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South African Author Wins Caine Prize

The surreal and the subtle intrigue South African writer Mary Watson. Exploring those qualities in her fiction allows her fresh perspective on apartheid, a subject of all-too-real brutality.

Writing about politics in an obvious way risks "othering, of exoticizing," Watson said in an interview Tuesday in London, a day after being named the latest winner of the Caine Prize for African writing at a ceremony in nearby Oxford. "I think there's a danger of being false, to talk about it (apartheid) overtly."

In her prize-winning short story "Jungfrau", the politics are woven into the story of a complicated family: a distant father, a mother who throws herself into the lives of the underprivileged children she teaches, an aunt who throws everyone off balance, mesmerizing the young narrator with a sexuality the child only half understands — and half fears.

The aunt, in the eyes of the schoolgirl narrator, "would smile her skew smile, pretending to love you with her slitted eyes, and the charm would ooze out like fog from a sewer and grab you and sink into your heart and lungs," Watson writes.

Celebrated South African writer Andre Brink, who advised Watson when she was a student, called her Caine Prize victory "just the beginning of a very brilliant career.

"Her wonderful imagination, her deft control of narrative, her inventiveness and her sensitive ear for the finest nuances of language, mark her as an exceptional writer," Brink said in a statement to The Associated Press.

Watson said she has learned much from Brink, author of "A Dry White Season", and other "established figures" of South African literature, who include two Nobel laureates: Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. And she said her nation's growing self-assurance in the post-apartheid era has been accompanied by a flowering of new writing talent.

"You really get the feeling there's a new generation of writers emerging," she said.

The quiet-spoken, dark-eyed Watson was the seventh winner of the $18,000 Caine Prize, sometimes dubbed the "African Booker" because of its link to the late Man Booker Prize chairman Sir Michael Caine, and establishing itself as one of the most prestigious awards for young African writers.

Previous winners include Nigeria's Helon Habila, who won in 2001 and went on to win the Commonwealth Writers Prize for a later novel, and Leila Aboulela, among the best-known young Sudanese writers. Watson is at work on her first novel.

The annual prize was created in honor of Caine, a British businessman with a deep interest in Africa who for almost 25 years chaired the management committee of the Booker.

Four other writers had been short-listed for this year's Caine Prize: U.S.-based Nigerian Sefi Atta; South African Darrel Bristow-Bovey; Kenyan Muthoni Garland; and Moroccan Laila Lalami.

Watson's prize-winning story "does what a short story should do, by leaving spaces around the narrative in which readers can enter again and again," Nana Wilson-Tagoe, an expert on African literature at the University of London and chair of the Caine judges panel, said in a statement announcing the award.

The seeming innocence of the young narrator helps draw in the reader, though it quickly becomes apparent she is not the most reliable of informants. Watson said when she chose to write from a child's point of view, she initially wanted to parody other work in which she thought authors were using children as narrators "as an excuse to be lazy." But as she wrote, she realized she had stumbled on something that was more than just an exercise.

"Something became quite true about it," said Watson. The slight 31-year-old, who has a habit of brushing her long hair from her face when she is gathering her thoughts, admits to being sensitive about being mistaken for much younger.

"Jungfrau" is one of a series of related stories — in some cases the same events told from different perspectives — published as the collection "Moss". Watson began "Moss" as the thesis for her masters in creative writing at the University of Cape Town, where she now teaches film. The interwoven plots involved creating and describing a cult, which Watson said meant indulging her interest in the way the unreal can intrude into reality.

"I really enjoyed creating the rituals of the cult, what people believe," she said. She added with a laugh that she even enjoyed finding ways for her patriarchal cult to oppress women.

The second-class status of the women in her fictional cult was informed by the way women are treated in the mixed-race Cape Town community into which she was born, Watson said. Describing that in fiction was a way of undermining it, commenting on it, "and hopefully, making some people say, 'Hey, it's kind of like that at home."

With her experiments in points of view, her vivid characters and her complex plots turning on family and sexual politics, a reader might think Watson would have little room or energy left to take on apartheid. But the subject is unavoidable for a South African writer — even though, she said, some younger South Africans feel weighed down by their national history of racial oppression, its lingering legacy of economic and social inequities, even the mark it has left on families. The narrator of "Jungfrau" suggests some of the real-life children of anti-apartheid heroes who admire their parents, but also feel they lost their childhood to the cause.

Watson said she understands why some might feel a "desire to forget, to start anew." While the past cannot be denied, "I want it to come through at a quieter level," she said. "There are other things to talk about."

By Donna Bryson