/ 26 February 2015

At home with Ivan Vladislavic

Teen moms shouldn't be stigmatised; they should be encouraged to finish school
Teen moms shouldn't be stigmatised; they should be encouraged to finish school

Ivan Vladislavic, arguably the most literary of South African novelists and nonfiction writers, is one of nine authors worldwide to receive the Windham Campbell Prize. 

Each writer receives $150 000, which comes with no expectations or obligations attached. In that, the award is akin to those in other major fields that enable their recipients to devote energy and time to their vocation, free from the drudgery of earning a living. 

Vladislavic has long supported his unique literary output by editing and, more than occasionally, from the proceeds of major South African literary awards. He is the only writer to win both the Alan Paton Award for nonfiction and the Sunday Times prize for fiction, and, of late, has twice won the University of Johannesburg prize.

Endowed by Donald Windham and Sandy M. Campbell and inaugurated in 2013, the Windham Campbell prizes “call attention to literary achievement and provide writers with the opportunity to focus on their work independent of financial concerns”. Winners are chosen in a careful selection of fiction, nonfiction and drama writers from around the world, who work in English.   

Vladislavic is joined in the fiction category by Teju Cole (the US-born Nigerian author of Open City) and Nigeria’s Helon Habila (winner of the Caine prize for African Writing in 2001 and, for the novel Waiting for an Angel, he was awarded the Commonwealth Writers prize for Best First Novel Africa Region in 2003).

Nonfiction awards went to the English memoirist Edmund de Waal (whose The Hare with Amber Eyes was a global critical and commercial success); Geoff Dyer (whose oeuvre, like Vladislavic’s, mixes fiction and nonfiction, most recently Another Great Day at Sea, about his sojourn on an aircraft carrier); and John Jeremiah Sullivan, an American essayist “of astonishing range, taking up subjects as diverse as Southern Agrarians, Michael Jackson, and MTV’s The Real World”, according to the official media release about this year’s award-winners.

Drama recipients were the award-winning American playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury and from the United Kingdom, Helen Edmundson and Debbie Tucker Green.

‘Speak to everyone’
Administered by Yale university’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, the Windham Campbell Prizes are capped by a gathering of the nine recipients at the university in September for a literary festival that showcases, discusses and debates their work. 

The Windham Campbell described Vladislavic as “celebrated in his native South Africa for seeing history in the quotidian and juxtaposing the banal and the bizarre”. In listing his fiction and nonfiction, however, there was a curious omission: the collection The Exploded View.

Of this, the Mail & Guardian’s longtime chief fiction reviewer Jane Rosenthal wrote: “Whereas The Restless Supermarket had about it an air of comic and curmudgeonly nostalgia for an era rapidly dissolving into the past, this collection of four longish-short stories is set, all too recognisably, in the present, and leaves the reader both comforted and disconcerted. And although it is very much a book about Johannesburg or Gauteng, the stories could conceivably happen in any South African city today …”

” … Vladislavic takes the reader into ordinary South African scenes with simple grace and warmth, which belies the complexity of each story …”

” … These stories explore our deepest notions of home and shelter in a way that cannot fail to ‘speak to everyone’, even the refugees and homeless among us,” she added. 

Exercising his high-wire literary act, thinking and writing at an exalted level, Vladislavic nonetheless is always at home, in a space that all South Africans and all sentient readers around the world recognise.

It is that place Rosenthal described in her review of The Exploded View: “We cannot fail to recognise ourselves here, in this search for home, for shelter, for a space in which to feel comfortable and safe.”