundation, the prize plays a very important role in promoting literary excellence that we are honoured to support. It’s exciting to see finalists from ten countries, with six nationalities included on the list for the first time, further broadening Man Booker’s international reach. Many congratulations to all the finalists.’
Jonathan Taylor, Chair of the Booker Prize Foundation, comments:
‘This is a most interesting and enlightening list of finalists. It brings attention to writers from far and wide, so many of whom are in translation. As a result our reading lists will surely be hugely expanded.’
The Man Booker International Prize is awarded every two years to a living author who has published fiction either originally in English or whose work is generally available in translation in the English language.
The winner is chosen solely at the discretion of the judging panel; there are no submissions from publishers. Lydia Davis won the prize in 2013, Philip Roth in 2011, Alice Munro in 2009, Chinua Achebe in 2007 and Ismail Kadaré won the inaugural prize in 2005. In addition, there is a separate award for translation and, if applicable, the winner may choose a translator of his or her work into English to receive a prize of £15,000.
The 2015 Man Booker International Prize winner will be announced at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on 19 May.
Man Group sponsors both the Man Booker International Prize and the annual Man Booker Prize. The Man Booker International Prize is significantly different from the annual Man Booker in that it highlights one writer’s overall contribution to fiction on the world stage. In seeking out literary excellence the judges consider a writer’s body of work rather than a single novel. Both prizes strive to recognise and reward the finest modern literature.
The first annual Indie Book Fair kicked off on Friday with an impassioned discussion about the role of books in social development and the importance of starting grassroots literature from the ground up.
During the afternoon sessions, Porcupine Press launched a new imprint and Shafinaaz Hassim spoke about the return of the “small, personal voice”. The first day ended with a panel discussion on women in independent publishing. Throughout the day independent authors, publishers and campaigns such as Nal’ibali showcased their work in the exhibition hall.
Launch of African Narratives
Book lovers gathered in the Sunnyside Park Hotel on Friday afternoon for the launch of African Narratives, a section 21 not-for-profit organisation committed to the development and growth of grassroots literature in South Africa.
Board member Obakeng Gaitate spoke about the challenges new authors face when they have a good book with a new message but they are rejected from big publishing houses. The author of The Science of Success said his book received many rejections before it was finally published.
“African Narratives can help new authors to make sure the quality of their books is proper and appropriate,” he said. “It fills the gap between big publishers and author trying to do it on their own.”
Clare-Rose Julius, marketing manager at Porcupine Press and director of African Narratives, explained how the idea came about. She said they often receive manuscripts of merit from authors who don’t necessarily have money to fund the project, so three years ago they decided to create a new imprint to provide for that need in the market.
Julius said she deals with independent authors on a regular basis and they often tell her that they don’t know where to go to sell their books. African Narratives aims to be a body with lobbying power to convince major book retailers to stock the work of independent authors by being a recognised and weighted stamp of approval.
Porcupine Press owner David Robbins said that the recent trend to publish a book in sections on the internet is not a new phenomenon, Dickens used to distribute his books chapter by chapter on the London streets. He spoke about the Australian film industry and how serious filmmakers emerged from the state’s investments in small local production companies. “That is how literature will be built in this country,” he said.
Gail Robbins, chairperson of African Narratives, explained that they planned to create alternative distribution channels, for example book spazas. “If you can sell an orange through a spaza shop you can sell a book,” she said.
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Annetjie van Wynegaard (@Annetjievw) tweeted from the launch using #IndieBookFair:
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The independent literary voice can create shifts in society
Full time writer and publisher Shafinaaz Hassim spoke about the return of the small personal voice. The author of SoPhia said that a book creates its own audience and that writing is a fluid conversation.
Hassim explained how blogs and social media allow the smarter voice to develop and shared a story of how Qaanitah Hunter’s book, Diary of a Guji Girl, flourished from blog posts to book form and continues to thrive. “Indie publishing takes on social media spaces and forces them to connect the dots,” she said, adding that it’s a powerful network to share thoughts and ideas.
Writing thus becomes a vehicle of healing and a maker of change. “The power of the independent literary voice can be stretched to create shifts in society,” she said.
“I believe that all authors should be able to market their own books,” Hassim said. It’s important because they are “writing for audiences that are often left out of the traditional publishing industry”.
In conclusion, Hassim recalled a conversation she once had with Zukiswa Wanner, who asked her why it is that at book fairs in Kenya or Ghana people are walking around with bags full of books, while here they walk around with bags of fashion.
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Annetjie van Wynegaard (@Annetjievw) tweeted from the launch using #IndieBookFair:
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Keep an on Books LIVE for more coverage of the Indie Book Fair
It is unclear how it started, but Chinua Achebe’s death is being mourned widely on Twitter and Facebook, despite the Nigerian author having passed away in 2013.
Achebe died on 22 March, 2013.
In particular, it is The New York Times obituary of Achebe that seems to be going viral, without posters realising that it was published two years ago.
Some news sites were even taken in by the wave of reposts.
As Firstpost points out, similar trends occurred when Steve Jobs and Maya Angelou died, making this quote from Achebe particularly prescient for a digital age: “The only thing we have learnt from experience is that we learn nothing from experience.”
United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice tweeted to her 456 000 followers that “his works leave a lasting impression on me and my gen.”:
Institutions and fans continue to tweet the “news”:
Power FM, meanwhile, commemorated Achebe’s life on the two-year anniversary of his death:
Image courtesy of Ebony