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Victor Dlamini

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Nadine Gordimer’s Shining Literary Voice

It tells us something about Nadine Gordimer that Raks Morakabe Seakhoa, the untiring champion of South African letters, used to call her ‘Comrade Nadine’. In her country, where identity is everything, that Gordimer was comfortable with a word viewed with skepticism in high literary circles is significant.

Her death brings to an end a remarkable literary career, and coming so soon after the deaths of Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there’s a sense that this is the end of a literary era. These writers did not shy away from addressing what they believed ailed their societies, even as they held onto notions of literature as romance.

Gordimer relished language. Her fiction and non-fiction alike rewards the reader with passages of exquisitely written prose. She used language as a surgeon uses a scalpel, delicately opening her characters to reveal what contradictions they contained.

“To a writer no one is ordinary,” she once said – one of many gems delivered almost as asides by way of explanation.

Nadine wrote in one of her short but important essays, “Five Years Into Freedom,” “Again and again, when I’m interviewed or find myself in encounters with other people abroad, the burning question is ‘What is happening to whites?’ And again and again, my genuinely surprised response is: ‘What about blacks? Don’t you believe there are challenges to be met in their new lives?’”

Gordimer’s ability to weave lyrical, even magical, prose into her writing, as she tackled the most prosaic human shortcomings, says something about her commitment to social justice. “There are some who still have this sense, suffer it, I would say, and unnecessarily, so it becomes a form of self flagellation. I don’t posit this in any assertion of smug superiority; I should just wish to prod them into freedom from self confinement.”

“Five Years” explores very directly, and with Nadine’s typical courage, the subject of what it means to be South African, to declare oneself as such. If the topic was a complex one five years after South Africans gained their freedom, it has only increased in complexity since. When Gordimer writes, “A city in transition is always full of contradictions,” she may well have been referring to the entire country and all who live in it.

Gordimer did not yield to the nomadic impulses that claim so many of our writers. She lived here, in South Africa, a South African, defiant against apartheid and also against the titters of the so-called genteel set, the liberals who found fault with her uncompromising stance. She was a home-grown revolutionary – but it is worth remembering that Gordimer also cherished the bonds that link writers across borders.

Reflecting on fellow Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, she said “He has done something Camus despaired of seeing any activist achieve: lived the drama of his time and been equal to the writing of it.” But Gordimer’s assessment of Soyinka provides a clue to her own status as a writer. Her fiction never shied away from drawing from the freshest pages of history. Luckily for us, she was equal to the task of writing it. If Mbeki and Zuma received literal attention from the likes of the Reverend Frank Chikane and his book Eight Days in September, Gordimer’s last novel, No Time Like The Present, placed a kind of literary focus on the two leaders that seemed almost impertinent in its immediateness.

Even as she wrote alongside history that was only few years old, however, it was her ability to leave moments of silence in her fiction that spoke most eloquently, daringly and damningly. It is her unflinching focus on how individuals wrestle with personal responsibility, even as they face political, social and family pressure, that has been the source of her literary strength across the vivid decades of South Africa’s recent past.

If the notorious immorality act once forbade mention, let alone practice of sexual relations across race frontiers, the present has rendered invisible some of the contradictions of a society that was once constructed around race. Thus, in No Time Like the Present, Jabulile and Steve have come back to establish their careers, like other returnees from exile. It is fascinating to observe the delicate balance they have to strike as they attempt to communicate across the vast cultural gulfs that separate their two families.

But the complications are never simply binary, and beyond any racial and cultural minefields that they have to negotiate, Steve has also to content with the demands and expectations of his father and the deference to his Jewish mother’s claims on him.

One of my favourite sentences from No Time Like The Present is, “There was no space for meaning in personal achievement. Climb Mt Everest or get rich, all cop outs from reality, indecent signs of being on the side of no change.” Indeed.

To cut to the quick, observations like that serve as a reminder, if one were still needed, that Nadine Gordimer belongs in that very special club, the great world writer. Her voice will be missed, but lucky for us, in her writing it will never be lost.


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Sunday Times Fiction Prize: Four Great Judges

Four Sunday Times Judges

As chair of this year’s Sunday Times Fiction Prize judging panel, I had the great pleasure of working with four extremely dedicated souls. My fellow judges were unstinting in their devotion to the difficult task of choosing a winner among the five very fine shortlisted novels. Thank you, Chris, Henrietta, Lebo and Pikita for making our time together so memorable.

During one of our sessions in May, I brought my camera along.

Chris Thurman

Pikita Ntuli


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Podcast with the Fiery Sindiwe Magona

Sindiwe Magona

Franschhoek is one of South Africa’s most elegantly tranquil villages, and it provided a most appropriate backdrop for my conversation with the writer Sindiwe Magona earlier this year. Magona is more than a writer, in fact: she is also a dynamic storyteller, which was quickly affirmed during our chat. Her techniques borrow from the traditions of village storytelling but she is at the same time a modern master, producing verbal vignettes that are at once accessible and complex.

Join me on the Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast as I speak to Magona about her life of writing, her stories and how her experiences have deepened her art.

It is a boon for the rest of us that she shares so generously parts of her own life that have fed her creative imagination. In the case of her latest book, Beauty’s Gift (Kwela, 2009), Magona is at pains to show how the sexual politics of HIV/AIDS have created uncomfortable moral entanglements for women who have seen friends suffer at the hands of the disease.
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Eben Venter on the Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast

Eben Venter

TrenchermanHorrelpootFear is ever-present amongst South Africans. The gated communities, elaborate self-protection systems and security seminars reflect both the reality of the violence in our society and the paranoia that accompanies it. Eben Venter explores this fear in his novel, Trencherman – a translation from the Afrikaans original, Horrelpoot, by Luke Stubbs, and it was fascinating to hear his views on the idea of “dystopia” and its association with his book, bred into it, as it were, by fearfulness – the author’s, the readers’.

In his writings, Venter has made a name for himself as one who pushes the boundaries and challenges conventional wisdom, as widely recognised in his earlier novel, My Beautiful Death. That book turns conventional understanding of death on its head. The protagonist Konstant Wasserman leaves South Africa to go and die in Australia, and he urges his friends to see his death as a beautiful experience and not to mourn the loss of his life. Its portrayal of death is a unique literary event, combining as it does Buddhist views on death, with a vivid narrative style that seeks to convey the experience of death in a way that does not rely on the cliches of ugliness, fear and loss. Trencherman marks a return, and gives us an extreme fictional account of the country’s total collapse and degeneration to truly apocalyptic levels.

At the Franschhoek Literary Festival, I was privileged to sit down and chat to Venter a number of times. First on a formal panel about “Writing and Love”. Later, in the “Green Room” that provides a sanctuary to writers during the festival. On the latter occasion, we took up Trencherman and My Beautiful Death (which was translated from Ek stamel ek sterwe), and I was able to probe his views on stretching the bounds of fictional license, his style of writing and the meaning of his work.
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Podcast with Anne Landsman in New York

The Rowing LessonAnne LandsmanReading Anne Landsman‘s The Rowing Lesson, one is reminded that the divisions between prose and poetry are not natural – that these words, “prose” and “poetry”, mostly serve external, classificatory purposes. Death, a very slow death, is the subject of this novel, and Anne brings to her subject a language that is highly charged, as Betsy Klein contemplates the impending loss of her father. It is a language at once of prose and poetry – of loss, memory, imagination, belonging and grief. Harold Klein and his daughter engage in vigorous conversation through Betsy’s rememberings even though Harold lies comatose in a Cape Town hospital bed – and we believe it.
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Live Podcast with Breyten Breytenbach and Emmanuel Dongala

Emmanuel DongalaBreyten Breytenbach

“Culture” is one of those words that can conjure up so many meanings – yet on close observation these meanings often lose their power, and fail to communicate something tangible.

During the Time of the Writer Festival held at the coastal city of Durban, South Africa, earlier this year, I had the honour of sitting down in front of a live audience to chat to Emmanuel Dongala and Breyten Breytenbach about “changing cultures”. They provided some fascinating views on this important topic.
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Podcast with Njabulo Ndebele: Live at the Cape Town Book Fair

Fine Lines from the BoxNjabulo NdebeleIt was my great pleasure to interview Njabulo Simakahle Ndebele about his latest book, Fine Lines from the Box (Umuzi) at the recent Cape Town Book Fair. I’m thrilled that I now have the opportunity of sharing this wonderful conversation with you as a ‘live’ podcast, the second live podcast in my series of Literary Podcasts. I have no doubt that I’m not alone in regarding Ndebele as one of South Africa’s greatest intellectuals. He is known for writing that always raises the bar, and each page of his writing sizzles with lexical gems that are anchored in deeply considered thought. Ndebele has held the position of Vice Chancellor at two universities in South Africa, and is the author of short stories, novels and essays that have been more influential on South African thought and imagination than, it can well be argued, any other single voice. Apart from Fine Lines from the Box, his books include the monumental Rediscovery of the Ordinary and Fools and Other Stories, and the post-modern fictional meditation on South African identity, The Cry of Winnie Mandela.

I recorded our conversation, and present it here as the latest Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast, along with the liveblogged report that BOOK SA’s Johannesburg editor, Liesl Jobson, filed after the conversation:
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Podcast with a Wandering South African: Christopher Hope

The Garden of Bad DreamsChristopher HopeChristopher Hope has brightened the global literary firmament for decades. This prolific author (increasingly venerable, to his great unease) has created a unique brand of fiction that draws on his formative years in South Africa but that travels almost as widely as he does – wider even. He belongs to that elect group of writers who become citizens of the world, and whose travels yield to literary necessity.

Join me on The Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast as I chat to Christopher about his fiction – especially his latest works, the novel My Mother’s Lovers and his collection of short stories, The Garden of Bad Dreams – as well as about his involvement in the Franschhoek Literary Festival.

I recorded the interview in Franschhoek, during the second FLF (of which Christopher is Director), and during our conversation it became clear why he has stayed unwaveringly at the top of his game in the world of books. He speaks with warmth and charm: not at all softly, as the adage goes, yet one never fails to sense the “big stick” of his intellectual firepower informing every word.
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Podcast with Virtuoso African Storyteller Mbulelo Mzamane

Mbulelo MzamaneMbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane is at heart a storyteller: he has the ability to plunge straight into the belly of a narrative and bring forth its gentle resonances. It so happens that Mbulelo is also one of the finest literary historians of our time, and even though he often warns against what he calls the “abuse of theory” he clearly knows his way around this increasingly arcane terrain.

Join me on The Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast as Mbulelo shares some of his most riveting messages regarding the “state of the arts and society” – for his interests spill over from literary history to the wider contemporary issues that contain it. He has made his mark in fiction, theory, academic writing, teaching and literary activism, and is well-known, among other things, for being one of the brave souls who dared challenge the literary “canon” in the mid-seventies and insist on a new study called African Literature. He delivers unforgettable speeches at conferences, insisting on the primacy of storytelling even within the context of the most advanced literary considerations.
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Podcast with the Authentic Kopano Matlwa

CoconutKopano Matlwa in Radiant Mood“We can remain who we are and still be successful in the world,” says Kopano Matlwa, a young writer who brooks no compunction when it comes to exploring some of the sensitive issues, like “authentic identity” , that baffle young and old throughout the world, but especially in a rapidly changing South Africa.

Kopano’s novel, Coconut, takes for its title one of the most common epithets directed at those who are seen to abandon their “blackness”, merely looking “black” on the outside whilst adhering to “white” norms, ideals, politics and ambitions on the inside. The book may portray the lives of teenagers – affluent and otherwise – grappling to make sense of the world, but it is clear that it is the parents who have bequeathed them this wildly confusing environment, in which words like “coconut” operate, and that adults are often absent accomplices in the ensuing confusion.

Join me on the Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast as I chat to Kopano about her book, and her ability to juggle two worlds, writing and medicine, at such a tender age.

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