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Tsitsi Dangarembga’s freedom

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s freedom

Last year proved an extraordinary one for Tsitsi Dangarembga – yes, we all had an extraordinary year but hers was more extraordinary than most. She was arrested in her native Zimbabwe for protesting against government corruption, released on bail, had her trial dates delayed and, in the middle of it all, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for This Mournable Body. Now, it seems, 2021 is likely to be just as unpredictable as last year. Dangarembga has just been awarded the PEN Award for Freedom of Expression which recognises a writer’s commitment to free speech in the face of persecution. The award was conferred at the Winternachten International Literature’s virtual festival. PEN, the writers’ charity and activist organisation, has a global presence and the Zimbabwean branch was co-founded by Dangarembga herself. It is safe to say though that at that time she expected to be organising behind the scenes rather than being a recipient of a major PEN award herself.

The stringencies of the pandemic have sharpened the collective minds of Australia’s crime writers. They are an inventive bunch at the best of times but have now come up with a game of literary tag. “The Australian” media group recently launched a whodunit called Oh Matilda: Who bloody killed her?, published in instalments, with each chunk being the work of a different crime writer. To make things spicier, each writer had 36 hours to come up with the next 1,000-word chapter of the unfolding novel which tells the story of an ageing actor, John McCredden, as he sets out sleuthing to find the murderer of the bombshell Matilda Meadows during the filming of a movie on an isolated island. All very inventive. But the most inventive element of all was that Thomas Keneally was given the task of writing the big reveal. “I envy the starting writers, they get to select and create the terms of this narrative,” Keneally said. “Concluding it is dangerous. I must not make a sow’s ear out of the silk purse they give us.” What makes it even more dangerous is that the 1980 Booker Prize winner (Schindler’s Ark) is not a crime writer.

Short stories, that sometimes tricky form, are in the air again. They are the subject of the 2017 Booker Prize winner George Saunders’s new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, a study of what the great 19th-century Russian short-story writers can teach us about the art of fiction. They remain an intriguing challenge even to the most practiced of writers. Louise Dean, for example, was Man Booker Prize-longlisted in 2004 with Becoming Strangers and has just been nominated for the Costa Short Story Award for How Adult Conversation Works, a sub-4,000 word tale about a mother with a lively romantic past who takes her son on a mini cruise. The winner, chosen by public vote, will be announced on 26 January, and the shortlisted stories can be downloaded here.

Since being named as joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, Bernardine Evaristo has been giving even the busiest bee a run for its money: her indefatigability means that her coffee bills must be enormous. Her latest project is curating “Black Britain, Writing Back” with the publishers Hamish Hamilton, a project to republish books by black British writers that disappeared without gaining the recognition they deserved. “I wanted to bring back into the light and into circulation books that I think are really important, powerful books,” Evaristo says. “One of the things we’ve had against us as black British writers is that people haven’t been that interested in our stories.” The six initial offerings include fiction from the fabled socialist historian CLR James as well as living writers such as SI Martin, whose day job is as a museums consultant, and Nicola Williams, a former barrister and BBC expert on the OJ Simpson trial. The voices then, are nothing if not diverse.

Further evidence that times change comes with the bizarre news that this year’s Booker Prize winner, Shuggie Bain, has been criticised for its depiction of the depredations of 1980s Glasgow. The local MSP has claimed the novel’s bleak portrait of poverty and drugs could harm the city’s economy by putting off visitors. Poor Douglas Stuart. . . perhaps he should have written a fairy-tale instead.