EU LITERARY AWARD
And the winner is… Shukri's The Silent Minaret
At a prestigious event held in Johannnesburg's leafy suburb of Parkwood, Ishtiyaq Shukri was announced the winner of the first EU Literary Awards, hosted by the Goethe-Institut. Netherlands ambassador, Frans Engering and the EU ambassador, Michael Lake presented him with his award: A cash prize of R25 000, an invitation to the Winternachten Festival in the Netherlands and above all the opportunity to see his book in print. Jacana Media will publish and release this suberb title at the end of March and launch it at the Time of the Writer Festival in Durban, April 2005. From the jury report: "The winner, Ishtiyaq Shukri, has written a thought provoking and account of idealism gone haywire. His characters are interesting because they are anything but predictable. The narrative remains gripping because we never get to meet the protagonist. He uses various points of view and a broad range of literary means to give the narrative extra depth. The story transcends the predictable South African setting, by moving to radical Islamic circles in London. " The winning book will be available from April, when it will be presented at the Time of the writer festival in Durban. (See the entire report below.)
"I remember the first time I brought him up here. It was to see the minaret," she recalls, tilting her head towards it. Minaret? Kagiso puzzles, then quickly scans the skyline for clues. I haven't heard a mosque. Then, suddenly, there it is, right in front of him, as though it had just stepped out from the shadows. "The Silent Minaret," he used to call it. At home, minarets declare God's greatness five times a day, but here they stand silent, like blacked-out lighthouses. (Ishtiyaq Shukri, The Silent Minaret, Jacana 2005).
Background to the EU Literary Award:
At the 2004 Grahamstown Arts Festival in July the embassies / high commissions of the European Union in South Africa launched a literary award to encourage new South African writing in EU countries. Jacana Media was selected as their publishing partner in this exciting new venture.
South African writers could submit a first, unpublished novel and stand a chance of winning a cash prize of R25 000, an invitation to the Winternachten Festival in the Netherlands and above all, witness their talent and hard work come to fruition - as Jacana would publish the winning manuscript and launch the winner's book at the Time of the Writer Festival in Durban, April 2005.
An overwhelming 116 manuscrips were received.
Both Jacana and the EU were honoured to have Nobel Prize winner, Nadine Gordimer as one of the judges. Other judges included Professor Andries Oliphant (UNISA), Professor Kole Omotoso (writer and lecturer), Maggie Davey (Jacana Media), Alan Swerdlow (arts and culture journalist), Alex Dodd (lecturer in writing for the departments of Journalism and English at the University of the Witwatersrand) as well as Dutch book critic Fred de Vries.
The judges were astounded by the quality of the submissions received and delighted at the talent shown by so many of the entrants. It is encouraging for both the EU and South African publishers to witness the rise and enthusiasm of local novelists.
"We've had some exciting surprises and interesting experimental texts popping up. There have been a range of genres, which include standard South African realism novels to romances, crime and detective thrillers," said Maggie Davey, publishing director for Jacana Media.
JURY COMMENTS - excerpts from the judges' reports
Comments on the five shortlisted books
CYNTHIA KROS: Therapy
A fine sense of place and time, and many witty observations…
Cigarettes, espressos and the incestuous café life of Melville come to life in Cynthia Kros's meditation on the precariousness of female friendship and the dark power of unspoken desire. Kros has created a compelling experiment with memory tropes, archetypes of women and the boundaries of sexuality and trust.
RONNIE GOVENDER: Song of the Atman
A strong, complex narrative that embraces an unexpected view of the South African Indian experience…
In attempting to explore the destiny of an entire family over the course of a century, this bold historical epic never loses sight of the idiosyncratic details that make lives particular and experiences unrepeatable. The story may begin in Durban's Cato Manor with an Indian community struggling to grow beyond of the bondage of the sugar cane fields, but the protagonist is a journeyman who takes on life in mid-20th century Port Elizabeth and breaks the rules of apartheid while forging a destiny for himself in Cape Town. Govender explores the difficult choices that end up defining human beings as more than a product of their culture and their time. There are delicate subjects in the South African psyche and the place of the Indian in that psyche is one. Govender bravely tackles this subject.
KIRSTEN MILLER: All is Fish
A challenging, provocative novel that stretches both literary form and our understanding of commonly held taboos…
Set in the coastal town of Mtunzini in Kwa-Zulu Natal, Kirsten Miller's All is Fish is a story redolent with a powerful sense of place, a sensuality and depth of setting. You can almost smell the rich earthy decay of the jungly lagoon and the salty air of the sea. The book is a deep psychological portrait of the knotted relationship between three characters haunted by the intensity of their childhood. Miller's powerful prose reaches way below the surface to explore why we love and how the people who imprint themselves into our lives when we are young impact on our destiny in ways that may escape our consciousness. A truly original book.
ALVARO KONRAD: Sound Bites
An outrageous, immaculately written and beautifully sustained romp through some of the murkier (or bloodier) waters of black comedy that still manages a measure of profundity amongst the wild, laugh-out-loud humour… Eschewing the dull workings of conscience, Alvaro Konrad delights in perversity and pomp to create this absurdist romp in wartime Europe -- a world of operas, egos and people who prey on the fresh genius of others.
Comments on the winning title by ISHTIYAQ SHUKRI: The Silent Minaret
The winner, Shukri, has written a thought provoking and account of idealism gone haywire. His characters are interesting because they are anything but predictable. The narrative remains gripping because we never get to meet the protagonist. He uses various points of view and a broad range of literary means to give the narrative extra depth. The story transcends the predictable South African setting, by moving to radical Islamic circles in London. Shukri's account of this murky scene struck me as very real and convincing. Like Hanif Kureishi, he shines light on a highly controversial and easily misunderstood subculture. He also manages to give the story an extra touch by projecting the local South African idealism into a broader, more global version, which makes it very much here and now. That way he also avoids the pitfalls of parochialism.
Ishtiyak Shukri's first novel poses questions about what happens to belief when personal ideals are betrayed by world events.
An angry young South African man of Muslim origin has disappeared, leaving his friends in London as confused as his family back at home. The novel gathers shape through the fragmented recollections of those who knew Issa Shamsuddin. Is his disappearance a matter of choice -- the next step in a journey of self-imposed exile? Or are there more sinister forces at play? Shukri's novel is a daring debut in both form and content. SMS and e-mail texts are integrated into a story that explores the lives of a few individuals caught up in the transient pluralism of 21st century London. Looping between contemporary Britain and pre-1994 South Africa, the story explores the failures and frustrations of exile - the places and people that can't be left behind. In its elliptical narration and in the absence of the central character, The Silent Minaret recalls Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter. Both narratives are charged with the poetics of withholding. Instead of explaining, the author provokes. Revelations about the central character come to us in flashes and glimpses. By feeding and betraying our need to know, the writer stokes our desire to read on. In a novel that explores retarded emotional states and histories locked in memory, the power of the writing lies in what the author does not say; what he knows the reader will be compelled to imagine.
It was Ishtiyaq Shukri's use of evocation rather than description that particularly impressed. By using oblique references, the issues and characters slowly resolve out of a shimmering, indeterminate haze - much like an enticing mirage. The reader's attention is engaged throughout, challenged by a fresh topicality that is carefully considered, not cursory. Above all, Shukri spins a damn good story.
The Silent Minaret by EU Literary Award winner Ishtiyaq Shukri
London, the summer of 2003. Issa Shamsuddin, a South African history student living in Finsbury Park, vanishes without trace.
Did Issa decide to disappear, or was he 'disappeared'? Why? Issa's friend Katinka, his 'brother' Kagiso, mother Dr Vasinthe Kumar and London neighbour Frances reconstruct their memories of the missing man, looking for clues in the past that might explain the riddle of the present. Could the answer about Issa's whereabouts lie in events that took place in the western Cape before South Africa's democratic elections? Issa's refrain, after all, was: "The past is always with us".
Kagiso and Vasinthe know Issa grew up with an absent Muslim father. He was parented by his Hindu mother Vasinthe and Kagiso's mother Gloria, who worked in Vasinthe's employ in apartheid South Africa.
Kagiso recalls how Issa, as a matriculant, infuriated education authorities with his theories about Baden Powell's role in the siege of Makifeng. Issa was clever at school, a political thinker who would become an anti-apartheid activist. "Dreamer, schemer, history's cleaner" the other boys teased him.
Frances, Issa's elderly neighbour, recollects a young man who led a simple, frugal life. She has spent such a long part of her life being "dazzled by peacocks," she says, that she found him to be one of "God's abstemious creatures". He worked hard at his computer, ate little, partied not at all, ran errands for her, watched TV with her and washed several times a day.
Katinka shares her memories of an Issa absorbed in scholarly work, reading and writing. But she does not share her secret memory of Karim. Issa would not touch "contaminated" surfaces of handrails and doorknobs with bare hands whereas her relationship with Karim, her secret, is more tactile. Kagiso has schoolboy memories of Issa saying he liked deserts because they were "clean".
Vasinthe, the analytical mother, knows the "clean" deserts her son loved were inspired by TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), that "being clean" has both political and religious connotations. Might Issa have become "religious", she wonders.
But what does "religious" mean? For Frances, one religion remembers things another doesn't whereas Issa was able to unite Christianity with Islam for her mind. She prays with both her rosary and the tasbeeh he gave her, calling both a 'trosebery'. She knows from Issa that Chaucer's wife of Bath "was an Arab woman", that Christ's grandfather on earth was Imran.
What emerges, as these fragments surface, is of a man insisting on a common humanity, finding ways to link belief systems and ideologies even as he witnesses a world being divided into two.
Issa's sense of unity appears to pull together the African and the Arab world, the homeless, refugees, the disappeared, street people, the invisibles, "Europe's untouchables", the hideous, the elderly who must endure, in Shukri's words, "Portable altars, portable surgeries, portable meals. Come and go. Come and sorry, can't stop, go."
Issa, as reconstructed by those he loved, has linked the tools of terror being used against his united world with concepts he remembers from apartheid South Africa. These include methods of controlling economies through Vietnam-style invasions, halting people's movements through arrest, deportation and 'disappearance', breaking down people's will through the use of jails, torture, concentration camps. For Issa riot gear, battering rams and careless welfare are the weapons of prejudice.
So where can Issa Shamsuddin be?
LitNet: 09 February 2005
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