It’s not a late night – the Sunday Times Literary Awards shortlist announcements. The room, in an eyrie above Empire Road, was abuzz, though, because it’s an evening that rocks. And she saw me before I saw her.
There’s no mistaking Yewande Omotoso. She is over six foot and she towers over me. “I haven’t heard, yet,” she exclaimed. I love it when authors let their facades drop. She was talking about the Dublin Literary Award, and the announcement is coming pretty damn soon. I thought it was June, but she says she would get to know ahead of the announcement. And then, foolishly, promised to phone and tell me if she wins the coveted award as long as it is kept a secret. How would I keep it a secret? A local author walking off with the world’s richest prize?
But that’s another story. Here we are and we’re impatient to hear who’s made it to the shortlists of the two biggest awards in South African literature: R100 000 each for both prize winners (announced on June 23). Jennifer Platt, Sunday Times Books editor noted above the rising chatter: “These 10 books are sounding one loud gong for South Africa. These stories and histories, tales of yesteryear and today, reflections of our own individual past and present are adding to the much-needed conversation that we have to start to get things right.”
There’s no space here to go through every book. To do that go online here and scroll through the lists. But I hope the four I have picked out interest and intrigue you, because each of them, in very different ways, are memoirs, be they fiction or non-fiction. It’s the current genre.
Also, by highlighting just four of the ten books up for the two big prizes, bear in mind that they have also been chosen by two panels of excellent judges and they therefore serve as a really good reading guide:
Why you’ll enjoy Always Another Country: I recorded the announcements and the roar that followed them when Sisonke Msimang’s name was called. The enthusiasm was unmistakeable. The book she wrote is a beautiful, delicately written memoir of an unconventional life lived since childhood in exile, always preparing herself, with her family, to come home to a country that had assumed almost mythological status. Although I’m not predicting winners, and conscious that each book nominated for the shortlist is a candidate that could easily take the top prize.this has to be the odds on favourite to take the Alan Paton. Memoirs are big this year and this one is not only memorable but infinitely skilled. As I was leaving, I asked Sisonke if she was thinking of writing a second book. Her face lit up. “I’m hoping to start in January,” she told me. She has the bug and she has the talent.
Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home by Sisonke Msimang (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
Why you’ll enjoy A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg: Mark Gevisser’s wonderful and complex book about a Johannesburg as much then as it is now, didn’t walk off with the Alan Paton Award in a year bristling with superior non-fiction reads, but it still stands out as a significant book written about a city South Africans love and hate in equal doses. So when I read Harry Kalmer’s beautifully crafted novel, centred in the old suburb of Bertrams, I knew it was going to rank shoulder to shoulder with Gevisser’s now classic memoir on my bookshelves. But this book is a novel, capturing the restlessness of Johannesburg from the Second Anglo Boer War to today. But banish any thoughts of the book being a rehashed history. It is a novel that weaves its way through time, it is tragic, it is heartwarming and it tells a magnificent and sometimes side-splittingly funny story. A masterly evocation of a suburb in a restless, tough city in changing times.
A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg by Harry Kalmer (Penguin)
Why you’ll enjoy Softness of the Lime: When I congratulated Maxine Case on being nominated for the Barry Ronge Award for fiction, Maxine observed that I always talk about the cover of her book but not necessarily about the novel itself. So let’s remedy that. Here is an imagined memoir of an ancestor, probably from Madagascar, and almost certainly a slave, who ended up in the Western Cape. How do you imagine someone you know you’re descended from but know nothing about? So in it’s own way, this is a novelised memoir, based on strong historical research which took Maxine to the USA and back to South Africa as she sought for familial truth. It is, she tells me, a book that stirs her, but because her great great great grandmother had no control over her own destiny, in a sense this granddaughter is giving back her dignity. It’s a moving and easy read.
Softness of the Lime by Maxine Case (Umuzi)
Why you’ll enjoy Colour Me Yellow: You do get the feeling that Thuli Nhlapo had no choice but to write this memoir of a bitter South African childhood, riven by race and colour, never fully accepted. She (and her mother) were light-skinned. Her darker relatives referred to her as a ‘boesman’. No-one called her by her name. Her mother rejected her. And by the time she was seven, she had learnt to shut down when the brutal words were spoken in front of her. And yet, as Fred Khumalo says in the shout he wrote for the cover of this moving, slight memoir, “It’s a book that will make you cry, laugh and embrace hope.” Delving into a family history can prove hazardous, but this is what the young journalist does, exposing the chasms created by apartheid, a memoir of our own riven time.
Colour Me Yellow: Searching for My Family Truth by Thuli Nhlapo (Kwela)