Sunday Times Literary Awards: Notes from the judges

Mignonne Breier and Tshidiso Moletsane were announced winners of the 2022 Sunday Times Literary Awards, in proud partnership with Exclusive Books, during an in-person event at Olives & Plates, Hyde Park on Thursday. Here Griffin Shea and Ekow Duker share their thoughts on the 2022 shortlists

30 October 2022 - 14:16 By Griffin Shea and Ekow Duker
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Winners of the Sunday Times Literary Awards are Tshidiso Moletsane, left, who won for fiction, and Mignonne Breier, who won for non-fiction.
Winners of the Sunday Times Literary Awards are Tshidiso Moletsane, left, who won for fiction, and Mignonne Breier, who won for non-fiction.
Image: Alaister Russell

Griffin Shea, the chair of the non-fiction judging panel, shares his thoughts on this year’s non-fiction list

The national mood. It seems so obvious, something we know in our gut. Sometimes we try to put numbers on it. We measure business confidence, where the mood is improving. Marketers measure our mood, and find that most of our youthful nation is optimistic, about the country and their own lives.

Then there are the softer measures. Pride at Banyana Banyana. That sinking feeling when an alert pops up from the loadshedding app.

What we’re publishing, and what we’re reading, give a deeper measure of our mood. None of the shortlisted non-fiction books this year could rightly be described as books of the moment. There are no contemporary political scandals or treatise son the economy.

But these are books that illuminate the moment. They reassess the past, a corrective to the lessons many of us were taught in school or learned on the stoop as received wisdom. The books unpack why we so often feel like we’re in a rut, even as we acknowledge all the progress made.

In Scatterling of Africa, Johnny Clegg offers a past that held possibilities. His is a story of moving across boundaries, and how we hold conflicting truths.

“I was aware of feeling compromised, unable to be broad and wide enough to hold all of these cultural strands together,” he writes of the pull of Zulu culture against his Jewish childhood.

But over time, he says the threads “became thick ropes and then strong bridges of connection and identity”.

What happens when those threads break is Imraan Coovadia’s concern in The Poisoners. He frames the history of poisonings in the region as part of a system that goes back to Rhodesia and through Jacob Zuma.

“The paramilitary use of poisons … created a great disturbance in morality and trust,” he says. “In South Africa, we lost, or never formed in the first place, the common language of good and evil that is the presupposition of a common life.”

That mistrust feeds a culture of conspiracy that he blames for the Matabeleland killings of the 1980s, to Aids deaths under Thabo Mbeki and Zuma’s destruction of the organs of the state.

For as much as these books dig into the past, they pointedly frame their writing as away of looking to the future.

Tembeka Ngcukaitobi documents South Africans’ relationship with the land in detail, to encourage new thinking about different forms of ownership — to give meat to the idea of transformation.

“We do not need just any laws. We need laws that embed justice. Laws that correct the past. Laws that secure the future,” he writes in Land Matters.

Thula Simpson’s History of South Africa covers the sweep of history from 1902 to the Covid lockdowns, rethinking how that history was told and retold by each generation. He reminds us of the truth of “dissidents and outcasts of one age becoming the prophets and martyrs of the next”.

“The fear of having the past essentially weaponised against South Africans has prevented it from being harnessed as an instrument of forging the future,” Simpson writes.

Unflinchingly, the winner of this year’s non-fiction award, Mignonne Breier, digs into the horrific massacre that she dubs Bloody Sunday, which took place 60 years ago to the day in East London. Up to 200 people were killed, and yet we collectively have no memory of an incident whose toll dwarfs Sharpeville’s.

Perhaps that’s because it took place far from centres of power, or because the details reveal disturbing truths that complicated the story of the struggle. For a moment when we are trying to figure out how the country, and the world, have ended up such a mess, Breier’s Bloody Sunday reminds us things were always messy.

True to her journalistic tact, she quotes others to convey those meanings she wants to get across. She quotes Njabulo Ndebele in a speech he gave at the anniversary of the massacre: “The more we tell the story of what we did, we create the possibility that through our efforts we can create the future that we still desire.”

Shea is the founder of Bridge Books, an independent bookstore in central Johannesburg, and the author of a young adult novel, ‘The Golden Rhino’. Before opening Bridge Books, Griffin worked as a journalist, mostly with AFP.

The chair of the fiction judges, Ekow Duker, gives us his insights into this year’s fiction list

Being a judge of anything is an exercise fraught with contention. This is especially true when the things being judged are works of fiction. Books that put themselves forward for an award invariably enter the judging arena with a long train of subjective and partisan opinion in their wake. There will always be differing points of view among the reading public and, indeed, among the judges.

For Nomboniso Gasa, Kevin Ritchie and I, the task was made all the more difficult by the exceptional quality of the books on offer this year. Several of the stories were meticulously researched to the point of awe and flung open doors to physical and inner worlds, and passages of time we would never otherwise have entered. By allowing each of us to carefully reflect on, and argue for or against a particular work, we tried our damnedest to make the best of an almost impossible task.

As a former management consultant, I’ve been drawn to two by two matrices for some years. With four quadrants straddling two perpendicular axes, two by two matrices can be deceptively powerful. A well-constructed two by two matrix can cut through a maze of conflicting choices with unexpected clarity.

After vigorously debating this year’s shortlist for the fiction prize, there was one two by two matrix my fellow judges and I considered at the end of the judging process. We used it to test our thinking in extracting this year’s winner from so many worthy candidates.

This particular two by two matrix is described by Roelof Botha, a partner at Sequoia Capital in California, arguably the most successful venture capital investment firm in living memory. Incase you’re wondering, yes, Botha is South African and, yes, he is Pik Botha’s grandson. But I digress.

At the extremes of one axis of the two by two matrix are the labels “Exceptional ”and “Not Exceptional”. These describe the nature of the startups Sequoia Capital backs with capital and expertise. The other axis, perpendicular to the first, expresses whether the founders of these startups are “Easy to get along with” or “Difficult to get along with”.

The question which comes to mind is this: in which quadrant are the most successful companies found? The answer: “Exceptional ”and “Difficult to get along with”. Founders of exceptional companies tend to be single-minded and unapologetic, and lay it all out in the pursuit of what they believe.

In applying this lens to this year’s fiction shortlist, Junx by Tshidiso Moletsane stood out in a quadrant all on its own. It is an exceptional novel written in a style that is “in your face” and brutally honest. In other words, it is difficult to get along with. It drags the reader into the filth and drug-fuelled exhilaration of a Johannesburg many of us keep at bay through the artifice of rolled up car windows, carefully delineated travel routes and gated communities.

In choosing Junx as this year’s winner, we did not set out to make a contrarian choice for the sake of it. We were simply looking for a novel that displayed “rare imagination and style, was evocative and textured, and ultimately told a tale that was so compelling as to become an enduring landmark of contemporary fiction”. Junx ticks all these boxes and more.

A fellow writer recently lamented that South Africa is no longer a reading nation. Yet despite this, a highlight of this year’s fiction long list was the sheer number of debut novels — including the ultimate winner. This tells us that in the face of the towering odds stacked against novelists, there are still many who, with nothing other than a burning conviction to write, will endure the lonely toil of crafting a beautiful story that tries to give its readers a glimpse of magic. And in a perverse way, the not-so-subtle lobbying some of the judges experienced was further testament that storytelling in South Africa is not dead and that this award matters.

It is worth remembering that writers anchor us to the essence of who we are. I grew up in West Africa in a time of military coups when it was common to wake up to automatic gun fire. One of the first targets in the playbook of armed rebellion was to seize the national broadcasting station. Not a port or a factory. Not a mine or an energy plant.

Instead and with remarkable foresight, the rebels sought to take control of the place where stories are made. In doing so, they acknowledged the unbridled power of stories to subvert and inspire — and laid bare their visceral fear of the storyteller’s craft.

The brave and gallant writers we celebrate this year are all in the vanguard of this effort to keep stories alive.

Duker is an engineer turned banker turned writer who grew up in Ghana, studied in the UK, the US and France and now lives and works in Joburg. His novels ‘White Wahala’ and ‘Dying in New York’ were published in2014 and were followed in 2016 by ‘The God Who Made Mistakes’, and in 2019 by ‘Yellowbone’.

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