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2001 SANLAM LITERARY AWARD (article first published : 2001-07-8)

An established author and a relative newcomer have taken the prestigious Sanlam Literary Award for Fiction this year. They were honoured at a presentation ceremony in Grahamstown recently. While the two writers may seem very different in many respects, they have attributes in common. Both are, as one of them puts it “far from being young” and both bring a wealth of experience to their works, albeit in varied ways.

In the published category, Yvonne Burgess receives R8,000 for A Larger Silence, voted the best original novel submitted in the competition. Aziz Hassim takes R5,000 for his unpublished work The Lotus People.

Burgess, who lives in a retirement village home in Port Elizabeth, penned Anna and the Colonel prior to A Larger Silence and has been creating novels for decades. In 1979, she slipped out of the limelight for almost two decades during which time she embarked on a serious non-fiction study of history and prophecy in the Bible which she now uses for teaching purposes. Her novels are due to be reprinted - “a real and rare achievement” says poet and author Stephen Gray who is one of the three Sanlam Literary Award adjudicators.

The others adjudicators are Arthur Maimane and Tim Huisamen and between the three of them, they chose a shortlist of other excellent entries. Gray considers these all of international standard representing a “peak moment” in local publishing. They are (in alphabetical order): Elleke Boehmer’s Bloodlines, Zakes Mda’s The Heart of Redness, Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to our Hillbrow and Sheila Roberts’s Purple Yams.

Regarding the unpublished work, Rhodes lecturer Tim Huisamen was fascinated by Aziz Hassim’s The Lotus People, describing it as a “marvellous, engrossing work” which fuelled his interests in meta-fiction and the role of the writer as historian. Spanning the events and moods of over a century, The Lotus People served as “a form of catharsis” for 65-year-old Hassim who wished to record a past he is convinced has disappeared forever.

“Durban, and particularly the Casbah area, had a kind of “romance” and bittersweet lifestyle during the 50’s and 60’s which, in spite of the apartheid laws (or perhaps because of them), lives on only in the minds of those that inhabited it at the time. I also like to say to myself that we, all of us, need to know where we come from before we can know where we are going,” he adds. “This effort was a small step in that direction.” He maintains that the novel is not autobiographical but rather “a product of the environment I lived in during those days”.

Describing his novel as “a work of fiction with a strong historical background”, Hassim stresses that some of the quotes and speeches are not recorded verbatim. Rather, the words are in keeping with the characters of the people and the events. “It took me more years to write than I care to remember,” he says. “It was more a case of scribbling madly for a few weeks and then leaving it aside as more urgent matters took over.”

Stephen Gray hails Hassim’s “unputdownable” tale as the sort that vindicates what Sanlam is doing. He calls it “one of those one-off, unpredictable things ... an absolute masterwork that has never seen the light of day”.

What impressed accomplished author and fellow adjudicator Arthur Maimane was the huge number of people who “care about writing” and “want to be published”. This year saw around 100 entries of all lengths and types, focussing on diverse and even “fanciful” subjects. He laments the fact that few seemed to be crafted by black people.

The literary award is a joint project of Sanlam and the Grahamstown Foundation.




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