The winner of the 2021 Booker Prize was Damon Galgut, a white South African writer whose book, The Promise (the cover is shown on the home page), is about racial injustice in his homeland as told from the perspective of the dysfunctional Swart family, and specifically their treatment of their black servant, Salome. The title of the book refers to the pledge made on the occasion of the first of the four funerals detailed in the story, a subject returned to at each of the subsequent three ceremonies, which in turn take place after such momentous national events as the release of Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s home win in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final.
Salome spends most of the book being silent. “I hoped that giving her no voice in the book, but making it a problem for the reader, would amplify her silence and hopefully disturb the reader into wondering why such a person isn’t being heard.” He insisted it was not for fear of being castigated over ‘identity politics’. He told The Times: “That’s not the case. I strongly defend the right of any writer to make an imaginative leap into being somebody else. That’s the whole premise of fiction.”
The year previously, Jeanine Cummins had published American Dirt, a book about a young woman and her son who flee Acapulco after her husband is among 16 family members and friends massacred on the orders of a drug baron. Their journey to the United States is shot through with searing incident, including threats from the cartels and the horrific hazards of repeatedly bording La Bestia, the frightening freight train on which so many migrants and others make their precarious bid for the border.
The book has been a commercial success but a former editor of the New York Times Book Review said last month that it wouldn’t get published today – that is, not even three years on. The modern curse of ‘sensitivity readers’ would see to that (note the current row here over the altering of Roald Dahl’s books), this coupled with the fact that while Cummins’ father was from Puerto Rico, “that fact has been attacked and sidelined by people who are, frankly, attempting to police my identity”, she said. To her critics, Cummins, who is from New Jersey, is too white to write about this subject. To pick up on Galgut’s point, where does this end? Shakespeare should never have written Othello because he could not know what it was to be non-white? J.K. Rowling should not be allowed to publish books as Robert Galbraith because she has never known what it’s like to be a man? It’s a shame that something that was supposed to be good, to show sensitivity and caring, to be ‘woke,’ is now being used to used to emasculate literature; even when that literature is produced by a woman.
To finish on a lighter note, while Galgut’s book tackles a serious subject, it also carries a lot of levity. At one point he writes of a rather malevolent church minister: “In a brief lapse of probity forty years ago, Alwyn Simmers and his sister committed the sin of fornication, unfortunately with each other…”
Obviously, I apologise in advance for anyone offended by that extract.