SA writer cracks Man Booker shortlist

2015-03-25 14:33

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Marlene van Niekerk is one of the 10 writers shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize – one of four authors who hail from Africa.

Representing different regions of the continent, the other African writers are Mia Couto from Mozambique, Alain Mabanckou from Congo-Brazzaville and Ibrahim al-Koni from Libya.

This is the first time since the first award was first presented in 2005 that writers from these countries have made it on to the list.

The only other African recipient was legendary Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, in 2007. At the time, judge Nadine Gordimer called Achebe – the “father of African literature”.

The Man Booker International Prize recognises one writer for his or her achievement in fiction. Worth £60 000 (more than R1 million), the prize is awarded every two years to a living author who has published fiction either originally in English or whose work is generally available in translation in the English language.

The 60-year-old Van Niekerk is a professor at the department of Afrikaans and Dutch at her alma mater, Stellenbosch University. She writes in her mother tongue, but her novels have been translated into English. Her most acclaimed novel, Triomf, was turned into a movie.

Triomf was also her big break. The Afrikaans version of the book about down-and-out Afrikaans speakers living in a poor suburb of Johannesburg was published in 1994, but the English version, which was translated as Triomf by Leon de Kock, was published in 2000, and was quickly snapped up as setworks in language studies.

The Man Booker International Prize considers a writer’s body of work rather than a single novel.

Van Niekerk’s first published work was in 1977, with an anthology of poetry titled Sprokkelster. Another poetry collection, Groenstaar, followed in 1983, followed by a collection of short stories, titled Die Vrou Wat Haar Verkyker Vergeet Het, and Triomf, in 1994.

Her 2004 novel Agaat was translated as The Way of the Women by Michiel Heyns in 2007. It was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2008 and was published in North America as Agaat in 2010.

Her last novel, Memorandum: ‘n Verhaal met Prente (2006) was translated as Memorandum: A Story with Pictures by Michiel Heyns in 2006, and featured paintings by Adriaan van Zyl.

Another collection of short stories, Die Sneeuslaper, was published in 2010.

As one of the most prestigious international literary prizes, it was fitting that the list was announced at the University of Cape Town, by judging panel chair, Professor Marina Warner. “We have ranged across the world and entered the vision of writers who offer an extraordinary variety of experiences,” Warner said at the announcement yesterday. Mabanckou, who is a professor of Francophone literature at UCLA took to Twitter to share the good news with his nearly 4000 followers. “Proud to be a finalist for the Man Book International Prize 2015,” he said.

The shortlisted writers were commended for their magnificent contribution to the craft of fiction.

The panel of judges – which encompasses English literature academics and editors – draws on expertise in areas of African, Arab and “Oriental” literature. The diversity of the panel has allowed a more open, context-specific assessment of works from different parts of the world.

“One’s task as a writer is to break open the clichéd ways of looking at the world,” said Van Niekerk, speaking on BBC World Service Radio this morning.

The winners will be announced at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, on May 19.

The ten authors on the list are:

César Aira (Argentina);

Hoda Barakat (Lebanon);

Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe);

Mia Couto (Mozambique);

Amitav Ghosh (India);

Fanny Howe (United States);

Ibrahim al-Koni (Libya);

László Krasznahorkai (Hungary);

Alain Mabanckou (Republic of Congo); and

Marlene van Niekerk (South Africa)

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