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South Africa Reading List (and a poll!)

June 29, 2009

southafricamapThis is an old-fashioned style poll; vote using comments! Anyway, for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, I’ve decided to stop in South Africa. But while researching South African books, I came up with too many that sound great! I’ve listed them, providing links to Powell’s (where you can read about the plot) and why I put them on the list as well as my hesitations: your job is to vote for the ones you like the best. You can vote for as many as you like, and then whichever title gets the most votes is the one I’ll read. Plus, if you’re curious about South African lit, now you have a bit of a jumping off place!

  1. A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn: first of all, Nunn was born in Swaziland! Yay for obscure countries! But no seriously, I watched a very interesting short interview with her about her life growing up as a mixed-race child and coming to terms with her heritage. She seems very intelligent and poised, which I like. The book is set just as the new apartheid laws go into effect (1952), which appeals to me. And while it’s a mystery story, it seems to tackle race issues head-on (an Afrikaner police captain is the victim, the detective is English and has a Zulu partner, and there’s discussion of the Immorality Act, which made it illegal to sleep with someone of a different race). My one hesitation is if it has too ‘hard-boiled’ a feel.
  2. The Syrgina Tree by Pamela Gien: this one has an intriguing origin: it’s a novel based on Gien’s one-woman play, which she performed to large crowds on Off Broadway for two years. It’s set in Johannesburg, where Gien grew up there, so I trust her authority. And the events cover the Soweto uprising, in which children of the slums apparently took to the street; I didn’t know that even happened before reading about the plot! But I worry that the events might just be emotionally manipulative (one of the main characters is part of the uprising and killed) rather than central to the story.
  3. Unconfessed by Yvette Christiansë : while I’ve read about slavery in the Americas, I’d never considered slavery in Africa itself. This book is historical fiction about a 1700s slave woman in South Africa, based on actual court records the author came across. Also, Christiansë is a poet, and I’m curious to see what a debut novel by a poet is like. That being said, I’m nervous it might be too poetic!
  4. The Madonna of Excelsior by Zakes Mda: I’m not going to lie. Going through my library’s South Africa fiction holdings was at times frustrating, because the vast majority of authors were white South Africans. I don’t have anything against them (I’ve known several), and I don’t think that they’re ‘less African’, but I couldn’t help but notice the lack of black South African authors and feel sad. Then I came to Mda’s books, which my library has several of, and perked back up. This one sounded the most interesting: it’s loosely based on a 1971 event, when nineteen South Africans were put on trial for violating the Immorality Act. It’s described as ‘equal parts satire and social criticism.’ I’m most concerned about how, as a male author, Mda portrays women.
  5. A Time of Angels by Patricia Schonstein: I’m attracted to this one because every review/synopse uses the phrase ‘magical realism,’ and it’s being compared to Like Water for Chocolate and Chocolat in that food is also important. And, it’s set in post-apartheid times, so it seems like race issues would be less central, which might be a nice change in approach. The thing that gives me pause is if turns out to be too ‘fable-y’ if you know what I mean.
  6. Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor: this novel focuses on how people deal with the atrocities committed during apartheid today, touching on the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Since I’m reading a nonfiction book about that topic this month, it would be interesting to complement that with a fictional approach. Yet, I worry it will be too depressing, especially with that title.
  7. Nature Lessons by Lynette Brasfield: this one appeals to me because the protagonist is a woman now living in America, who must go back to her native South Africa to try and find her mother. So it’s a mother-daughter story (the mother was mentally ill), which I tend to love. And it apparently incorporates South Africa’s ‘natural beauty,’ which is the first time I saw that mentioned in a plot description. My hesitation would be that the plot is just too depressing; I can’t imagine growing up without a dependable mother.
  8. David’s Story by Zoe Wicomb: two big draws for me in this one: part of it is set in 1991 and deals with South Africa’s equivalent of the resistance. How exciting! The other part is David researching his family tree; I love family epics, especially ones with quirky members and stories, which this promises to have. I’m a bit worried that there might not by any plot, though.
  9. The Wedding by Imraan Coovadia: this is about a newlywed Indian couple who emigrate to South Africa. While I’ve read US/England Indian diaspora stories, I’ve never read one set in South Africa. It just sounds like a really interesting approach. However, I wonder if it’s too close to my ‘comfort zone’, and if I should be pushing myself more.
  10. Birds of Prey by Wilbur Smith: swashbuckling! 1600s! the high sea! Need I say more? But I wonder if it’s too superficial, and if it would be ‘real’ South Africa.

So there you go! All of the books have their pluses and minuses, which is why I need you to vote. Seriously. ;)

26 Comments leave one →
  1. June 29, 2009 12:40 pm

    They all look v. v. good. Just from a quick glance I would, personally, go for A Beautiful Place to Die, Unconfessed, The Madonna of Excelsior, Bitter Fruit & The Wedding.

    Sometimes I really hate browsing the internet, it always seems you find more novels to read. Which is great but then you realise you probably won’t be able to read half of them. Bah. :)

    Another good South African novel, if you haven’t already read it, is Burger’s Daughter (it’s quite famous so you’ve probably heard of it) by Nadine Gordimer.

  2. June 29, 2009 1:08 pm

    Great list! The only ones I’ve read are Bitter Fruit, which was quite good, but as you say a bit depressing and Birds of Prey which I really enjoyed, but I’m not sure you get to see much of Africa in it. It is more a story about the relationships of the men on board ship, and you only snatch brief glimpses of Africa.

    I’d go for one of the others, but I’ll let someone else tell you which one might be best.

  3. June 29, 2009 1:37 pm


  4. June 29, 2009 1:37 pm

    THE SYRINGA TREE! I saw the play and it was wonderful.

  5. June 29, 2009 2:07 pm

    They all sound really interesting, but my vote is for Unconfessed or A Beautiful Place to Die.

  6. June 29, 2009 2:40 pm

    They all sound intriguing. My vote is purely superficial: Bitter Fruit, simply as its on my summer reading list and then I’d get to compare my reaction to yours. Have a good week x

  7. June 29, 2009 3:35 pm

    My vote is for The Madonna of Excelsior. I’m interested in the immorality laws (I almost typed immortality there – that would be a different genre altogether!). I also like that it was written by a black South African.

    I look forward to reading your review of whichever book you choose. My interest in South Africa has grown since reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography.

  8. June 29, 2009 5:37 pm

    All of these books look great, but my top choice is “Bitter Fruit”. I’m actually going to read it myself :)
    The other two I would choose are “Nature Lessons” and “David’s Story”. I really look forward to see how the voting comes out.


  9. June 29, 2009 6:37 pm

    These all look great. I’d go for “A Beautiful Place to Die” and “Unconfessed” .

  10. June 29, 2009 8:15 pm

    Once again, you are exposing me to books & authors I haven’t heard of (a very good thing). I think I would go with any of your first four; they sound like an interesting mix & all different aspects of South African history.
    I second uenohama re Burger’s Daughter, if you don’t already know it.

  11. June 29, 2009 9:48 pm

    I’d say “Madonna of Excelsior” or “A Time of Angels” for selfish reasons; they are both on my radar and I would love to have your opinion on them! :)

  12. June 30, 2009 5:54 am

    Okay, what is by problem with commenting lately?!! I just popped over here to see how the voting was going, and I noticed my comment from yesterday isn’t here. How did I not realize that it didn’t publish yesterday? I think I am losing my mind lately. I’m so not kidding.

    Well, this time, without my extraneous comments, I’ll just say A Beautiful Place to Die and Bitter Fruit.

  13. June 30, 2009 6:16 am

    I haven’t read any of these! They all sound interesting.

    I know you’re looking for fiction, but I loved Nelson Mandela’s autobiography last year, called A Long Walk to Freedom.

  14. Carol permalink
    June 30, 2009 8:53 am

    I haven’t read any of them, but the all sound good. My vote would go to A Time of Angels, though.

  15. tuulenhaiven permalink
    June 30, 2009 9:28 am

    If I were going to read some of these I would pick…”A Beautiful Place to Die”, and “A Time of Angels”. And probably “Birds of Prey” as well! :)

  16. June 30, 2009 11:59 am

    As usual, I tend to lean towards the fiction. They all sound good, but I’m voting for A Time of Angels just because I think it sounds interesting.

  17. June 30, 2009 1:33 pm

    I’d say, from a glance The Wedding and Bitter Fruit sound the best :)

    Wow, I love your blog… It’s so cool =)


  18. June 30, 2009 3:09 pm

    This is a really great list, thanks for posting it! =)

    My votes, in order, go to: A Time of Angels, Nature Lessons, and David’s Story.

  19. June 30, 2009 4:19 pm

    Hi Eva! I have only read one from this list, and while I’ve yet to check the links you posted to the rest, I must warn you beforehand not to read The Wedding!! Lol. I don’t usually finish books I don’t enjoy from the start, but I endured that whole book because I actually bought it (I traded it for something else immediately after). Anyway, I don’t think you’ll benefit from reading it. Sorry to be so negative here, you know I rarely am, but I just want to spare you the agony!! He he. :D

  20. adevotedreader permalink
    June 30, 2009 4:25 pm

    I’ve only heard praise for A Beautiful Place to Die, so I’d start with that.

    Otherwise, Bitter Fruit and The Madonna of Exelsior both sound interesting (albeit bleak) and Wilbur Smith writes great escapist adventure yarns.

    I’d also reccomend the SA author Damon Galgut, although you probably don’t need any more books added to your list!

  21. June 30, 2009 9:31 pm

    Wow. I haven’t heard of any of these, and then after looking at them all (or most of them–I might have inadverently missed one or two), I would have a hard time narrowing it down to one also!!

    Here are my first 4 choices, in no particular order:

    Time of Angels
    David’s Story
    The Wedding
    The Madonna of Excelsior

    I’m more familiar with South African non-fiction, so I’ll be interested in whatever you (or the case may be– we –) decide :-).

  22. stacybuckeye permalink
    July 1, 2009 1:52 pm

    I’m voting for A Time of Angels and David’s Story.

  23. July 1, 2009 8:28 pm

    Eva–can I just tell you how much I love your lists. You always put so much thought into them and I really appreciate that. I’m constantly jotting down titles–for example the LGBT challenge where I just don’t know many titles. I’m reading Cry, The Beloved Country for South Africa. Have you read that one?

  24. Pierre Lourens permalink
    August 21, 2009 9:58 pm

    I don’t know if it’s too late to mention anything, but I just wanted to say that I read Birds of Prey when I was probably 13, and absolutely loved it. It’s a little tough to get into, but it is worth it once you finish.

    Plus, I’m originally from South Africa and loved the little bits of history that were there — but not forced.


  1. The Results of My Poll (and I’m going to sneak in another challenge) « A Striped Armchair

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