Waking to the realisation
‘A strikingly original collection,” Walter Bgoya, the chair of the Noma Award committee, writes of Zachariah Rapola’s Beginnings of a Dream (Jacana), a collection of short stories. “The notion of the dream and its significance — is developed through the collection, with extraordinarily atmospheric writing,” says Bgoya in the citation.
When I interview Rapola after the announcement of the prize, the euphoria likely to have been induced by such extravagant praise seems to have worn off.
“It’s an acknowledgement, an affirmation of my work, the sacrifices I have made,” he says sotto voce, his face serene.
The prize is proof, he says, “that things don’t come easily and quickly” and that “if you strive you can get it”.
Perhaps, like a dream, the collection’s title story seems to have a few entrances. Rapola’s technique allows for narrative strands that weave in and out of one another, allowing for several yarns. It is an admirable technique if handled with discipline, yet some don’t consider it suitable for the short-story medium, a compact genre that normally deals with one situation and one character. There were times I felt that the narrative’s horizon was endlessly expanding, getting in the way of the central thread.
The use of dreams in Rapola’s stories gives him the means and licence to explore other worlds, both of the living and the dead. During the course of our conversation the phrase “magical realism” comes up. Magical realism has now become a much-maligned style; British literary critic Theo Tait wrote that the genre, in general, has become “full of omens, prodigies, legendary feats, hallucinatory exaggerations, fairy tale motifs, strange coincidences and overdeveloped sense organs”. But Beginnings of a Dream isn’t saddled with all of this. It is mostly about the township and the everyday battles ordinary people face. “I live in Alex and it’s part of what shapes my life and my outlook,” Rapola says. “I see people’s lives and futures getting derailed.”
He says, vaguely, that the system has failed the people. “There is no space to breathe. Bodies are piled in small spaces. Space helps people to breathe, to find themselves. There is no entertainment except parties at which young people get drunk.”
I ask him what he thinks should be done. “I am not being judgemental,” he begins, “but I think adults have lost authority. Is there a way of restoring this authority?” His voice trails and we find ourselves talking about Jacob Zuma’s recent proposition that teenage girls who get pregnant should be separated from their babies and taken to re-education camps. “The national leadership should do something. I don’t offer solutions,” he says in a way that brings to mind a character in Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, adding that “writers don’t give prescriptions, they give headaches”.
We go back to the spirit world Rapola paints, one in which the dead actively control the living. “Some people believe we are masters of our destiny — but I believe there are certain forces that shape our lives.” Rapola says this story collection is his way of “acknowledging and celebrating” this world, the world that is part of his heritage.
Related to this is his use of a language that is closer to Sepedi, his mother language. He finds this challenging: “One day I want to be able to write in Sepedi—at the moment I am not that good.” But for the time being he is content with “smuggling nuances of [his] language” into his fiction.
Rapola once worked in the NGO sector, a job he didn’t find “fulfilling”. He’s now a full-time writer and, apart from the winner’s cheque of $10 000, the prize is likely to result in increased sales and translations of his book into major European languages.
Rapola’s prize seems to confirm that the Southern African Development Community is a fertile literary ground. He is the third writer from the region in the past three years to win the prize. Last year Zimbabwean writer Shimmer Chinodya won and in 2006 the South African poet Lebo Mashile triumphed.