A vote of confidence

Literary prizes have been getting plenty of press lately. The European Union announced its award for new writing in South Africa; PEN South Africa has announced a new award, and the Caine Prize for African Writing has announced its latest winner, Brian Chikwava from Zimbabwe.

As publishers now of the EU award and of the Caine Prize since its inception four years ago, this is an exciting time for Jacana. Publishing houses are often the places where new writing is discovered, but as the general book market becomes increasingly marked by the ”never mind the quality, feel the width” style, untried writers may find it more difficult to find a home.

These prizes and the books that are published as a result can provide a valuable reading experience of new ideas, voices and experiences in South Africa and on the continent. By publishing these collections of award-winning writers, we hope to increase the audience for these voices. But there are problems: books are expensive and burdened by a tax that should come off South African books, at the very least, if not imported ones.

Any vote of confidence in the writers of a nation, both tried and untried, must help the publishing industry. But more help is needed.

And short of clapping one another on the back for this, it ought to provoke a flurry from entrepreneurs and corporations, all fighting one another to sponsor more literary and arts awards. There is no finite number of literary awards that a country can have. The more the better! With many South African (and African) writers opting not to publish locally, the race is on to find, develop and finance new writers so that in time the South African book trade will rival the generative power of the book business in other ex-colonies such as Canada, Australia, Nigeria and India.

This can only be done with the government and business both pumping money into literary incentives, initiatives, prizes and fairs. This could all be managed by a national book trust, such as, for example, the Indian, Ghanaian, Nigerian or English Book trusts. And a national book trust for South Africa is urgently needed.

A national book trust could provide guidelines on issues of price and distribution, libraries and new media, negotiate on matters of copyright (and in the new arena of ”copyleft”) and the internet, as well as working on understanding the future of the book in South Africa.

More, a national book trust could, working with the government, roll out a ”federal” (for this country, read provincial) writing scheme along the lines of Franklin D Roosevelt’s Federal Writers’ Project during the Depression. It could be implemented in a way that enables writers, both young and old, professional and non-professional, to go out to their communities and record the stories of everyday life.

An increase in the number of literary prizes in South Africa will have a knock-on effect on the kinds of writing we will produce and publish. Writers will be less afraid to try different genres. We can look forward to more transgressive and dissenting writing.

Only 10 years after the end of apartheid, we need to populate the country with as many writers as possible to keep us from slipping. The government can no longer do nothing in this regard.

Long live the Motsepe Prize for Women’s Writing, the Oppenheimer Prize for Best Writing in Defence of Cultural Freedom, the Ramaphosa Prize for Best Non-Fiction Writing, the Radebe Prize for Best First Novel, and the Anglo American Prize for Best Children’s Book, the Old Mutual Prize for Poetry, the African Harvest Prize for Young Writers, the Denel Award for Best Comic Writing and the Rupert Award for Best Science Writing!

Jacana has just published A Is for Ancestors, a selection of stories submitted for the 2003 Caine Prize for African Writing. The book contains the rules for the 2004 Caine Prize, as well as contact details for more information. Go to www.jacana.co.za for more information on the EU prize. For more on the HSBC/SA PEN Literary Award, contact SA PEN secretary Liesa Jossel on Tel: 084 843 2426 or [email protected]

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