The best books that taught me about life, about literature, and about South Africa

Who am I?

I grew up during the apartheid era of racial segregation and oppression. A Blade of Grass was written with a sense of exile and regret, but also with love. It is not overtly about South Africa and apartheid. It asks a fundamental question: Where is home, and how shall we live there?

I wrote...

A Blade of Grass

By Lewis DeSoto,

Book cover of A Blade of Grass

What is my book about?

Set on the border of South Africa, A Blade of Grass is a suspenseful novel about a bitter struggle over a small farm and its dramatic consequences for two young women, one white and one black. A wrenching story of friendship and betrayal, it paints an unforgettable portrait of South Africa with tensions both political and sexual.

A novel of tremendous power and literary skill, thrilling to read and morally complex in its message, A Blade of Grass offers fresh, profound, and emotionally immediate perspectives, and holds at its center a deep understanding of the patience of the land, and the enduring hope for renewal.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Cry, the Beloved Country

Why did I love this book?

I wrote my first novel thirty years after I left South Africa. During the writing, I reread Cry, the Beloved Country. The tone of that book, the cadences of the language, almost biblical, as well as the emotional seriousness in the telling, crept into my own style.

This is a heartbreaking book, told from a very personal perspective, yet universal in its themes.

Can a work of art change the world? Perhaps not on the grand political stage, but most certainly it can change the way we see the world, and thus change us for the better.

By Alan Paton,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Cry, the Beloved Country as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A novel depicting the racial ferment in the beautiful country of South Africa in 1948.

The Conservationist

By Nadine Gordimer,

Book cover of The Conservationist

Why did I love this book?

I read this novel in university in a course taught brilliantly by the scholar WH New. It was the first time I understood the complexity of layers in great literature. Ostensibly about a businessman who buys a farm, it encompasses race relations, power in all its guises, sexuality, relationships to nature, and how character influences personal destiny. Written with outrage and compassion.

I kept The Conservationist in mind when I wrote my own book as an example of what a novel could be, but more than that, it taught me how to think about the world in a new way.

By Nadine Gordimer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Conservationist as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Mehring is rich. He has all the privileges and possessions that South Africa has to offer, but his possessions refuse to remain objects. His wife, son, and mistress leave him; his foreman and workers become increasingly indifferent to his stewardship; even the land rises up, as drought, then flood, destroy his farm.

Book cover of The Seed Is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, A South African Sharecropper

Why did I love this book?

"The seed is mine. The ploughshares are mine. The span of oxen is mine. Only the land is theirs."

Not a novel, but a biography of an illiterate sharecropper, invisible to history except in this book, who lived for almost 100 years farming land that was always owned by others. 

As a child, I passed many farm labourers without much thought about their lives, their history, their identities. This dense social history was a revelation and a corrective to my ignorance.

Kas Maine’s story is a potent reminder of the need for justice, kindness, and respect toward every human being.

By Charles Van Onselen,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Seed Is Mine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A bold and innovative social history, The Seed is Mine concerns disenfranchised black people who did so much to shape the destiny of South Africa. After years of interviews with Kas Maine and his neighbours, employers, friends, and family - a rare triumph of collaborative courage and dedication - Charles van Onselen has recreated the entire life of a man who struggled to maintain his family in a world dedicated to enriching whites and impoverishing blacks, while South Africa was tearing them apart.

Life & Times of Michael K

By J. M. Coetzee,

Book cover of Life & Times of Michael K

Why did I love this book?

It was a shock to read this book. So unlike anything I’d read before in the literature of South Africa. A strange almost dreamlike novel about a mostly mute man’s wanderings and sufferings through the societies and landscapes that make up South Africa. Allegorical, subversive, challenging, philosophical, yet ultimately life-affirming. 

Still valid, in our present age of wandering peoples, in its depiction of a failed Eden.

I paid homage to the book by introducing a minor character named Michael in my own novel.

By J. M. Coetzee,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Life & Times of Michael K as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From author of Waiting for the Barbarians and Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee.

J.M. Coetzee's latest novel, The Schooldays of Jesus, is now available from Viking. Late Essays: 2006-2016 will be available January 2018.

In a South Africa turned by war, Michael K. sets out to take his ailing mother back to her rural home. On the way there she dies, leaving him alone in an anarchic world of brutal roving armies. Imprisoned, Michael is unable to bear confinement and escapes, determined to live with dignity. This life affirming novel goes to the center of human experience-the need for an…

Book cover of White Tribe Dreaming: Apartheid's Bitter Roots Witnessed By Eight Generations Of An Afrikaner Family

Why did I love this book?

I was born in South Africa almost 300 years to the day after the first white Europeans arrived to establish a permanent home at the tip of the continent.

This book begins with that arrival and follows the history of the author’s family through eight generations.

It is a history of individuals, related by bloodlines, but diverse in ambitions and actions, and seeks to trace and explicate how some of those first settlers and their descendants became the Afrikaners of the 20th century. 

While my own antecedents are less well documented, I like to believe that they are not dissimilar to de Villiers’s,  and were touched by the same major events in the history of the Afrikaners.

By Marq de Villiers,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked White Tribe Dreaming as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a history of the Afrikaner as seen through the history of one family, the de Villiers, who first moved to South Africa in the 1600s. The book traces the history of the family and the Afrikaner, showing how the Afrikaner acted at the turning points in their history and revealing how that has made them what they are today. It also charts the development of the hallmarks of apartheid, including the pass system and tribe mentality. Journalist Marq de Villiers includes memorable scenes from the family's history culled from the diaries and papers.

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