[The JRB Daily] ‘There is a myth that there is only one type of storytelling in Africa’—Sarah Isaacs wins inaugural Island Prize for a Debut Novel from Africa

South African writer Sarah Isaacs has won the inaugural Island Prize for a Debut Novel from Africa with her manuscript ‘Glass Towers’.

Judges described the book as ‘a beautiful and carefully constructed narrative about sexual abuse, family relationships and lingering racism at the dawn of the New South Africa’.

Second place was awarded to ‘A Darkness with Her Name on It’, an ‘ambitious novel’ by Ugandan writer Doreen Anyango, which deals with ‘finding identity in a changing, increasingly urban Uganda, while remaining aware of the importance of family ties—both to ancestors and to simple beginnings’.

The remaining three novels ‘could not be separated’, according to prize judges, and so were awarded joint third place: ‘Single Minded’ by South African writer Marina Auer; ‘Sand Roses’ by Algerian writer Hamza Koudri; and ‘Delightful Cage’ by Cameroonian–Nigerian writer Joyce Odera.

The judges said:

‘There is a myth that there is only one type of storytelling in Africa. We can say with confidence that this is not the case. The submissions we saw were not only written in a variety of styles, but also included different genres and subjects, depicting people and experiences from all walks of life.’

Isaacs’s winning novel was chosen from 120 entries from across the continent. The award comes with prize money of £500 for first, £300 for second and £200 for third place. All placing novels will be considered for publication, with their authors introduced to an agent.

The Island Prize was launched in 2021, by indie publishers Holland House and Karavan Press, and author Karen Jennings, named after Jennings’ novel An Island, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2021.

The prize’s aim is to give writers from the Africa and its diaspora the opportunity to ‘showcase their work to a wider audience, with the possibility of feedback, mentoring, meeting with a potential agent and publication, both in the UK and South Africa’.

For the purposes of the prize, the organisers define the term ‘African writers’ as authors born in or having citizenship of any African country.

The judging panel for the award includes Jennings, award-winning Ugandan writer Hilda J Twongyeirwe and Nigerian novelist and short-story writer Obinna Udenwe.

Jennings said at the prize’s launch: ‘I am proud to be part of The Island Prize for a Debut Novel from Africa—a competition where the judges are African and where the winners have an opportunity of being published both in the UK and in South Africa. This is one step towards bridging the gap between here and there, us and them.

‘In fact, it is through prizes like these that authors across the continent can gain the confidence to tell stories as they wish. The hope is that, with time, such stories will become appreciated across the globe, without first being labelled as an exception or a surprise.’

Sarah Isaacs is a writer and visual storyteller based in Cape Town, South Africa. After graduating with a psychology degree from the University of Cape Town in 2009, she shifted her professional focus to photography, creating safe spaces for South African women to share their everyday struggles and stories. In 2018 she invited victims of gender-based violence to be photographed as a way of sharing their stories of abuse, and ten women stepped forward. She turned the lessons she learnt from that portrait series into a 2019 TEDx talk, entitled ‘The Vulnerability-Victimhood Paradox’. Isaacs completed her first novel, ‘Glass Tower’, at the end of 2021, as part of UCT’s Creative Writing Masters programme.

Holland House Books and Jennings will be working with all five shortlisted authors on finetuning their manuscripts and approaching agents, with a view to being published.

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