/ 15 February 2008

SA author goes large

Prize-winning writer Jonny Steinberg’s latest book — a true story about the effect of Aids on one man’s life in an Eastern Cape village — attracted serious critical and retail attention on its release in the United States this week.

Three-Letter Plague (released in the US as Siswe’s Test) was extensively reviewed in Sunday’s edition of The New York Times. It has also been plucked from a crowd of new titles for promotion by the Borders book chain and it is flagged in the latest US edition of Publishers Weekly.

Though Steinberg’s natural reserve would prevent him using words like ‘excited”, the 37-year-old Rhodes scholar and crime reporter from Johannesburg is nevertheless ‘pleased” by initial US reactions.

The New York Times is the best place in the country to be reviewed, so that’s very nice; and the fact that Borders is promoting it as part of their Original Voices series means it gets a little less lost on their shelves —”

Later this month Steinberg, who has moved to New York City, will go on what he calls a ‘modest” book tour of four major US cities, courtesy of his new publisher in that country, Simon & Schuster.

Already a heavy-hitter in the South African market for his gripping investigations into the lives of flawed, fascinating people waging life-and-death struggles with some of this country’s most traumatic issues (Midlands, about farm murders, and The Number, about prison gangs), Steinberg’s latest plunge into the national psyche looks set to go large.

The rather awkwardly titled Three-Letter Plague will be launched in South Africa in March by Jonathan Ball Publishers and later this year in the United Kingdom and in Italy.

Says Steinberg, ‘The book is about why a successful and healthy man refuses to test for his HIV status. It is about how Aids gets to the dark spaces inside us, and what it is doing to us.”

Describing what has become his signature style, Steinberg says, ‘I try to reach a balance between telling a small story — one time, one place, one person — and the bigger questions, which are in the sub-text.”

Steinberg’s ‘small” story starts with a man he calls Sizwe Magadla who runs a spaza in a village he calls Ithanga in the district of Lusikisiki.

The ‘bigger questions” include the fact that about 800 South Africans die of Aids every day.

As with Midlands, Steinberg’s chief character in Three-Letter Plague and the village he writes about are real but disguised, to protect his subjects’ privacy.

In a largely flattering New York Times review, Adam Hochschild, bestselling author of the classic King Leopold’s Ghost, voiced just one criticism: Steinberg’s failure to write about President Thabo Mbeki’s ‘bizarre beliefs” about the links between HIV and Aids in more than a ‘perfunctory few pages”.

Steinberg reacts with customary thoughtfulness: ‘It’ll be fascinating to see how this very South African story travels; it’s obviously going to have a different impact on different audiences.”

But Steinberg’s most elusive ‘audience” for Three-Letter Plague will surely be the subjects of his on-site reportage for 18-months — the people of ‘Ithanga”.

‘The community doesn’t read books or even newspapers. The book’s contents will filter through to them largely by word-of-mouth.”

An exception is the book’s protagonist, ‘Sizwe”, who has read the manuscript. But, says Steinberg, ‘as for what he thinks, you’ll see in the book that he’s a man who seldom reveals all he is thinking!”

Now a visiting research scholar at the City University of New York, Steinberg moved to the US last month to work on his next book about a community of Liberian refugees living in a state of feuding and flux on Staten Island.

He will briefly return to South Africa in March for the launch of Three-Letter Plague by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

Ball, the gregarious paterfamilias who presides over his house and his stable of non-fiction writers, has a nose for backing winners. He published both Steinberg’s previous books. Midlands and The Number each won the Sunday Times Alan Paton prize in their year — an unprecedented achievement for the same author.

With Three-Letter Plague, Ball and Steinberg will surely be looking for a hat-trick.