Sala literary awards spark fiery debate

Edward Tsumele

Edward Tsumele

Celebrated author and academic Njabulo Ndebele was among a dozen writers who walked away with prestigious awards at the recent South African Literary Awards (Sala) held to celebrate local literary figures.

Ndebele won the K Sello Duiker Memorial Literary Award for his book Fine Lines from the Box. He was nominated alongside Tlou Setumu and Willem Anker.

However, the awards were dished out amid controversial claims by the organisers.

The judges concluded that the country had no literary critics and short story writers in indigenous languages deserving a Sala statuette this year in the literary journalism and Nadine Gordimer Award (short story writing in an indigenous language) categories.

This embarrassing admission by the organisers somehow threw in a sad note to a good ceremony. This implied dearth of good writers was a serious indictment on the country's growing list of wordsmiths.

This has raised deeper questions about the current state of literature in the country. Somebody is probably missing a point here. Or could it be that, indeed, as the adjucators have concluded, writers of substance in those categories actually do not exist?

This, coming as it does at a time when the country boasts a handful of literary journals, could be seen as a snub of the local literary critics whose voices are increasingly prominent in new journals.

In the past two years, the country has seen the proliferation of literary journals and certainly emerging, new literary voices, which have steadily taken centre stage.

For example, we have witnessed the emergence of new voices such as Zukiswa Wanner, author of two books - The Madams and Behind Every Successman - newspaper columnist Fred Khumalo, who has published two novels - Seven Steps to Heaven and Bitch's Brew - and an autobiography, Touch My Blood, Niq Mhlongo's two novels, Dog Eat Dog and After Tears, Gabeba Baderoon and Rayda Jacobs.

The long list also includes first time novelists such as Futhi Ntshingila (Shameless), Angelina Sithebe (The Hill), Kopano Matlwa (Coconut), Siphiwo Mahala (When a Man Cries) and Angela Makholwa (Red Ink). Literary veterans such as Ndebele himself, Mbulelo Mzamane, Mamphela Ramphele continue to publish books as well as articles to neswpapers, literary journals and magazines, locally and abroad.

Besides, several literary journals have appeared on our shelves, among them WORDS etc published by Phakama Mbonambi, Baobab, sponsored by the Department of Arts and Culture and edited by poet Sandile Ngidi, and Chimurenga, the maverick, highly-regarded journal. It is edited by Ntone Adjabe and New Constrast, based at the University of Cape Town, Quartet: New Voices from South Africa, edited by Richard Rive and featuring District Six icons Rive, Alex la Guma, James Matthews and Alf Wannenburgh, has just been re-released.

The book was first published in 1963 by New York's Crown Publishers. It was banned in South Africa, but was subsequently distributed across the world as part of the Heinemann African Writers Series.

This is one of the seminal texts of apartheid resistance literature.

There are also online publications that carry literary criticism of sorts.

So what went wrong with our writers this year? Sowetan spoke to several writers and publishers.

"The problem is where do judges get the work they judge from and do they do enough research to find enough work of quality that is available on the market? Are they only looking at mainstream published writers because some of us publish on the periphery. Who determines the merit? Can we as writers know what they are looking at?" asked Khoisan poet Diana Ferrus, who writes mainly in Afrikaans.

"Sala stands out as a unique effort to underline the importance of all South African literature, irrespective of language. Sala also plays a pivotal role in bringing marginalised black writing to the fore.

"It is therefore unfortunate that in 2008 the Sala judging panel did not find worthwhile winners in the Nadine Gordimer Short Story Award and the Literary Journalism categories, respectively,"said Ferrus.

"This is sad because the promotion of publishing in indigenous languages is a national imperative.

"I suspect the judges did not do their homework and hope in 2009 they will rectify this serious shortcoming.

"As regards the Literary Journalism Award, it is unbelievable that Sala did not see anyone deserving of the recognition. In recent years there has been an explosion of various mainstream and independent voices in local journalism.

"These include Vonani Bila of Timbila, Ntone Edjabe of Chimurenga, Phakama Mbo-nambi of Words Etc, Liesl Jobson of Book SA, Metro FM's Azania Ndoro, Ukhozi FM's Bongani Mavuso, SAFM's Karabo Kgolenge and Kaya FM's Masechaba Moshoeshoe. So where did the Sala judges look for possible winners?"

Said Mbonambi: "The quality of writing is exceptional. I would not be having a literary journal if the writing was that poor.

"Maybe we do not give enough credit to ourselves.

There are new writing voices even in indigenous languages. Look at the quality and variety of subjects, they are amazing."

"Ironically, currently the publishing world is dominated by multinationals that publish work mainly for the school system.

"Even though there is a proliferation of literary journals, they are also limited because they are mostly not in indigenous languages.

"As judges we received lots of stuff from the school market, but it was not good enough for the purpose of the awards," said poet Vonani Bila, one of the judges.