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SA poet shortlisted for 6th Man Booker International Prize

South African poet, novelist and short-story writer Marlene Van Niekerk is one of 10 writers from around the world to be shortlisted for the sixth Man Booker International Prize, a £60 000 award that acknowledges one writer for outstanding achievement in fiction.

Viewed by many as a counterpoint to the Nobel Prize in Literature, the MIB, as it is fondly called, has often rewarded authors and genres overlooked by the Nobel Academy. 

Nobel absentees Philip Roth and the late Chinua Achebe took the MIB in 2011 and 2007 respectively, and Alice Munro preceded her 2013 Nobel by taking the MIB in 2009. Van Niekerk is one of two southern African writers on a diverse list that lives up to the claims made for it by the chair of judges, Professor Marina Warner. Mia Couto, the magical-realist novelist from Mozambique, is the other southern African on the list, which includes another writer from the continent, the poet and novelist Alain Mabanckou (Republic of Congo).   

Announcing the list at a press conference at the University of Cape Town today, Warner said: “The judges have had an exhilarating experience reading for this prize; we have ranged across the world and entered the vision of writers who offer an extraordinary variety of experiences.”   

The other writers are prolific Argentine novelist César Aira; Lebanese novelist, playwright and memoirist Hoda Barakat; novelist Maryse Condé from Guadeloupe; best-selling literary novelist Amitav Ghosh of India; Fanny Howe of the US, creator of poetry and prose; Ibrahim al-Koni (Libya), whose varied oeuvre includes 60 novels, short stories, poems and aphorisms; and Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai.

Van Niekerk is professor of Afrikaans and Dutch literature and Creative Writing at Stellenbosch University. As a novelist she has won wide acclaim for her novels Triomf and Agaat, the latter having the distinction in translation of topping Sweden’s best-seller charts for five weeks in 2012.  

‘Author of two immense masterpieces’
The judges’ citation commended her as “the author of two immense masterpieces, Triomf and Agaat, which chart in evocative, sometimes disturbing detail the aches and aggravations of political transition in South Africa for those who saw themselves as on the losing side, in particular impoverished Afrikaners. Van Niekerk’s vision is ambitious, uncompromising and irrefutable. 

“The bold experimentalism of her Afrikaans takes the reader deep inside the contortions of the apartheid psyche and asks whether some historical hurts and hatreds can ever be entirely erased.”   

The judging panel consists of Warner, herself a writer of fiction, criticism and history; novelist Nadeem Aslam; novelist, critic and professor of World Literature in English at Oxford University, Elleke Boehmer; editorial director of the New York Review Classics series, Edwin Frank; and Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Wen-chin Ouyang.   

Awarded every two years to a living author who has published fiction either in English or in readily available translations into English, the Man Booker International Prize should not be confused with the annual Man Booker Prize, which is awarded to a single novel. In contrast, the MIB examines a writer’s lifetime work, aiming to highlight “one writer’s overall contribution to fiction on the world stage.”  

The 2015 Man Booker International winner will be named at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on May 19.

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Darryl Accone
Darryl Accone has been in journalism for the best part of four decades. He is also a Fellow of the Salzburg Seminar and the International Writers Workshop of Hong Kong Baptist University and the author of ‘All Under Heaven: The Story of a Chinese Family in South Africa’ and ‘Euripides Must Die’.

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