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First-timer takes UJ prize

South African-born Ceridwen Dovey, now resident in New York, has been awarded the 2007 UJ Prize for creative writing in English. The seven panellists were unanimous that, in its originality and deft style, Dovey’s novel was the pick of the nearly 50 entries.

Blood Kin (Penguin) is a dystopian fable about betrayal, deception and the abuse of power in an imaginary country. A barber, a portraitist and a chef are taken hostage during a coup to overthrow their master, the president. As the novel unfolds, the lovers of these three men contribute their own stories of love and deceit and the multiple narratives combine powerfully­ to provide a disturbing­ insight into humanity’s darker impulses.

Shaun de Waal, one of the judges, praised Blood Kin as “an intriguing and stimulating novel in a ‘fabular’ style” and added that it was “good to see a young writer taking that option rather than the usual realism and social commentary … Dovey does it with fine prose and a tantalising narrative.”

Fellow judge Dr Ashlee Polatinsky (of WISER, at Wits) remarked that Blood Kin “is a superbly crafted, highly original and compelling novel”.

The UJ Debut Prize went to Richard­ de Nooy for Six Fang Marks and A Tetanus Shot (Jacana), a semi-autobiographical­ work in which the protagonist, a war correspondent­ now resident in Amsterdam, returns to South Africa to unravel a childhood mystery. At once funny, bizarre and poignant, Six Fang Marks mixes detective­ thriller, autobiography and social commentary in a postmodern­ pot-pourri … and ends with a shocking­ revelation.

Also shortlisted for the main prize:

  • Yvette Christiansë, Unconfessed (NB)
  • Finuala Dowling, Flyleaf (Penguin)
  • Bridget Hilton-Barber, Garden of My Ancestors (Penguin)
  • Also shortlisted for the debut prize:

  • Kopano Matlwa, Coconut (Jacana)
  • Richard Poplak, Ja, No, Man (Penguin)
  • About the prize
    The UJ Prize for creative South African writing in English is in its second year. It was established in 2006 to accompany the UJ Prys vir skeppende skryfwerk, which was instituted in 2000. The main prize (currently R50 000) is awarded to the writer of the best creative work in English published in the previous calendar year, while the best debut of the previous year gets R10 000. Last year’s main prize winner was Ivan Vladislavic, for his Portrait with Keys: Joburg and What-what (Umuzi, 2006).

    Judged by a committee of English academics and literary journalists, key considerations for the award are the strength of the writing and the impact of the text on South African literary studies. Eligibility has deliberately been left open: the criteria “creative” and “South African” have been given a generous interpretation so as to include as many entrants as possible.

    Does South Africa need yet another literary prize?

    In a country with shockingly low levels of literacy, pitifully few active readers and, consequently, writers struggling to survive, literary awards, with their financial incentives and attendant publicity, go some way towards ameliorating the situation.

    In his acceptance speech at last year’s UJ award Vladislavic expressed his appreciation by remarking that the prize money would free up time for his writing. Similarly, in the acknowledgements to her novel Ceridwen Dovey thanks numerous institutions for making the writing of Blood Kin possible.

    If South African literature can be enriched by further works from writers of the calibre of Vladislavic and Dovey, and the UJ Prize can assist in this process, then the country can indeed do with another literary prize.

    Craig MacKenzie is professor of English at the University of Johannesburg and a judge on the UJ Prize panel

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