Professor Ashraf Kagee, from the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Stellenbosch University, is a highly esteemed researcher. But now he can add another feather to his cap – that of award-winning literary author.
Kagee won the 7th European Union Literary Award for non-published fiction for his novel, Khalil’s Journey (Jacana).
“I was surprised, shocked and delighted,” he says. “Before they announced the winner, extracts were read from the books of the four other contestants. It was so well written that I really thought I did not stand a chance.”
His book humorously tells the story of an ordinary Cape Town individual, Khalil, since his birth in the early 1900s – just after the Anglo Boer War – until his death in the 1980s. It is a book about love, family, friends and mistakes individuals make and how they can influence people’s lives.
“It is one man’s journey through the 20th century in which he experiences the two world wars, the Depression, the rock ’n’ roll era, the Soweto riots, the Information Scandal and the rise in terrorism,” says Kagee. “The book is set against the political and social changes that occurred during this time, but it is not a political or apartheid book. There are enough of those around.”
He admits that it is not possible to completely ignore the politics that shaped SA and how they affected the lives of the country’s citizens, but adds that “the politics in the book is secondary to the story”.
He believes every person has a story to tell. “Some of us have only one story to tell. Others have many stories. It is nice to imagine things and put it into words. Culture and religion are mostly dealt with too seriously. We need more humour in dealing with these issues.”
Kagee adds that South Africans have to give a voice to those who are not usually heard, those ordinary citizens who go placidly about their daily business.
“The rich tapestry of South African society needs to be given a voice,” he says.
And it seems that this focus on the ordinary, “small” man is exactly what swayed the judges in Kagee’s favour.
A press release by the organisers of the EU Literary Award states: “Kagee, winner of the seventh annual European Union Literary Award, evokes the richly-textured beauty of everyday life of the last century’s Cape Malay and Indian cultures, and deftly captures the lyrical resonance of voices long forgotten by history.”
Author and EU Literary Award judge Wally Serote writes: “The voice of the voiceless has been emancipated with great skill.”
Kagee was surprised to find that his publisher, Jacana, had for some time known that he was the winner. His book was printed in time for the award ceremony and is already on the Exclusive Books Homebru list.
During this annual promotion, South African books on the list are displayed prominently in stores countrywide and marketed quite aggressively.