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Damon Galgut reaches ‘promised land’ with Booker win

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South African playwright and novelist Damon Galgut, who was awarded the prestigious Booker Prize last week, told the SA Jewish Report that he has a complicated relationship with his Jewish heritage.

At the centre of his novel, The Promise, which garnered him the award, is in fact a Jewish mother, whose presence looms large across generations, tied to a promise made long ago.

The Booker Prize is the leading literary award in the English speaking world. Each year, the prize is awarded to what is, in the opinion of the judges, the best novel of the year written in English and published in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The winner receives £50 000 (R1m) as well as the £2 500 (R50 600) awarded to each of the six shortlisted authors. Galgut is the third South African to win the award after Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee.

“I do have a Jewish heritage; my father is Jewish and my mother converted when she married him,” says Galgut. Along the same vein, the Jewish mother in the story, Rachel, also converted to Judaism.

“I myself was converted to Judaism at the age of two, though I was never subsequently raised in the Jewish tradition. I speak no Hebrew and never had a Barmitzvah,” he says. “My motivation in writing it this way [having a Jewish mother at the centre of the story] was purely to cover the major religious traditions of white South Africa. There’s not only a Jewish element to the book, but a Catholic and Calvinist and New Age one too,” he says. “The motivation wasn’t to say anything about Judaism per se.”

He says he didn’t undertake any research on Judaism in writing the book, but he has “memories of various Jewish relatives and traditions from my childhood”. The book is shaped by four funerals of each family member, and Galgut says he discussed Jewish funeral traditions with a rabbi before publishing.

Asked what the impact of his Jewish identity was on his outlook and writing, he says, “I wish I had more of a Jewish identity, to be honest. If nothing else, it would give me something more to react against. I associate the best of Jewish philosophy with a tradition of tolerance and contemplation, and I aspire to such qualities, even if not quite living up to them.”

His advice to aspiring writers is cautious and sobering. “To succeed even a little in this line of work, you need resilience and persistence,” he says. “I’d say read as much as you can and persist in developing your craft. And if it feels like too much for you, give up. The rewards are thin on the ground and are only for those who want them badly enough. And even then…” he trails off.

His advice comes after he was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times, winning only the third time. To even reach these levels of recognition is rigorous, and in his acceptance speech, one can hear that Galgut had perhaps given up a few times himself.

“It’s taken a long while to get here and now that I have, I kind of feel that I shouldn’t be here,” he said in his acceptance speech. “This has been a great year for African writing, and I would like to accept this on behalf of all the stories told and untold, the writers heard and unheard from the remarkable continent that I’m part of.”

The Promise is very much a critique, questioning if the new South Africa is fulfilling the hopes and dreams behind it. Galgut doesn’t shy away from exposing the fault lines in a complicated society, and he doesn’t provide easy answers. Just like the Jews looked to the Promised Land as a dream yet to be fulfilled, the novel shows that the new South Africa may never quite fulfil its promise.

Asked if he still has faith in South Africa and what he would say to those who are losing faith, Galgut says, “My own faith in that area has been sorely tested this past year. I wish I could answer differently. I’m not sure how to advise others when I’m running out of consolations myself. Alas!”

Yet his win is a cause for celebration for this country, and could be seen as a sign to not give up hope quite yet and to keep writing the stories that need to be told. Galgut, meanwhile, says he feels “dazed and exhausted” in the wake of winning the prize. Where to from here for him? “It’s too soon to be sure of what the future holds,” he says. “I hope I’ll continue to write, that’s all.”

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