On Monday 4 July 2016, South African writer Lidudumalingani won the Caine Prize award of £10,000 for his short story Memories We Lost, from the anthology, Incredible Journeys: Stories That Move You. The story is about a girl who acts as protector of her sister, whose serious mental illness is badly misunderstood in a South African village. Her situation deteriorates as her care is entrusted to Nkunzi, a local man who employs traditional techniques to rid people of supposed demons.

Caine Prize Chair of judges, the writer and academic Delia Jarrett-Macauley, praised the story for exploring “a difficult subject – how traditional beliefs in a rural community are used to tackle schizophrenia. This is a troubling piece, depicting the great love between two young siblings in a beautifully drawn Eastern Cape. Multi-layered, and gracefully narrated, [it] leaves the reader full of sympathy and wonder at the plight of its protagonists.”

On reflection, Lidudumalingani wrote:

‘I am fascinated by mental illnesses, and having seen my own extended relatives deal with it – a sort of ongoing journey – I was trying to find ways or invent ways that could help me write about how one family is dealing with it.’

Explorations of mental illness are not new to African literature. BuzzFeed Books lists Meri Nana-Ama Danquah’s Willow Weep for Me as one of the 24 Books That Are Actually Honest About Mental Illness. Danquah’s memoir focuses on her experience as a young, single mother. She challenges societal expectations of black women — idealized as strong nurturers, caretakers, and healers — and examines how these affected her understanding of her own depression, and her willingness to seek help. Tsisti Dangaremba’s protagonist, Tambu in Nervous Conditions, notably suffers a mental breakdown in the course of the novel. Nevertheless, mental illness is always a touchy topic to explore in fiction; much of the sensitivity comes from a lack of understanding. Asked how he had approached his story, Lidudumalingani said he wanted to show empathy for his protagonists but also “not try to lie to ourselves…Some of the ways in which villages operate are problematic and I wanted to put that across, but I also wanted to put that across in a respectful manner and not look down on people’s views.”

The award of £10,000 and a month at Georgetown University, United States, as a writer-in-residence has fed Lidudumalingani with ‘new energy to create.’ Perhaps we will see the difficult subject of mental illness explored further in novel form.

  • 24 Books That Are Straightforward About Mental Illness, BuzzFeed Books, www.buzzfeed.com 
  • South African writer Lidudumalingani wins Caine Prize, BBC News