by Sylvia Malilwe
Thank you very much. Thank you all. Thank you for the applause and thank you for coming. I'm delighted to be here but, as I've said before in the last years, I'm delighted to be anywhere. Hard work rewards greatly.
This isn't in my speech so don't take it out of my allotted time. There are some people who have spoken out passionately about giving me this medal. There are some people who think it's an extraordinarily bad idea. There have been some people who have spoken out who think it's an extraordinarily good idea. You know who you are and where you stand and most of you who are here tonight are on my side. I'm glad for that. But I want to say it doesn't matter in a sense which side you were on. The people who speak out, speak out because they are passionate about the book, about the word, about the page and, in that sense, we're all brothers and sisters. Give yourself a hand.
Now as for my remarks. The only person who understands how much this award means to me is my friend, Raphael. I was a writer when I met him in 2006 but my only venue was the campus newsletter where I published a rude weekly column. It turned me into a bit of a celebrity but I was a poor one, scraping through college thanks to a jury-rigged package of loans and bursaries.
A friend of Raphael pointed me out to her one winter day as I crossed the mall in my jeans and yellow flip flops. I had short spooky hair. I hadn't had my hair plaited in two months and I looked like in a dream gilrs wigs. My friend clasped his hands on the chest and said, "I think I'm in love" in a tone dripping with sarcasm.
Raphael had no more money than I did but with sarcasm he was loaded. Despite the situation we worked hand in hand helping on another. We saved on the little we received from parents at the end of every month. I continued writing articles for fellow student in different courses and sold. We reasoned together and he helped me in completing every article.
This is a very typical audience, one passionately dedicated to books and to the word. Most of the world, however, sees writing as a fairly useless occupation. I've even heard it called mental torture, once or twice by people in my family. I never heard that from my friend. He'd read my stuff and felt certain I'd some day support us by writing full time, instead of standing at the back of the Gym and watch mommas keeping feet when I couldn’t. . He never made a big deal of this. It was just a fact of our lives.He lived in a single room hostel and he made a writing space for me near his laptop to use when i visit him. He still tells people I became his friend for that laptop but that's only partly true. I loved him. The laptop was a factor, though.
When I gave up on college demostration, it was Raphael who rescued the first few pages of single spaced manuscript from the wastebasket, told me it was good, said I ought to go on. When I told him I didn't know how to go on, he helped me out with the boys' locker room stuff. There were no inspiring speeches. Raphael does sarcasm, Raphael doesn't do inspiration, never has. It was just "this is pretty good, you ought to keep it going." That was all I needed and he knew it.
My point is that Raphael always knew what I was supposed to be doing and he believed that I would succeed at it. There is a time in the lives of most writers/ coaches when they are vulnerable, when the vivid dreams and ambitions of childhood seem to pale in the harsh sunlight of what we call the real world. In short, there's a time when things can go either way.
That vulnerable time for me came during in 2008 when I needed to put more effort on my studies. If my friend had suggested to me even with love and kindness and gentleness rather than his more common wit and good natured sarcasm that the time had come to put my dreams away and support career, I would have done that with no complaint. I believe that on some level of thought I was expecting to have that conversation. Raphael has told me since that it never crossed his mind to have such a conversation. he has inspired me most that he never gives up on thing and he is very determined for success.he is too a patient friend who offers good advice to friend all alike.I hope you know, Raphael, that they are clapping for you and not for me. Stand up so they can see you, please.
Thank you. Thank you. I did not let him see this speech, and I will hear about this later.
Now, there are lots of people who will tell you that anyone who writes
Motivation messages or inspirational notes or any kind of reality that tells a story is in it for the money and nothing else. It's a lie. The idea that all storytellers and motivators are in it for the money is untrue but it is still hurtful, it's infuriating and it's demeaning. I never in my life wrote a single word for money. As badly as we needed money, I never wrote for money. From those early days to this gala black tie night, I never once sat down at my desk thinking today I'm going to make a hundred grand. Or this story will make a great movie. If I had tried to write with those things in mind, I believe I would have sold my birthright for a plot of message, as the old pun has it. Either way, Raphael and I would still be living in college hostels or an equivalent, a boat. My Friend knows the importance of this award isn't the recognition of being a great writer or even a good speaker but the recognition of being an achiever and honest writer.
Frank Norris, the author of McTeague, said something like this: "What should I care if they, i.e., the critics, single me out for sneers and laughter? I never truckled, I never lied. I told the truth." And that's always been the bottom line for me. The story and the people in it may be make believe but I need to ask myself over and over if I've told the truth about the way real people would behave in a similar situation.
Of course, I only have my own senses, experiences and reading to draw on but that usually - not always but usually - usually it's enough. It gets the job done. For instance, if an elevator full of people, one of the ones in this very building - I want you to think about this later, I want you to think about it - if it starts to vibrate and you hear those clanks - this probably won't happen but we all know it has happened, it could happen. It could happen to me or it could happen to you. Someone always wins the lottery. Just put it away for now until you go up to your rooms later. Anyway, if an elevator full of people starts free-falling from the 35th floor of the skyscraper all the way to the bottom, one of those view elevators, perhaps, where you can watch it happening, in my opinion, no one is going to say, "Goodbye, Sylvia, I will see you in heaven.
There's been a certain amount of grumbling about the decision to give the award to me and since so much of this speech has been about my wife, I wanted to give you her opinion on the subject. She's read everything I've written, making her something of an expert, and her view of my work is loving but unsentimental. Tabby says I deserve the medal not just because some good movies were made from my stories or because I've provided high motivational reading material for slow learners, she says I deserve the medal because I am a, quote, "Damn good writer".
I've tried to improve myself with every book and find the truth inside the lie. Sometimes I have succeeded. I salute the National Book Foundation Board, who took a huge risk in giving this award to a man many people see as a rich hack. For far too long the so-called popular writers of this country and the so-called literary writers have stared at each other with animosity and a willful lack of understanding. This is the way it has always been. Witness my childish resentment of anyone who ever got a Guggenheim.
But giving an award like this to a girl like me suggests that in the future things don't have to be the way they've always been. Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and the so-called literary fiction. The first gainers in such a widening of interest would be the readers, of course, which is us because writers are almost always readers and listeners first. You have been very good and patient listeners and I'm going to let you go soon but I'd like to say one more thing before I do.
Tokenism is not allowed. You can't sit back, give a self satisfied sigh and say, "Ah, that takes care of the troublesome pop lit question. In another twenty years or perhaps thirty, we'll give this award to another writer who sells enough books to make the best seller lists." It's not good enough. Nor do I have any patience with or use for those who make a point of pride in saying they've never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer.
There's a writer here tonight, my model and sometime collaborator, Moses. He's just published what may be the best book of his career. Life changing books surely deserves your consideration for the short list next year, if not the award itself. Have you read them? Have any of the judges read them? I guess you all know him even better than i.
This is not criticism, it's just me pointing out a blind spot in the winnowing process and in the very act of reading the stories and motivational quotes of one's own culture. Honoring me is a step in a different direction, a fruitful one, I think. I'm asking you, almost begging you, not to go back to the old way of doing things. There's a great deal of good stuff out there and not all of it is being done by writers whose work is regularly reviewed in the Times/The Post or Dairly mail Book Review. I believe the time comes when you must be inclusive rather than exclusive.
That said, I accept this award on behalf of such disparate writers......and the ones am yet to know.