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UJ prizewinners’ fresh works: from haunting novel to poetic word paintings

Craig Higginson has won the University of Johannesburg Prize for South African Writing in English for his haunting third novel The Dream House (Picador Africa).

The novel centres on an old farmhouse in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, whose aging owners are relocating to their family home in Durban – their farm is already in the process of being carved up into a lifestyle estate.

Patricia, the novel’s main character, looks back on a lifetime of failure and regret, principal among which was marrying the inept Richard, who now suffers from advancing dementia, but whose dark past becomes the source of alarming and unwelcome revelations.

Beauty and Bheki are the faithful retainers whose decades of interactions with their white employers have induced a habituated mode of interaction, but as the novel unfolds we see that their understanding of human relations is far more penetrating than that of their complacent employers.

They have seen even deeper into the dark side of life on the farm than the perceptive prodigy Looksmart. Looksmart was born and grew up on the farm, and was championed as a child by Patricia, who arranges with the local school principal for him to attend boarding school.

Looksmart soars to remarkable educational heights before a traumatic incident involving his childhood sweetheart renders him terminally disillusioned with life on the farm. He seeks his fortune in Johannesburg, only to return to claim his unlikely rural inheritance.

Entrancing and compellingly readable, The Dream House puts a contemporary and unconventional spin on the plaasroman (farm novel) genre, showing Craig Higginson at a new peak of his already considerable narrative powers.

The UJ Debut Prize has been won jointly by Eliza Kentridge for her poetry collection, Signs for an Exhibition (Modjaji), and Nkosinathi Sithole for his novel Hunger Eats a Man (Penguin).

The enigmatic title of Kentridge’s collection refers to a series of numbered, autobiographical “Sign Poems” in which she gives expression to vivid visual images from her childhood and later. It is as if the poems were written to be placed alongside paintings, to magically become word-paintings themselves.

Many of the poems have at their centre the poet’s mother, who has been rendered bereft of language as a result of a neurodegenerative disorder: heart-wrenchingly, they “speak” about, to and for her.

Other poems describe Kentridge’s own experience of motherhood; some evoke grainy snapshots of her father and siblings; yet others contrast her South African childhood with time spent in England, “remembering and misremembering Africa”.

Each poem counterpoints brief, capitalised catch-phrases of quotidian life alongside lower-case, impressionistic memories and emotions. This original device, combined with Kentridge’s sense-delighting imagery, results in poetry as haunting and unforgettable as the sound of “Piet-my-vrous calling through the dusk”.

The debut novel by Nkosinathi Sithole, a lecturer in the English department at the University of Zululand, approaches the farm novel genre in a different way. It explores the debilitating effects of hunger and joblessness in a northern KwaZulu-Natal community. This powerful postmodern novel is as much about storytelling as it is about the characters inhabiting the eponymous town, Ndlalidlindoda (“hunger eats a man”).

One of the main characters, Priest, observes at the novel’s opening: “The only thing that moves here in Ndlalidlindoda is time. Everything else is stagnant.” This sets up the novel’s concern with the built-in despair of daily life and the narrative preoccupation with “lived time” and “narrative time”.

The compact story rescripts the subjection of rural black workers in countless apartheid farm novels. In creating Father Gumede, Sithole seems to write back at the obedient passivity of earlier fictional priests, such as Alan Paton’s Stephen Kumalo in Cry, the Beloved Country.

The impoverished Gumede’s anger mounts dramatically and is translated into allegorical narrative in his son Sandile’s inspired tale of rebellion against poverty that propels the novel to its conclusion.


Main: Craig Higginson, The Dream House (Picador Africa); Ivan Vladislavic, 101 Detectives (Umuzi); and Claire Robertson, The Magistrate of Gower (Umuzi)

Debut: Eliza Kentridge, Signs for an Exhibition (Modjaji); Nkosinathi Sithole, Hunger Eats a Man (Penguin); and Rebecca Davis, Best White and Other Anxious Delusions (Pan Macmillan)

Karen Scherzinger, Jane Starfield and Craig MacKenzie are members of the UJ English department. Together with Chris Ouma and Meg Samuelson (both at the University of Cape Town) they formed the panel for the 2016 UJ Prize for South African Writing in English

Hugos make no bones about who’s best

The Rabid Puppies are sad, the Sad Puppies probably rabid with rage at the results of the 2016 Hugo Awards. Defeated are the spoiling tactics that these two groups of small-minded SFF fans have used to counter what they see as a left-wing, liberal bias in science fiction and fantasy writing and awards.

Right-wing and almost Trump-like in their vocal condemnation of “others”, the puppies had to endure three significant others scooping the Hugo’s top three prizes: best novel, best novella and best novelette.

NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season won best novel, a sweet win for the author, who was once described by Rabid Puppies co-ordinator Theodore Beale as an “educated but ignorant savage”.

On her blog, Jemisin wrote of winning: “When it got nominated, I wondered how many of my fellow SFF fans, in a year headlined by reactionary pushback against the presence and performance of people like me in the genre, would choose to vote for the story of a fortysomething big-boned dreadlocked woman of colour waging an epic struggle against the forces of oppression.

“But I forgot: only a small number of ideologues have attempted to game the Hugo Awards. That small number can easily be overwhelmed, their regressive clamour stilled, if the rest of SFF fandom simply stands up to be counted. Stands up to say that, yes, they do want literary innovation and realistic representation. Stands up to say that, yes, they do just want to read good stories – but what makes a story good is skill and audacity, and the ability to consider the future clearly rather than through the foggy lenses of nostalgia and privilege.”

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor took best novella and best novelette went to Hao Jingfanq’s Folding Beijing, a Chinese science fiction story translated by Ken Liu. – M&G reporter

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