A large crowd of literary people gathered at the very snazzy Pigalle restaurant in Cape Town to celebrate the M-Net Literary Awards for 2007, combined with the Via Afrika Awards. Although the razzamatazz of the proceedings was not particularly bookish, it is clear that the world of books is alive and well in South Africa. The Cape Town Book Fair as well as the announcement of major prizes indicate that the literary world is flourishing.
This is also evidenced by the sheer number of books that were published and had to be considered for the prizes. As one of the judges for the newly revived English Fiction Prize of the M-Net Awards, I was amazed not only at the number, but also the quality of the books we had to assess. At least two-thirds of them were serious contenders and the final shortlisted novels are of a very high calibre. The reading process developed into a real high, a sense of excitement and privilege to have such concentrated access to the creative work of this year’s writers.
After lengthy consideration of the final shortlist, two top contenders emerged, and ultimately the winner was The Native Commissioner by Shaun Johnson. Imraan Coovadia’s Green-Eyed Thieves was seriously considered and it was extremely difficult to choose between two such different novels, each brilliant in its own way. In the end, The Native Commissioner won because it lingers so evocatively and seriously in the mind; Green-Eyed Thieves may have lost because of its perfect lightness of touch and its success in describing our irrational realities.
The convenor of the award was Hettie Scholtz and the judging panel was made up of Dr Michael Titlestad, Shaun Viljoen and myself. Our final shortlist was, in order of points scored: Johnson (The Native Commissioner) and Coovadia (Green-Eyed Thieves), and then, much more contested, Morabo Morojele (How We Buried Puso), David Medalie (The Shadow Follows) and Christopher Hope (My Mother’s Lovers).
Nominations for honourable mention were as follows: Titlestad — Ken Barris (What Kind of Child), Viljoen — Michael Raeburn (The Night of the Fireflies) and Rosenthal — Kgebetli Moele (Room 207). Both What Kind of Child by Barris and The Night of the Fireflies by Raeburn were favourably reviewed last year in this paper. Moele’s novel, Room 207, I found to be a fresh and vibrant piece of writing. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s, his style is informal and chatty, and deceptively artless. The novel deals with the lives of six young black men, potentially the cream of the music and film worlds mainly, who are crammed together in one room in Hillbrow trying to survive.
Margie Orford’s thriller, Like Clockwork, was certainly one of the most impassioned, stylish and memorable novels submitted. It lays bare trafficking in women and children, gangster depredations, the pornography business and corrupt connections of some property developers. Another book that I felt should do very well was Out to Score by Mike Nichol and Joanne Hichens, which reveals the scary underbelly of poaching, drugs and corruption. And then there is Madlands by Rosamund Handler, which reads like a thriller, but deals with mental illness. A first novel, it is a deeply involving and well-written read.
As a woman on this panel, I was rather disappointed by the novels submitted by women; there was nothing that could really challenge the Coovadia or the Johnson works. Although there were many good and readable books, there was nothing sufficiently weighty or literary, almost as if women writers working in English are not taking themselves seriously enough. Where is South Africa’s Yvonne Vera, Alice Munro or Annie Proulx?
Having said that, I found some of the more humorous novels by women were very entertaining, and of these Robyn Goss’s And So Say All of Us was my favourite.
But clearly South African writers and publishers are doing more than enough to sustain the written word. But it still needs to be said that somehow we need to keep the price of books down, and up funding to all public, school and university libraries. These are the sine qua non — or we can forget about growing a nation of readers, and for that matter informed voters either. This is a matter which urgently needs to be addressed jointly by the ministries of arts and culture (in funding writers), education (in keeping literature in the school curriculum in all eleven languages, and prescribing fiction), and finance (in removing VAT from books).
Via Afrika Literary Awards
- WA Hofmeyr Prize for best Afrikaans prose: Ingrid Winterbach for Die Boek van Toeval en Toeverlaat (Human & Rousseau).
- Herman Charles Bosman Prize for best English prose: Kgebetli Moele for Room 207 and Maxine Case for All We Have Left Unsaid (both published by Kwela Books).
- Recht Malan Prize for best non-literary or non-fiction book: Leon Rousseau for Die Groot Avontuur (Human & Rousseau).
- MER Prize for best illustrated children’s book: Fanie Viljoen for Geraamte in die Klas (Human & Rousseau), illustrated by Karl Stephan.
- MER Prize for youth novels: Jenny Robson for Praise Song (Tafelberg Publishers).
- 2007 Jan Rabie / Rapport Prize: Johan Engelbrecht for Kaffertjie (Zulu Planet Publishing).
- Each winner received a cash prize of R30 000. In the MER category for illustrated children’s books, Viljoen (writer) and Stephan (illustrator) received R15 000 each.