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2014’s Top Ten South African books

ten on yellow

Every year, The Star asks me to select the top ten South African books of the year. Lists – just like literary prizes – are inherently problematic, exclusionary and faulty, yet I love them for their cranky assumption that they are right. Cranky, because I think lists know their own vulnerabilities but bliksem forth anyway.

I chose this year’s list by asking myself: if a foreigner came to live here for a while, which books would give him or her a sense of what it’s like to live here, what it’s like to be South African? These are the books I’d send them to:

TOP TEN BOOKS OF 2014

Tales of the Metric System

Imraan Coovadia

Umuzi

Spanning almost four decades in South Africa from the seventies, this intelligently devised chronicle takes in the lives of figures on the fringes of power, taking in broad social change and highlighting the individual against the backdrop of history. Coovadia’s fluid and unstrained prose shows the complexity of being alive in difficult times.

Lost and Found in Johannesburg

Mark Gevisser

Publisher

Memoir and history meld together around Gevisser’s cartographical journey into the social and geographic soul of Johannesburg. A breathtaking, intelligent and incisive poetry of place and identity emerge from the pages of this compelling non-fiction work.

Postmortem: The Doctor Who Walked Away

Maria Phalima

Tafelberg

This brave author, who seeks first to find fault with herself for her inability to continue coping within an inoperably sick public health care system, lays bare one of the most appalling failures of post-apartheid South Africa.

The Diving

Helen Walne

Penguin

This marvellous work is quick to read but plunges very deeply. Walne writes with a kooky clarity of vision about her brother’s death, examining suicide with unflinching intelligence and – oddly – with humour.

Dear Bullet

Sixolile Mbalo

Jonathan Ball

A devastating story about a single act of insouciant, casual and unspeakable inhumanity.  The “before” story has warmth; the “after” story is chilling considering how many men and women around us have been similarly brutalised.

An Imperfect Blessing

Nadia Davids

Umuzi

Davids investigates notions of liminality and heritage in this compassionate and humorous novel about Alia, a teenager at the time of the first democratic elections. She captures the in-between spaces in South Africa’s history, geography, identities and relationships.

A Man of Good Hope

Johnny Steinberg

Jonathan Ball Publishers

A chronicle of a young Somalian’s journey to South Africa at a time our country was particularly inhospitable to foreigners. Steinberg investigates the loss of control, the “in-betweenness” of having been displaced by great forces of history.

I See You

Ishtiyak Shukri

Jacana

Set in a fictional African country and around the life of an abducted photojournalist, this utterly singular novel elucidates how the present is also a part of history, and makes a case for dissonant and dissident voices.

Black Dog Summer

Miranda Sherry

Head of Zeus

Stepping gently into the potentially explosive area of farm murders, Sherry writes about the rippling effect of trauma through the eyes of a young girl. This is an unsentimental and richly rewarding novel that tightens its grip as it develops.

The Reactive

Masande Ntshanga

Random House Struik

Set in Cape Town before anti-retroviral drugs became generally available, Ntshanga’s brilliant debut follows Lindanathi’s life as it segues into the murky world of legal and illegal drugs. Lyrical and haunting, the novel “hears” the youth the way the goverment refuses to.

  • This list first appeared in The Star in December 2014.

 

REVIEW: A Memory This Size and Other Stories

memory and writing

A memory this sizeA Memory This Size and Other Stories

Jacana

REVIEW: Maya Fowler

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” said WB Yeats in his poem The Second Coming, his words famously echoed in the title of Chinua Achebe’s groundbreaking 1958 novel. But does the centre still hold? Is Western tradition still the centre, for literature, after all?

At first inspection – and bearing in mind that NoViolet Bulawayo’s Booker-nominated We Need New Names and Nigeria’s acclaimed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah are both set in the States – the reader might think America is some kind of axis for the African imagination. Three of the five shortlisted stories are directly concerned with America. However, read on and you soon discover the majority of themes are tied to home soil. Even so, “[p]eople have a way of getting lost in America,” fears a mother in the story titled America. “America has a way of stealing our good ones from us. When America calls, they go.”

This year’s Caine Prize was not without controversy. Things turned nasty after Adichie said in an interview that she wasn’t interested in the Caine collection, and didn’t think it’s where you’d find the best African writing. Shortlistee Abubakar Adam Ibrahim responded with a swift “F*ck you” on Twitter, while Elnathan John revealed perhaps more than he should have of his feelings towards Adichie on his blog.

A Memory This Size and Other Stories consists of the five stories shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize – all of exceptional quality – as well as 12 new, specially produced stories created at this year’s Caine Prize workshop in Uganda.

Caine Prize winner Tope Folarin

Caine Prize winner Tope Folarin

First prize went to Tope Folarin for Miracle, set in a Nigerian evangelical church in Texas. While I agree with one judge’s appraisal that Miracle is “a delightful and beautifully paced narrative, that is exquisitely observed and utterly compelling,” I prefer Pede Hollist’s Foreign Aid.

This story, of a man from Sierra Leone who emigrates to America and becomes fat on both fast food and on the worst of the values he finds there, was filled with the same cynicism as the winning story, but with perhaps even more dark humour. In this account of the protagonist’s return to his native “Salone”, a “Louis Vuitton fanny pack” of dollars strapped to his waist, we are shown what happens when a man behaves like a tourist in his home country. While the writer pokes fun at certain American ways, he does not shy away from illustrating Sierra Leone’s problems.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s The Whispering Trees contains elements of magic realism. A young man, dead but not dead, blinded by the accident that killed him but didn’t, emerges from the hell of depression able to see the souls of people and objects. The protagonist’s bad behaviour, in the darkest period of his blindness, held for me flashes of Orhan Pamuk. I love this story, but Ibrahim’s workshop story, The Book of Remembered Things, also included in the anthology, I love more. It deals with religious disbelief, but also zeal. It is a sensitive, moving portrayal of one family’s love, hate and hurt, and ways of protecting, that will stay with me for a long time.

Bayan Layi, by Elnathan John, is a brilliant and terrifying story of children running wild; boys without hope, without love, that speak the language of violence and of killing. I was impressed by the writer’s ability to make you warm to the protagonist, even though the child is someone you’d hate to meet in person. John’s characters are striking and complex.

Perhaps my favourite was Chinelo Okparanta’s America, in which a young Nigerian teacher, who dreams of being an environmental engineer, follows her lover to America. It is a poignant love story in which we are reminded that there are trickier places than America to be gay. The protagonist explains to the visa interviewer that she wants to go to America to study environmental engineering so that she can learn about recent oils spills in the US and how to apply the lesson in the Niger Delta.

The story speaks of some form of restitution. If, for centuries, colonial powers tapped Africa of its natural resources, with little regard for environmental impact, perhaps they can at least pass on knowledge of how to deal with environmental disaster today.

The second section of the collection, the workshop stories, holds some brilliant work, and some of a less polished standard. The short story is a difficult form for the new(er) writer, and especially endings can be elusive. This is clear from the weaker stories, which are sabotaged by their endings more than anything else. Yet there is no shortage of excellent writing in the workshop section.

Wazha Lopang’s The Strange Dance of the Calabash is a delightful dig at patriarchy and arranged marriage. Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s Blood Guilt is an ironic, chilling but darkly humorous account of post-liberation atrocity. Hellen Nyana’s Chief Mourner deserves special mention for its pathos and focus on relationships. Rotimi Babatunde’s Howl is a wonderful piece of satire and magic realism. Stanley Onjezani Kenani’s haunting Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile deals with environmental concerns. And Elnathan Johns’ A Memory This Size is magnificent piece of work. As it happens, John’s bio reads that he has “tried hard, but has never won anything.”

I’m willing to bet that last part will change.

  • Fowler is a writer, editor and translator
  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2013