Saturday, February 16, 2008

Who doesn't love a good reading list? It is that time of year again and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize shortlist has been announced. As I've previously mentioned, I like the eccentric democracy of the IMPAC/Dublin. With the Commonwealth Writers' Prize I enjoy the genuine focus on books published regionally, and often overlooked in western countries. The 2008 Africa region candidates are:

Best Book, Africa Region
Barbara Adair (South Africa) End Jacana Media
"...the Johannesburg and Maputo of the 1980’s; where wars of varying violences erupt and conjure the edgy, war-torn world of the film Casablanca."

Ifeoma Chinwuba (Nigeria) Waiting for Maria Spectrum Books
"The cost of maintaining death row inmates has skyrocketed, resulting in high costs for the Department of Prisons. Government is anxious to implement the death sentences passed in the last few years but stalled by the absence of an executioner..."

Finuala Dowling (South Africa) Flyleaf Penguin Books SA
"Violet Birkin is a teacher, and since she’s paid to teach by the hour, she imagines she’ll have to teach forever. But her life is changing: she’s shedding her hair and her husband..."

Karen King-Aribisala (Nigeria) The Hangman's Game Peepal Tree Press
"A young Guyanese woman sets out to write an historical novel based on the 1823 Demerara Slave Rebellion and the fate of an English missionary who is condemned to hang for his alleged part in the uprising, but who dies in prison before his execution. She has wanted to document historical fact through fiction, but the characters she invents make an altogether messier intrusion into her life with their conflicting interests and ambivalent motivations."

Susan Mann (South Africa ) Quarter Tones Harvill Secker
"When Ana returns to the ramshackle cottage of her youth in the seaside village of Noordhoek, near Cape Town, she does so with the intention of sorting out her father’s affairs. It soon becomes clear that more is at stake. After a decade in London, where she has failed to find work as a musician, her return to South Africa puts further distance into an already strained marriage, not only because she is out of reach, but because Michael, her husband, has lost faith in the country."

Zakes Mda (South Africa) Cion Penguin Books SA
"Toloki, the Professional Mourner who is the main character in Zakes Mda’s earlier novel Ways of Dying, returns in Cion, but is now travelling ‘to seek other ways of mourning’..."

Best First Book, Africa Region
Sade Adeniran (Nigeria ) Imagine This SW Books
"A compelling story about the human spirit and resilience against the odds. Imagine This is the journal of Lola Ogunwole which she starts at the age of nine; it charts her survival from childhood to adulthood..."

Ceridwen Dovey (South Africa) Blood Kin Penguin Books SA
"A chef, a portraitist and a barber are taken hostage in a bloody coup to overthrow their boss, the President..."

Dayo Forster (Gambia) Reading the Ceiling Simon and Schuster
"Three men. Three paths. One will send Ayodele to Europe, to University and to a very different life -- but it will be a voyage strewn with heartache. Another will send her around the globe on an epic journey, transforming her beyond recognition but at the cost of an almost unbearable loss. And another will see her remain in Africa, a wife and mother caught in a polygamous marriage. Each will change her irrevocably: but which will she choose?"

Ken Kamoche (Kenya) A Fragile Hope Salt Publishing
"These are poignant stories of love, betrayal, dreams and tribulation, corruption and redemption. Whether we’re reading about the Hong Kong girl who reconciles with her estranged father following a chance encounter with an African musician, or the hangman whose life is torn apart by demons from the past, these stories take the reader on a journey that is as emotional as it is culturally rich."

Sumayya Lee (South Africa) The Story of Maha Kwela Books
"The child of a forbidden marriage, Maha grows up happily with her parents in Cape Town. But her world changes forever when her parents are killed at a political rally, and at the age of eight, Maha is reclaimed by her loving but staid Indian grandparents and taken to live in Durban."

Carel van der Merwe (South Africa) No Man's Land Umuzi
"36-year-old Paul du Toit, a covert army operative in the twilight years of white-ruled South Africa, believes he has buried his violent past, until events force him to apply for amnesty from the TRC for the deaths of two anti-apartheid activists."

As always, descriptions taken from pubishers' websites. If you can't find these at your local independent bookshop, remember the Africa Book Centre, which ships worldwide.

Zakes Mda, of course, is the big heavy hitter who might be expected to win. But there are lots of fresh voices in this list, so the field is wide open at present. Back to my groaning TBR pile, and perhaps I will hazard a guess before the winners are announced in March.

The full shortlists, including other regions of the world, are available here.


Friday, February 08, 2008

The racial nuances deftly sprinkled as an unobtrusive backdrop to J.M. Coetzee's BOYHOOD, reminded me of a poem I'd not read in years, and had to trawl through my shelves to find; italicized words have explanatory notes at the end provided by the editors of the volume I took this from; do ask in the comments if there's anything still not clear though:
KHOIKHOI-Son-of-Man by Modikwe Dikobe, South Africa, born 1913

I thought I was soul and skin
Pedigree muntu
Until yesterday I heard the truth
Grandfather was a Khoisan.

A slave of a trekboer
Fleeing from the Cape laws
Freeing slaves.

At night
He was tied to an oxwagon wheel
Day by day leading sixteen span
Fleeing from the Cape.

Night by night
Somewhere there was a cock-crow
A barking dog
A smell of damp fuel
Then he realized that beyond that ridge
Could be a village
Of people like him.

He unfastened himself,
Trotted out of the camp,
Vanished into the night.

At dawn he was at a village
Begging to be taken into the tribe
'A tribesman, hunter, chief's servant and messenger.'

Swift as an antelope was he
Outstripping runners
Chased by dogs.
'Ka modimo', they swore.
'He is a man of the cloud.
'Ompone ke tswa kae?'
A legendary tale: where have you seen me?
'I have seen you from the cloud.'

I knew since yesterday
that he was my grandfather
muntu Slang term for a black African; now considered degrading.

Khoisan Hunter-gatherer tribe (initially called Bushmen) indigenous to the Cape; now largely exterminated.

trekboer The 'trekboers' were farmers of Dutch descent who left the Cape and travelled ('trekked') with wagons drawn by oxen into the interior of the country. One of the reasons they left was to escape new laws that made slavery illegal, and that would have freed their slaves.

'Ka modimo' 'By God' or 'I swear on oath' (Tswana).

'Ompone ke tswa kae?' These words are translated in the next line [of the poem].

"Dikobe was born in the Transvaal and raised in Sophiatown, a black township that was known for its cultural diversity and liveliness before it was rezoned as a 'white' residential area, and demolished by the apartheid government. He had limited access to schooling, and gained much of his education through correspondence. He held a variety of humble jobs, including selling newspapers. His first novel (The Marabi Dance), together with his poetry, identified him as a writer passionately concerned with black oppression under apartheid." (p. 138)

from SEASONS COME TO PASS: a poetry anthology for southern African students, 2nd edition, edited by Helen Moffett and Es'kia Mphahlele.


Monday, February 04, 2008

We've just had a marvellous week in Devon, renting this National Trust cottage with spectacular views over rolling countryside. We arrived in the dark (not difficult at this time of year) so it wasn't until the next morning that I peeked out of one set of curtains to find a robin peering in at me, and out of another to find a couple of rabbits grazing, and the valley laid out below.

The back gate led on to the South West Coast Path and, specifically, straight up onto Little Hangman and panoramic views along the coastline. We hiked Combe Martin to Ilfracombe the first day (see this link for some nice person's photos of the area) and rewarded ourselves with lunch at the excellent Quay Restaurant - highly recommend it should you be in the area, as the food was excellent, with surprisingly plentiful vegetarian options and funky decor from Damien Hirst (the kaleidoscopic butterfly wallpaper is surprisingly lovely and effective).

Every day we did a 5 mile loop which, considering I'm six and a half months pregnant and hiking up mountains causes shortness of breath because my lungs and heart are so squashed, I think is a major achievement. Losing 2kgs wasn't really part of the plan, but happened despite large slices of delicious cake daily from the Harbour Deli in Combe Martin (no website, 3 Borough Road) to round off the hiking experience! My favourite hike was looping up from Lynton via Countisbury through the densely forested Watersmeet. Then there was the Valley of the Rocks, Great Hangman...such a lovely time.

And no internet! So we did puzzles when it rained too much, and I read aloud to the G both in the car and while puzzling. We finally finished J.K. Rowling's HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, which was actually quite exciting - I confess we would have carried straight on to the next book in the series if we'd had a copy with us. Instead we started Alexander McCall Smith's THE FULL CUPBOARD OF LIFE, which has a lovely rolling tone to it. We're also dipping in and out of Robert MacFarlane's wonderful THE WILD PLACES, which was most appropriate for our trip.

For my personal reading, I devoured J.M. Coetzee's BOYHOOD, which I loved and will blog about in a post of its own as it was so good. I am struggling somewhat with Mende Nazer's SLAVE, but am persevering as perhaps it was just the wrong choice for holiday reading. Last, but not least by any means, I delighted in Alan Bennett's THE UNCOMMON READER. In it the Queen discovers reading for pleasure quite by accident when she stumbles across the Westminster travelling library parked near the kitchen rubbish bins at Buckingham Palace. It is a glorious little quick read, that makes me smile just thinking about it. An encounter between the Queen and her private secretary, Sir Kevin, who is appalled by her newfound passion in reading, is a nice sampling:
'It's important,' said Sir Kevin, 'that Your Majesty should stay focused.'
'When you say "stay focused", Sir Kevin, I suppose you mean one should keep one's eye on the ball. Well, I've had my eye on the ball for more than fifty years so I think these days one is allowed the occasional glance to the boundary.' She felt that her metaphor had probably slipped a little there, not, though, that Sir Kevin noticed.
'I can understand', he said, 'Your Majesty's need to pass the time.'
'Pass the time?' said the Queen. 'Books are not about passing the time. They're about other lives. Other worlds... (pp. 29-30)
Give it to everyone you know.