Michele Magwood in conversation with the 2019 Sunday Times Literary Awards winners

Terry Kurgan and Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu discuss their acclaimed titles

20 September 2019 - 18:34 By Mila de Villiers
The 2019 Sunday Times Literary Award winners and their books (L-R): Terry Kurgan and Siphiwe Ndlovu.
The 2019 Sunday Times Literary Award winners and their books (L-R): Terry Kurgan and Siphiwe Ndlovu.
Image: Supplied

Amid unexpected spring gales and glasses of mahala gin, the winners of the 2019 Sunday Times Literary Awards were announced in Parktown, Johannesburg on Friday September 6. (No prawns were present...)

Felicidades to Terry Kurgan and Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu (womandla!), who were named the recipients of the Alan Paton Award for Nonfiction and Barry Ronge Fiction Prize, respectively.

Both wins are of particular significance as Kurgan's Everyone is Present (Fourthwall Books) coincides with the 30th anniversary of this coveted award, whereas Ndlovu's The Theory of Flight (Umuzi) is her debut novel. 

The Sunday Times' contributing books editor, Michele Magwood, recently spoke to the award-winning authors:

In her interview, Kurgan - a Jo'burg-based artist and writer - expressed surprise that a "cross-genre book" won: Everyone is Present's subtitle reads Essays on Photography, Family and Memory. In writing it Kurgan explored "what it means to tell a family story through a forensic examination of photographs". 

Consisting of multiple narrative threads, the book is a meditation on Kurgan's family history, with her Jewish grandparents who were forced to flee Poland after the German invasion serving as the focal point. 

"It's an extraordinary journey against incredible odds," Kurgan discloses, adding that she had to be "very conscious of not writing another Holocaust memoir".

Kurgan further reveals that this book "was extraordinarily helpful in making sense of the story and telling myself the story that had never been told to me."

Transgenerational inheritance, the refugee journey, family secrets, and a "spectacular" Wes Anderson-esque hotel all feature in her seminal work. 

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Ndlovu on her lauded title:

Siphiwe Gloria Nldovu's The Theory of Flight, described by the judges as 'utterly captivating', 'image-rich', 'beautifully resolved' and 'deeply layered', is set in an unnamed Southern African nation.

Magwood also comments on the "intensely visual" aspects of the novel - Ndlovu attributes the vivid descriptions of (among others) sunflowers and hazy blue hills to her childhood memories.

"My imagination just took off!" 

Ndlovu's grandmother, she relays, was a gifted storyteller who had an "amazing ability to create stories with images and words." (Apple, meet tree.)

Growing up in Zimbabwe, Ndlovu comments on the communal nature of reading. She mostly relied on a mobile library to satiate her appetite for all things fairytales (she strongly resonated with the stories of the Brothers Grimm and The Firebird) and adds that she and her fellow budding bibliophiles would often share their favourite reads with each other.

Ndlovu cites Yvonne Vera as one of her literary inspirations as she had a "way of bringing the city [Bulawayo] to life" and expresses that she, too, "would like do that". 

Magwood mentions that The Theory of Flight has - rather lazily - been described by many critics as magical realism (Genie, the main character in Ndlovu's novel hatches from a golden egg, before flying off, for example), adding that elements of Zakes Mda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's authorial voices are near-tangible.

The story came to Ndlovu after losing her aunt - with whom she was very close - and questioning whether "we're grieving the same person?" Not only was she an aunt, she was also a sister and a daughter.

"Different characters started visiting me in order for me to tell this story," Ndlovu tells Magwood.

These characters were compelling, colourful and not always easy to see, she adds. Genie was especially elusive. 

That was the "whole point of what I was trying get at; to get a  little bit of someone, to see them from an angle, not a whole."

And yes, Mda did play an important role in Ndlovu's formative years as a fledgling writer. "Zakes taught me."

Tsitsi Dangarembga, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker have also deeply influenced Ndlovu's work.

"I like people who value language when they're writing and understand the power of the written word and play with it in interesting ways," she asserts.

The Theory of Flight examines shattering history including colonisation, Zimbabwe's civil war, and the Gukurahundi, yet Genie seems to represent hope, Magwood states, asking how one manages to balance this violence with the hope of the Genie character.

"Even in the most dire situation, there's hope, there's happiness, there's love ... I wanted to capture that, that's my experience of life," Ndlovu assuredly responds.