In introducing The Writers’ Seminar, Associate Professor Nadia Davids said, “We will be hosting a monthly seminar where we will be engaging with South African writers about their soon-to-be or recently published work. “In doing this,” she said, “we are really hoping to deepen the connection that our students have with our national writing landscape.”
The inaugural seminar took the form of a conversation between Associate Professor Davids and Dalmon Galgut about his most recent novel, The Promise. The novel was shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, making this the third time that Galgut has been shortlisted for this prestigious award. The Promise has received outstanding reviews. In a review for Harper’s Magazine, Claire Messud wrote, “The Promise evokes, when you reach the final page, a profound interior shift that is all but physical. This, as an experience of art, happens only rarely, and is to be prized.”
Galgut – who lives and works in Cape Town – has won several awards for his fiction, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region) and the Sunday Times Prize for Fiction. He is a UCT graduate, and published his first novel (which he started writing while at high school) at the age of 17.
“The promise refers also to the promise of South Africa that most of us felt back in 1994.”
The Promise, which is Galgut’s ninth novel, examines the decline of an Afrikaner family during South Africa’s transitional period from the mid-1980s to 2018. It also grapples with questions around land restitution. The novel “is also, unexpectedly, extremely funny”, according to Davids.
The seminar started with a reading of an extract from the book by Galgut. He chose a scene from fairly early in the book, in which the youngest daughter of the family is sitting on a hill behind the family house soon after the death of the mother. “It’s yours now. The house,” the daughter tells the black boy who comes to join her on the hill. She had overheard her mother tell her father to sign over ownership of a cottage on his farm to the boy’s mother.
“The process of writing a book is moving generally from obscurity to clarity.”
“This is a book about a white South African family,” Galgut said. He kept the narrative focused as much as possible on the white characters. But at the centre of the story is a black woman, to whom a promise had been made: that she would inherit a little piece of land, on which stands the broken-down house in which she lived. The promise refers not only to the literal promise that is made in the book, but also to “the promise of South Africa that most of us felt back in 1994,” he said.
The writing process
Galgut spoke in some detail about the project of writing his latest book. He said, “The process of writing a book is moving generally from obscurity to clarity, in an ideal arc. It would be a lot easier if I could begin with clarity, but I don’t.”
He pointed out how South Africa is not a country that can be spoken for with a single voice. “We are a discordant chorus; but we are a chorus,” he said.
Davids asked Galgut how he felt about this “strange time” between the shortlisting and the awarding of the Booker Prize. “There are almost no other literary prizes in the world that excite the kind of frenzy that the Booker does. I don’t know quite why that is,” Galgut said.
Following this inaugural seminar, on Friday, 12 November 2021, Yewande Omotoso will join Dr Polo Moji to discuss her new novel, “An Unusual Grief”.