The 2022 Sunday Times Literary Awards shortlist
This year marks the 32nd anniversary of the non-fiction award which has, over the decades, showcased the most acute and incisive non-fiction writing in SA. The fiction prize, now in its 21st year, honours the authors who enthral with their imagined worlds. In proud partnership with Exclusive Books, the winners will each receive R100,000
THE NON-FICTION AWARD
The winner should demonstrate the illumination of truthfulness, especially those forms of it that are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power; compassion; elegance of writing; and intellectual and moral integrity.
Griffin Shea (chair), NomaVenda Mathiane, Bongani Ngqulunga
CHAIR OF JUDGES GRIFFIN SHEA SAYS:
Current events have become so overwhelming, we created the word doomscrolling to describe the despair the news of the day leaves us to wallow in. This year’s shortlist takes a few steps back to put things in perspective. Three of the books give a broad sweep of history, told with fresh perspectives that give insight into how we got to where we are today.
Thula Simpson’s History of South Africa takes in the entire 20th century, and most of the 21st. Tembeka Ngcukaitobi covers more emotive history in Land Matters. He excavates the past in a way that lays the groundwork for thinking about the future. In The Poisoners, Imraan Coovadia takes stories we may have heard before, but layers them with context and nuance. He finds toxic distrust within society a deeper cause of deadly potions. Bloody Sunday reveals a horrific episode largely forgotten from the history books. Instead of merely recounting a massacre, Mignonne Breier finds an intimate narrative infused with the conviction that one person can make a difference. And in Scatterling of Africa, Johnny Clegg reminds us with humour and joy of the music that defined the turbulent years leading to democracy. There is a vibrant, if complicated, cross-cultural friendship which produced music that gave hope for the possibilities that were to come.
BLOODY SUNDAY: THE NUN, THE DEFIANCE CAMPAIGN AND SOUTH AFRICA’S SECRET MASSACRE BY MIGNONNE BREIER (Tafelberg)
Few people know of the massacre at an ANC Youth League event in Duncan Village, East London where police killed more than 200 people and an Irish nun who was a medical doctor was murdered by an enraged mob. Judges said that in this “stunning book, the author left no stone unturned, which brings into sharp focus the hard life residents led in those days and goes a long way to illustrate the persecution of the leaders by the police.”
SCATTERLING OF AFRICA: MY EARLY YEARS BY JOHNNY CLEGG (Pan Macmillan)
The origin story of the 14-year-old boy who became one of the most famous South African artists worldwide. Judges said: “The book goes beyond the story of the floor-stamping white musician to opening a window into the real Johnny Clegg. It is written without airs even though his life seemed full of excitement and wonder. What stands out about this book is the fact that Johnny Clegg was truly phenomenal.”
THE POISONERS: ON SOUTH AFRICA’S TOXIC PAST BY IMRAAN COOVADIA (Umuzi)
Coovadia exposes the political life of poisons, toxins and diseases in southern Africa, from the Rhodesian bush war and “independent” Zimbabwe with its apparent connection to the 2001 anthrax attacks in the US, apartheid state’s covert chemical and biological weapons programme known as Project Coast to Jacob Zuma’s accusation of poisoning by his fourth wife. Judges called it an “outstanding achievement” and “compelling reading”.
LAND MATTERS: SOUTH AFRICA’S FAILED LAND REFORMS AND THE ROAD AHEAD BY TEMBEKA NGCUKAITOBI (Penguin Non-fiction)
Ngcukaitobi examines the land issue through several different historical lenses, including communal ownership and colonialism, the effects of the Land Acts, Bantustans and forced removals. He unpacks the government’s achievements and failures in land redistribution, restitution, and tenure reform, and makes suggestions for what needs to be done. Judges said: “This is an impressive book on several accounts.”
HISTORY OF SOUTH AFRICA: FROM 1902 TO THE PRESENT BY THULA SIMPSON (Penguin Non-fiction)
Simpson explores SA’s tumultuous journey from the Second Anglo-Boer War to 2021. Drawing on diaries, letters, oral testimony and diplomatic reports, the author follows the South African people through the battles, elections, repression, resistance, strikes, insurrections, massacres, crashes and epidemics that have shaped the nation. Judges felt, “that this was a fascinating, immensely readable and entertaining view on history that offers a window into how SA was lost / vanquished”.
The winner should be a novel of rare imagination and style, evocative, textured and a tale so compelling as to become an enduring landmark of contemporary fiction.
Ekow Duker (chair), Nomboniso Gasa, Kevin Ritchie
CHAIR OF JUDGES EKOW DUKER SAYS:
I’m sure we can all remember our school days when the teacher would pose a question to the class. Some pupils would immediately strain to answer. Others might look at each other in puzzlement, the answer tantalisingly out of reach. This year’s judging of the Fiction Prize was a little like that. Some novels by their magisterial telling of an important story, screamed at the judges to, “Pick me! Pick me!”. Others were more restrained, quietly confident in their ability to narrate a memorable tale. Each of the five books that made this year’s shortlist met the criteria but in remarkably different ways. An Island by Karen Jennings is a masterful depiction of a fragile life lived in near-solitude. With its cast of indentured labourers and colonial administrators, Joanne Joseph’s Children of Sugarcane took us on a meticulously detailed journey from India to the cruel fields of Natal, and back again. All Gomorrahs Are The Same by Thenjiwe Mswane gently lifts the veil of familiarity that shrouds the existence of three women, allowing us a powerfully intimate view into their inner lives. Damon Galgut’s The Promise, winner of the 2021 Booker Prize, is a compelling study of a once privileged family in terminal decline. Finally, and without any warning to buckle up, Junx by Tshidiso Moletsane, flung us headlong into the exhilaration of inner-city Joburg.
DAMON GALGUT (Umuzi)
Judges called it masterful, measured, well paced and engrossing. This deftly written novel charts the crash and burn of the Swarts, a white Afrikaans family living on a farm outside Pretoria. Galgut delivers a stark and emotive novel with notes of black comedy. Written in four parts — essentially four funerals in four decades — which showcase the changes in SA and the anxiety of what these changes meant to this family.
KAREN JENNINGS (Karavan Press)
Jennings doesn’t continue the postmodernist leitmotifs of living on an island which were established by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and JM Coetzee’s response to it in Foe. Our reviewer wrote: “Instead of writing ‘back’ to another text, she digs deeper into the long term impact of a colonist rule, and the twisted dictatorship that follows it. This allegorical tale could be read as a warning of the long lasting impact of fear, violence, depravity and poverty and the role isolation plays in feeding these conditions.” Our judges said: “Haunting in its depiction of a life lived in solitude, where the past is more real than the present. She is masterful in building the suspense, stone by blood-soaked stone.”
CHILDREN OF SUGARCANE
JOANNE JOSEPH (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
Shanti is stifled by rural life in India and is facing an arranged marriage. To her, SA is a place to start afresh. After a harrowing journey she arrives in Natal only to find even more hardship and penury. Judges said: “A bold and masterfully written historical novel about a subject and era that is yet to be fully explored, told and given its proper place in South African history. Joseph’s telling of the stories of generations of women is not only important but also compelling, nuanced and empathetic.”
TSHIDISO MOLETSANE (Umuzi)
The judges called it “a tour de force. Bold, raw and and surprisingly elegant Gonzo-style writing.” Moletsane’s brave story begins at a party in Dobsonville. A guy shares a joint with Ari — an imaginary friend, angel and demon and the rollercoaster of a night begins. There are stolen cars, brothels, sex, drugs and anxiety. It’s a trip of a book that is not only exciting but pokes cheekily and bluntly at the SA we live in.
ALL GOMORRAHS ARE THE SAME
THENJIWE MSWANE (Blackbird Books)
Makhosi is angry with the world and struggles to communicate her rage with her mother and sister. Through these characters the reader is allowed into complicated conversations within black families about womanhood, masculinity, parenting, sexual abuse and mental health, addiction and loss. Judges said: “An intricate and gripping story told by three generations, all trying to make sense of life; from apartheid into liberation with all the ambiguity, volatility and uncertainty that this encompasses.”