SA writer scoops major fantasy award

2012-11-07 10:21

Lavie Tidhar hadn’t slept for 24 hours and had just arrived back in London fresh from winning the 2012 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in Canada when City Press managed to track him down.

“The longest two hours of my life” is how the Israeli-born, South African-raised, UK-based writer of the political fantasy Osama described the awards.

“It was in a huge banquet hall full of people that I grew up reading and it was the last award of the night. I was right at the back of the room and it was a long walk. For my speech I think I said, ‘It feels very strange to be standing up here right now. Thanks.’ And then I left. I would’ve cracked if I tried more.”

After several respected novels, winning one of the most coveted awards on the international speculative fiction scene will finally set Tidhar’s career alight, though he celebrated the win modestly. “After all that glamour I went for a meal and watched some rubbish TV to decompress.”

Tidhar is the latest in a string of science fiction and fantasy writers emerging from South Africa to claim the international spotlight.

Last year Zoo City by Cape Town’s Lauren Beukes was shortlisted for the same award. She lost out but went on to win the Arthur C Clarke Award in London. A six-figure international book deal followed and Beukes is today one of the new queens of global genre fiction.

Tidhar, who arrived in Johannesburg from an Israeli kibbutz in 1992 and matriculated from King David High School, chuckles when I ask if he expects the same kind of renown after his win.

“I dunno what it means for my career. I guess I could lord it for a bit over my friends – but I don’t think my wife will let me.”

South African writers are becoming famous for the grittiness and social politics they bring to the fantasy genre and Osama is no exception.

It tells the story of a detective who must track down the writer of a series of pulp fiction books detailing terrorist events related to Bin Laden.

Osama bin Laden himself, though, doesn’t feature in Osama, which blurs fantasy and political reality, plays with post-9/11 realities and creates alternative histories.

“The first time I tried to write Osama it was called My Travels with al-Qaeda. It comes from my experience backpacking in Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania and the 1998 al-Qaeda US Embassy bombing that happened while I was recovering from malaria,” recalled Tidhar.

“It tells the personal stories of victims but offers a balanced political view. It also looks at the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, which killed more people than the bombs.”

Today, the novel – frequently nominated for awards all year – is being hailed as a key work by an “emerging master”. But when Tidhar’s agent first tried to sell it no none would touch it.

“I thought it would disappear,” said Tidhar this week. “One publisher said, ‘What a wonderful book but I don’t want to get any bomb threats.’ My agent shielded me from the incredible number of rejections in many different countries.”

Critics, though, have hailed the win as a breakthrough – a sign that fantasy is getting more current and gritty. Tidhar agrees.

“I think it’s very positive in that they chose something contemporary and relevant and more political that’s not obviously commercial. After all, it has no dragons in it.”

His next novel, he told City Press before going off to get some much-needed sleep, is a similar experiment with history and politics, this time focusing on World War 2.

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