If the state of a nation’s writing can be judged by the breadth and depth of its prizes, South Africa’s is in rude health. Topping off a rich season of literary gongs are the Alan Paton and Sunday Times awards, to be presented on August 1. In a little less than two months we’ve seen winners of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) prizes, the European Union Literary Award, the Via Afrikas and the M-Nets.
Laurels aside, authoring, publishing and collegial rivalries are nicely robust. It has been fascinating to watch a clutch of authors and their titles vying for the top prizes. In fiction Michiel Heyns (Bodies Politic, Jonathan Ball) has been shortlisted four times, Damon Galgut (The Impostor, Penguin SA) thrice, and Anne Landsman (The Rowing Lesson, Kwela Books) twice. Galgut took the UJ Main award, Landsman the M-Net and Heyns the Herman Charles Bosman Prize for English literary writing and autobiography (the last open only to imprints of NB Publishers).
All three are up for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize, now in its ninth year. Joining them are Whiplashby Tracey Farren (Modjaji Books) and The Lost Colours of the Chameleon by Mandla Langa (Picador Africa). Langa was recused from consideration for the M-Net award because he is a longstanding patron of that prize. Farren’s appearance on the shortlist is momentous also for her publisher Colleen Higgs, who founded the independent Modjaji Books just over two years ago.
Higgs spearheaded the award-winning Community Publishing Project (CPP) when she worked at the Centre for the Book, a specialist unit of the National Library in Cape Town. She shepherded 30 books, many in African languages, through the CPP, as well as writing A Rough Guide to Small-Scale and Self-Publishing. On leaving the centre she set up Modjaji, which has scored a shortlisting with its first fiction title.
Competition is fierce for the 20th Alan Paton Award. A barometer of non-fiction, the Paton again reflects life-writing, the country’s pre-eminent genre.
Street Blues by Andrew Brown (Zebra Press) is an autobiographical account of the author’s time as a police reservist in Cape Town. Brown won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize a few years ago for his crime novel, Cold Sleep Lullaby. Should he take the Paton, he will join Ivan Vladislavic, to date the only author to have won both the Sunday Times and the Paton.
Ahmed Kathrada, Paton runner-up in 2005, enters the lists again with A Simple Freedom, authored with Tim Couzens (Wild Dog Press). An illustrated memoir of his imprisonment on Robben Island, the book adds to the rich oeuvre of apartheid-era life stories recollected and recounted in the relative tranquillity of post-apartheid age.
Three-letter Plague by Jonny Steinberg (Jonathan Ball) shows the double Paton-winner (Midlands in 2003 and The Number in 2005) examining HIV/Aids through the prism of one man’s experience in rural South Africa. It offers the blend of biography, reportage and social analysis that Steinberg has made his hallmark.
Choice Not Fate — The Life and Times of Trevor Manuel by Pippa Green (Penguin SA) is a comprehensive biography of the former finance minister. Weighty in subject and in its hardback splendour, it is the “big life” on the list.
Lawyers have made an impact on the literary scene, from George Bizos’s autobiography (shortlisted for the Paton in its year) to Brown’s Cold Sleep Lullaby and David Dison’s somewhat dystopian thriller, Death in the New Republic. Not to be omitted from the legal fraternity are Justice Edwin Cameron, a Paton winner in 2006 for his autobiography, and Judge Dennis Davis, author of numerous works, most recently Precedent and Possibility: The (Ab)use of Law in South Africa, co-written with advocate Michelle le Roux.
The latest literary lawyer is Peter Harris, whose account of the Delmas Four is the subject of In a Different Time (Umuzi). This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Delmas case and it would be synchronous if Harris were to win what is also the 20th edition of the Alan Paton Award. This apartheid story should not be forgotten and, in that spirit, I am rooting for it.