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Booker Prize winner Damon Galgut: The volume is going up on Africa

He won the £50,000 award for The Promise.


Damon Galgut at the 2021 Booker Prize awards ceremony (David Parry/PA)

Damon Galgut at the 2021 Booker Prize awards ceremony (David Parry/PA)

Damon Galgut at the 2021 Booker Prize awards ceremony (David Parry/PA)

Damon Galgut has said the “volume is going up on Africa” after being unveiled as the winner of the 2021 Booker Prize.

The South African writer was revealed as the winner of the literary prize in a ceremony on Wednesday evening for his book The Promise.

He took home the award at the third time of asking, after previously being shortlisted in 2003 and 2010.


Damon Galgut (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Damon Galgut (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Damon Galgut (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Speaking at a press conference after being named as the winner of the award, he said: “The fact that the Nobel Prize winner this year came from Africa, the fact that the Booker has gone to an African, would suggest that the volume is going up on Africa.

“I hope that’s a process that will continue and that people will take African writing a little more seriously, because there’s a lot of great writing coming from us.”

Last month, Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah was named as the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature.

Galgut said the “portrait” his book paints of modern South Africa “is not a happy one”.


Damon Galgut (Booker Prize/PA)

Damon Galgut (Booker Prize/PA)

Damon Galgut (Booker Prize/PA)

“I had no agenda in describing it that way, but things are not great with us right now, so you could read that as a warning or a portrait, I don’t know, but South Africa has seen better days,” he said.

Galgut, 47, added: “South Africa is not alone at the moment in having a government that’s seriously disconnected from its people and what they need.”

He follows in the footsteps of previous South African winners Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee, and is the first winner from the country since 1999.

After being revealed as the winner, Galgut said: “It’s taken a long while to get here and now that I have, I kind of feel that I shouldn’t be here.

“This could just of easily have gone to any of the other amazing, talented people on this list and a few others who aren’t.

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“This has been a great year for African writing and I’d 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.

“Please keep listening to us, there’s a lot more to come.”


The Promise (Booker Prize/PA)

The Promise (Booker Prize/PA)

The Promise (Booker Prize/PA)

US historian Maya Jasanoff, who chaired the judging panel, said: “We felt among the judges this was a book that really is a tour de force.

“It combines an extraordinary story, rich themes, the history of the last 40 years in South Africa, in an incredibly well-wrought package.”

She added: “The Promise astonished us from the outset as a penetrating and incredibly well-constructed account of a white South African family navigating the end of apartheid and its aftermath.

“On each reading we felt that the book grew.

“With an almost deceptive narrative economy, it offers moving insights into generational divides; meditates on what makes a fulfilling life – and how to process death; and explores the capacious metaphorical implications of ‘promise’ in relation to modern South Africa.”

The Promise is set in Pretoria, where the author grew up, and takes place against the backdrop of South Africa’s transition out of apartheid.

The book tells the story of the declining Swart family, who are white farmers, through a series of four funerals that take place over the course of several decades.

Galgut previously told BBC Radio 4’s Front Row the idea for the novel’s structure came to him while he was drinking with a friend who described a series of funerals to him.

He told the programme: “It occurred to me that it would be a novel and interesting way of approaching a family saga.

“If the only thing you had was a small window that opened on to these four funerals and you didn’t get the full trajectory of the family story, as a reader you’d have to fill in those gaps yourself.

“I’m fascinated as a writer by the edge of the map; by things that are not said.”

Former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, writer Horatia Harrod, actress Natascha McElhone and twice Booker Prize shortlisted novelist Chigozie Obioma also featured on the judging panel.

Galgut was announced as the winner of the prize in a ceremony that was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC News Channel.

He receives £50,000 after seeing off competition from five other shortlisted books.

They are No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, Richard Powers’ Bewilderment, Maggie Shipstead novel Great Circle, Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North and Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men.

Galgut, who now lives in Cape Town, wrote his first novel aged 17 and previously won the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize in 2015 for Arctic Summer, while his book The Quarry has been made into two films.

Douglas Stuart, who won the prize last year with Shuggie Bain, was interviewed by the Duchess of Cornwall during the ceremony.

The Booker Prize, first awarded in 1969, is open to writers of any nationality whose work is written in English and published in the UK or Ireland.

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